The Red Sox didn’t do as much at the deadline as many people wanted them to do, which is a fact that everyone knows at this point. Don’t worry, that’s not the focus of this piece. The focus is a guy that they did get, the top acquisition they made. There are arguments to be had about whether Kyle Schwarber’s apparent lack of fit made him the best possible target, but there is little to argue that he is not an upgrade for this lineup, and really only a couple of players dealt this summer are better in terms of pure offense. And with Schwarber, while his fit defensively is still a bit straining, his fit with the lineup and his specific skillsets are exactly what this Red Sox team needed.
I think there is an interesting discussion about just how important it is in this era of baseball to drive up a starter’s pitch count. It’s never a bad thing, of course, but in comparison to 10-20 years ago, it’s a different conversation. At that point, Red Sox lineups were known for the workload they’d force upon opponents’ starters, driving up pitch counts on a quest to get to bullpens as quickly as possible. But in today’s game, bullpens are deeper and more talented than ever, and teams are pulling their starters early on their own. With that shift in philosophy, I would certainly argue it’s not as important as it once was.
That doesn’t mean it’s not important at all, or that patience isn’t still a baseball virtue. At the end of the day, you want to be able to beat teams in multiple different ways, and for most of 2021 the Red Sox have been lacking that sort of patient attack. They were still able to score runs in bunches throughout the first half, of course, but now we’re seeing teams take advantage of the aggression. Schwarber is part of the antidote to that.
It is certainly not a surprise that the former Cubs first round pick is so patient, as he’s always been able to draw walks. In his seven seasons in the majors, he has never drawn walks at a rate lower than 11.5 percent. That’s elite patience. And the plate discipline numbers back that up as well, and in fact are even more patient this year than normal. Schwarber is swinging just under 42 percent of the time, with that rate coming in at 24 percent on pitches out of the zone and 68 percent on those in the zone. All of those numbers come per FanGraphs.
For some context, the league-average rates (also from FanGraphs) are 47 percent, 31 percent, and 69 percent, respectively. Schwarber coming in lower than average, particularly on those pitches out of the zone, is good on its own, but it’s even better in the context of this Red Sox team. Only the Royals have swung more often than the Red Sox on any pitches, and no team in baseball has swung at pitches out of the zone at a higher rate. The same picture is painted by looking at the individual players. In terms of the regulars on this roster, only Kiké Hernández and Alex Verdugo have a swing rate both overall and on pitches out of the zone that comes in lower than league-average.
This patience actually compels me to argue for Schwarber to be hitting at the top of the lineup. The leadoff spot would be the best fit in my mind, but that seems like it would never happen. And given the way Hernández is hitting the last couple of months, that’s hard to be too upset about. But by putting Schwarber in the second spot — a spot in the lineup that has been under-utilized the whole season — two things are accomplished. One is that the Red Sox get a great hitter in that spot. I don’t think he’s as good of a hitter as the big three of Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez, but he has a 141 wRC+ this season (including his time with the Nationals) and has two other seasons in which he’s finished at least 20 percent better than league-average. That’s the kind of hitter who should be hitting second.
And perhaps more importantly, his on-base ability can help counteract the lack of patience from the rest of the lineup. The Red Sox are an aggressive lineup overall, but their most aggressive hitters are also two of their most important in Martinez and Devers. They are going to expand the zone at times, and they are just generally going to attack. You want them to get strikes, and the best way to do that is to have a runner on base ahead of them. Schwarber and his extreme patience has a .356 OBP this season, and projections don’t expect that to fall by much the rest of the season.
But whether he’s hitting second or fifth or anywhere else in the lineup, Schwarber undoubtedly provides a change of pace for opposing pitchers. Typically, they can expand the zone a bit and look to get bad swings from other hitters in the middle of this lineup. But that’s not going to be a gameplan they will be able to execute when he comes to the plate. Eventually they’ll want to see the game-changing power as well, but in the meantime they’ll be content with the elite patience and how it changes the way this lineup can be approached.