The 30: Experience Doesn’t Matter When You Hit Like Kyle Schwarber

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Rarely in baseball history have we had a season so thoroughly dominated by young players. As Ben Lindbergh wrote about last week, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper have become the faces of the sport. The combined age of the two likely MVPs: forty-freaking-six.

The marquee pair represents a larger trend toward youth that’s sweeping the league. This week, we look at four teams reaping the benefits of all that precocious talent.

For the Phillies, it’s been the long-dormant offense that’s suddenly come to life after a spate of build-for-the-future deadline deals. The fringe-contender Rays are still rolling with vets, but one power-hitting call-up is making his case for playing time. The question for the Astros’ finest freshman phenom isn’t about his rookie of the year credentials; it’s about how many MVP votes he should get. Meanwhile, the Cubs’ most exciting player these days is a rookie … no, not that rookie … or that one … or that one — no, the other one.

Youth must be served. It’s Week 18 of The 30.

Best Pitch Frame of the Week

One of the biggest recent advances in baseball analytics has been our improved ability to quantify the impact of catcher defense. Pitch framing, in particular, has become a popular topic of discussion in analytics circles, with players like Buster Posey and the Molina brothers earning high marks for their ability to steal strike calls on borderline pitches.

Last Monday, A.J. Pierzynski decided he wanted to get in on the act. With two outs in the eighth inning, Braves right-hander David Aardsma bounced a pitch several feet in front of home plate. Harnessing his 18 years of big league experience, along with a desire to make plate umpire Dan Iassogna crack up, Pierzynski snagged the high bounce and snapped his mitt down into the strike zone. It was a thing of beauty.

Iassogna didn’t bite. But the next inning, with the Braves down by two, Pierzynski got a middle-in fastball and smashed the pitch over the right-field wall, tying the game and setting the stage for an extra-inning victory.

The baseball gods, it seems, enjoy a good laugh.

We’re Not the Worst!

Thanks to an infusion of young talent that’s led a recent offensive surge, the Phillies no longer own baseball’s worst record.

30. Miami Marlins (44-68, minus-58 run differential, no. 29 last week)
29. Philadelphia Phillies (45-67 record, minus-123, LW: 30)
28. Milwaukee Brewers (48-65, minus-56, LW: 27)
27. Colorado Rockies (47-62, minus-68, LW: 28)
26. Boston Red Sox (50-62, minus-66, LW: 24)
25. Atlanta Braves (51-61, minus-69, LW: 26)
24. Cincinnati Reds (49-60, minus-45, LW: 22)
23. Seattle Mariners (52-60, minus-58, LW: 25)
22. Oakland A’s (51-62, plus-35, LW: 23)
21. San Diego Padres (52-60, minus-61, LW: 16)

After nine long weeks, the Phillies are finally out of the cellar!

For that, Philadelphia can thank a suddenly rejuvenated offense that’s batted .282/.331/.447 since the All-Star break,1 which is the fourth-best (park-adjusted) mark in the National League in the second half. Behind that robust hitting, they have won 16 of 21 games since the break, the best record in baseball during that time. And while some of that surge has been driven by veterans — Ryan Howard and especially Jeff Francoeur (?!?!) have been mashing — the Phillies have received an unexpected surprise: At the start of a complete rebuild, the mostly unheralded kids in their lineup are hitting, too.

One of the biggest drivers of the team’s recent success has been Odubel Herrera. The Phillies nabbed the Venezuelan center fielder from the Rangers last December in the Rule 5 draft. Playing in the big leagues for the first time this season, Herrera quickly claimed an everyday job in Philadelphia’s depleted lineup. With a very high batting average on balls in play (.368), he’s due for some regression, but that number might be a bit more sustainable thanks to Herrera’s ability to leg out a bunch of infield and bunt hits. He’s sporting a sky-high .379/.414/.561 line since the break, and he’s shown more extra-base pop than he ever did in the minors, with a .141 Isolated Power mark that’s fueled by his 22 doubles and three triples.2 His skill set is far from perfect — six and a half times more strikeouts than walks isn’t a recipe for sustainable success, so he’ll need to improve his batting eye. But a rookie center fielder with speed, gap power, and competent defense who’s making the league minimum through 2017? For a $50,000 buy-in, the Phillies will take it.

Then there’s Cesar Hernandez, the middle infielder who GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said was better than Chase Utley but who has moved to shortstop since the veteran returned from injury. Unlike his compatriot Herrera, Hernandez has shown impressive command of the strike zone, walking in about 10 percent of his plate appearances and netting a strong .361 on-base percentage. He’s also a real base-stealing threat, swiping 17 bags in 21 attempts. Overall, he’s sporting a strong .305/.352/.415 line since the break. Hernandez’s defense has been spotty, however, and that leaves his long-term everyday status in doubt. But with top shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford still probably a year or more from a promotion, and few other middle-infield options in the high minors, Hernandez should get a chance to prove himself for the foreseeable future.

The last of the offense-boosting trio of 25-and-under Phillies is Maikel Franco. By far the most highly touted prospect of the three, the 22-year-old nonetheless arrived with question marks of his own, as observers wondered how his free-swinging approach might translate to the big leagues, and if he could hack it defensively at third base. So far, Franco is 1-for-2. He’s walking more often in his rookie season than he has since playing at low-A ball, and he’s striking out less than one-sixth of the time. Franco’s second-half numbers are actually down a hair, but that’s mostly because he’s been so dangerous for much of the season, delivering a 2015 line of .274/.336/.476. Whether he’ll stick at third long-term remains an open question, though: According to Baseball Info Solutions, Franco has been nine runs worse than the average MLB third baseman this year, ranking 33rd at his position. The good news is Howard has only one year left on his excruciating $125 million contract, meaning Franco is a good bet to shift to first base by Opening Day 2017 — if not sooner.

Combine those encouraging performances with Crawford’s potential — plus an intriguing crop of young pitchers led by rookie right-hander Aaron Nola and enhanced by the deadline trades of Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, and Ben Revere — and the outlines of a new, encouraging era of Phillies baseball have begun to form. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but right now it’s enough to make even the old guys smile.

Power Play

The Rays need to find playing time for slugging rookie Richie Shaffer.

20. Chicago White Sox (51-58, minus-73, LW: 20)
19. Cleveland Indians (51-59, minus-21, LW: 21)
18. Arizona Diamondbacks (54-56, plus-6, LW: 17)
17. Minnesota Twins (55-56, minus-35, LW: 14)
16. Detroit Tigers (54-57, minus-43, LW: 18)
15. Tampa Bay Rays (56-56, minus-9, LW: 19)

We see it whenever someone hits his first major league homer: the silent treatment. For something that’s become so common, the Rays deserve a little credit for their take on the practice. As August 3 call-up Richie Shaffer descended the steps post-dinger, his teammates huddled at the far end of the dugout, leaving the rookie to celebrate alone. Shaffer’s response was phenomenal.

The Rays have been filling lineup holes on the fly this season. After claiming Red Sox cast-off Daniel Nava off waivers, they almost immediately handed him the starting berth in right field. They’ve even managed to squeeze some production out of June scrap-heap find Grady Sizemore. Unfortunately for the Rays, though, Shaffer played third in the minors, so there’s an Evan Longoria–size blockade in the way. Rather than grabbing a job ahead of a makeshift player elsewhere on the diamond, the 24-year-old rookie doesn’t seem to have an obvious path to an everyday job. That’s a shame, because Shaffer can mash.

Five days after that first major league hit cleared the wall in right-center at U.S. Cellular Field, Shaffer went nuts against the Mets yesterday. After sitting out Friday and Saturday, he hit seventh as a DH, going 3-for-3, scoring three runs, and delivering a long blast over the wall in left that broke a 3-3 tie in the seventh and ultimately won the game.

Shaffer’s burst of power isn’t a surprise given his impressive pedigree, but it’s easy to lose him among the sea of elite prospects. The Rays’ first-round pick in 2012, he has become increasingly potent as he’s climbed the professional ladder. His coming-out party came this season: After a productive 175 plate appearances at Double-A Montgomery earned him a promotion, Shaffer blew up at Triple-A Durham, batting .265/.359/.595. All told, he crushed 23 long balls in just 94 minor league games this year.

Kevin Cash has followed his predecessor Joe Maddon’s lead in multiple ways, including his aggressive use of platoons and tailored matchups. With Longoria at third and lefty-swinging, hot-hitting John Jaso getting most of his at-bats at DH, Cash will need every ounce of his creativity to accommodate Shaffer’s bat. But whether it’s giving Longoria an occasional rest, pushing Jaso to left field as the Rays skipper did on Sunday, dishing Shaffer platoon at-bats at first base to complement James Loney, or some other form of sorcery, the Rays and their mediocre offense can’t afford to ignore one of the best power prospects in the game. Wherever it is, Shaffer needs to play.

The Two-Month Vet

After debuting in June, Houston’s Carlos Correa already looks like one of the best players in the majors.

14. Texas Rangers (55-55, minus-32, LW: 15)
13. Baltimore Orioles (56-54, plus-53, LW: 13)
12. Washington Nationals (57-53, plus-27, LW: 12)
11. San Francisco Giants (59-52, plus-52, LW: 8)
10. New York Mets (59-52, plus-14, LW: 11)
9. Los Angeles Angels (59-51, plus-44, LW: 9)
8. Houston Astros (61-52, plus-78, LW: 5)
7. New York Yankees (61-49, plus-61, LW: 6)

In early June, 30 writers, broadcasters, and analysts convened for the annual ESPN franchise draft. The premise of the exercise: If you were starting a team and could pick anyone in professional baseball,3 who would be your franchise player? The top two picks were easy: You can debate whether you’d prefer Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, but given their youth and talent, they both had to land in that top two.

At the time, the pick that jumped out most was no. 15. With not a single major league game under his belt, anointing Carlos Correa as one of the 15 most desirable commodities in baseball might have seemed a bit premature. But two months later, that ranking already looks way too low.

Through his first 54 big league games, Correa is batting .288/.349/.557, with 14 homers, 15 doubles, and nine steals. Among hitters with as many times at bat, Correa is tied for sixth in the American League in park-adjusted offense, trailing only heavyweights Mark Teixeira, Josh Donaldson, Nelson Cruz, Miguel Cabrera, and Trout. But here’s the thing: Correa is a shortstop, a position that rarely yields those kinds of elite offensive numbers. And while we should be skeptical of small-ish sample sizes when it comes to defense, the advanced stats, scouting reports, and highlight reels all peg Correa as a top-10 defender at short. If we take each everyday shortstop’s numbers and extrapolate them to 600 plate appearances, Correa is a full two wins better than anyone else at that position.

Given his blazing debut, pitchers will continue to adjust and look to exploit Correa’s weaknesses. Yet it’s tough to know what those weaknesses are. As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs recently wrote, Correa is already seeing more fastballs and fewer pitches in the strike zone than he did when he first got called up. He has adjusted by chasing fewer pitches off the plate and improving his strikeout-to-walk ratio as the season has progressed. As for finding safe pitch locations to combat Correa’s explosive swing … good luck with that.

carlos-correa-heat-map

While those cat-and-mouse games with pitchers will continue, it doesn’t hurt that Correa has loads of natural ability on his side. Although he’s not yet old enough to drink legally in America, he already looks almost as big as J.J. Freaking Watt and frequently displays the kind of athleticism that evokes a young A-Rod.

Given that ludicrous combination of youth and talent, a few more months with these kinds of results might force us to consider Correa a candidate for that third franchise-player spot. As the Astros try to hold off the Angels and pull off one of the most dramatic franchise turnarounds in recent history, they’ll need the kid who’s been in the big leagues for two months to keep playing like he’s been dominating for the past 10 years.

Catching On

Kyle Schwarber has crushed opposing pitchers and fueled a big Cubs hot streak.

6. Los Angeles Dodgers (62-49, plus-57, LW: 2)
5. Chicago Cubs (62-48, plus-19, LW: 7)
4. Toronto Blue Jays (61-52, plus-129, LW: 10)
3. Pittsburgh Pirates (65-44, plus-58, LW: 4)
2. Kansas City Royals (66-44, plus-63, LW: 3)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (71-40, plus-121, LW: 1)

You can find all kinds of reasons for the hot streak that’s brought the Cubs 10 wins in their past 11 games and pushed them to the fourth-best record in baseball. Jake Arrieta’s on fire. Jon Lester’s blowing pitches by hitters. Hector Rondon’s pulling off Houdini acts. Kris Bryant just set the record for homers by a Cub in his debut season, and fellow rookies Addison Russell and Jorge Soler have heated up lately, too.

However, the biggest reason for the Cubs’ recent burst is none of the above. Instead, it’s a player who just finished his 28th game in the majors, a divisive prospect who might not even have an obvious position, a world smasher who has some Cubs fans more excited than they’ve been in ages. It’s a one-man wrecking crew that goes by the name of Kyle Schwarber.

To help you process the giddiness that Schwarber has instilled in the Wrigley faithful, here are 10 things to know about the rookie:

10. When the Cubs took him fourth overall in last year’s amateur draft, Schwarber caused dissension among prospect-heads. Not that the dude couldn’t hit. A star at Indiana University who modeled his take-and-rake approach after Joey Votto of the nearby Reds, Schwarber absolutely destroyed college pitching, and few draftniks doubted he could hit in the big leagues.

Still, listed at 6 feet and a generous 235 pounds, Schwarber lacked what you might call a chiseled physique, and his defense remained a going concern, resulting in an unusually large gap between rankings: Baseball America placed him no. 19 coming into this season, whereas Baseball Prospectus had him way down at no. 77. Even as Schwarber broke into the big leagues, no one knew for sure if he could stick at catcher or make it anywhere other than as a DH.

9. An injury to starting catcher Miguel Montero opened up the backstop job at the All-Star break, and Schwarber ran with it. After posting a .375/.412/.563 over his first 10 games, Schwarber banged out four hits in his 11th game, including a game-tying, two-run homer in the ninth and the go-ahead homer in the 13th. Oh, and the game was in Cincinnati, a 45-minute drive from his hometown of Middletown, Ohio.

8. That was Schwarber’s second four-hit game of the season. His first? It came in his first full major league game.

7. When Schwarber racked up that second four-hit game, it gave him one more than the rest of the Cubs roster had all year.

6. Montero returned to the lineup this Saturday. By then, Maddon had seen enough to know there was no way in hell he could bench his slugging phenom. So rather than sit Schwarber, Maddon moved the big guy to left field, shifted Chris Coghlan to second base (a position he’d played only a handful of times in his seven-year big league career), slid Addison Russell to shortstop, and benched three-time All-Star Starlin Castro. From a distance, it might seem insane to mess with half your lineup just to accommodate a pudgy rookie. But when that rookie is ripping the cover off the ball — he’s now up to .341/.429/.604 — you have to do it.

5. Schwarber’s primary walk-up song is “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.

4. His secondary walk-up song is “No Diggity” by Blackstreet.

3. Schwarber is 22 years old. He was 1 when “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” came out, and 3 when “No Diggity” dropped.

2. Jake Peavy, who is nearly 12 years older than Schwarber, doesn’t seem to share Schwarber’s love for ’90s hip-hop and R&B. Nor for Schwarber, apparently.

1. Among all batters with 100 or more plate appearances, Schwarber ranks second in park-adjusted offense, trailing only Bryce Harper.

Regression will come at some point, especially to Schwarber’s sky-high .431 BABIP. And Schwarber’s defense has been ugly behind the plate: Although it’s a small sample, he’s already watched seven wild pitches scoot by, allowed 11 steals in 14 tries, cost his team two runs according to pitch-framing stats, and produced lousy overall results by advanced metrics.

Still, Schwarber’s command of the strike zone, and ability to crush pitches he likes, makes him a premium prospect for the Cubs. If he ends up sticking in left field instead of at catcher, the Cubs would lose the edge that comes with having a masher behind the plate, but they’d gain the benefit of Schwarber playing more often when he’s free from the rigors of squatting for nine innings at a time. As long as he’s in the lineup somewhere, Schwarber’s a big asset. No diggity, no doubt.

Filed Under: MLB, Baseball, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, MLB Stats, Philadelphia Phillies, Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco, Cesar Hernandez, Tampa Bay Rays, Richie Shaffer, Kevin Cash, Houston Astros, Carlos Correa, Chicago Cubs, Joe Maddon, Kyle Schwarber, A.J. Pierzynski

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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