The National League Championship Series started on Tuesday with two relatively unlikely contestants: the Philadelphia Phillies and the San Diego Padres. That’s not to say neither team deserves to be there, but entering the playoffs, it seemed like you could pencil some combination of the Mets, Dodgers and Atlanta into this part of the bracket. But the Wild Card Padres were unimpressed by their longtime bullies in Los Angeles and the Wild Card Phillies told Atlanta that back-to-back titles wasn’t happening.
The Phillies’ deep run in the postseason has been particularly intriguing, as they fired Joe Girardi as their manager fewer than 60 games into the season when they were comfortably below .500. Even though they resurrected their campaign from there under Rob Thomson, they still needed the expanded playoff format to get into the dance, earning the fifth of six Wild Card spots to return to the postseason after quite a lengthy absence.
While this magical run in Philly has been fun to watch for objective observers, you may be wondering why we’re talking about it on this site, which is supposed to be dedicated to Red Sox baseball. Sure, we could talk about how Dave Dombrowski has done it again, using the power of the checkbook to lead a team to postseason glory, something he executed to perfection in 2018 during his tenure with the Red Sox. While that parallel is certainly interesting, there is another former Red Sox pal who warrants a bit more discussion: Kyle Schwarber.
Schwarber has plenty of experience with unlikely and historical playoff runs, specifically as a member of the Chicago Cubs, who, you might have heard, hadn’t won a World Series in more than a century when they finally took home the trophy in 2016. But Schwarber also helped lead the Red Sox on a somewhat surprising sprint into the postseason last year after being traded from Washington to Boston. By the time Schwarber was sent to the Red Sox, they were no longer shocking the world, of course, having been sitting in first place for more than a month on the day they acquired Schwarber. However, a year earlier, they had come in last in the American League East, making 2021’s march to the American League Championship Series quite the turnaround.
The Red Sox didn’t go any further than the ALCS last year, but they likely wouldn’t have managed to hang onto a playoff spot in the first place without Schwarber, as he had a 160 wRC+ in 168 plate appearances following the trade from the Cubs. That meant when the offseason came and Schwarber entered free agency, there was plenty of speculation about whether the Red Sox would bring him back. Obviously, that didn’t happen, as Schwarber inked a four-year deal worth nearly $80 million to play in Philadelphia, but with the benefit hindsight, the Red Sox may regret letting him get away.
Before the hot takes start flying too much, if the Red Sox had re-signed Schwarber, that doesn’t mean their 2022 fortunes would have changed entirely, or much at all, really. One player can’t turn an entire team around by themselves, especially one with as many pitching injuries as the Red Sox faced this past year. However, adding Schwarber would have addressed some of the team’s most critical offensive weaknesses.
To start, as we all know, Schwarber is an outfielder (and sometimes DH) who can hit a lot of home runs. This past season, nobody but record-breaking Aaron Judge launched more balls over the fence in Major League Baseball than Schwarber, who had 46 bombs for the Phillies. Meanwhile, the Red Sox had a brutal power outage, finishing 20th in MLB in home runs as a team. The Red Sox’s lack of power was especially glaring in the outfield. In fact, Red Sox outfielders combined to hit only 44 home runs, which, as you can probably put together, was two fewer than Schwarber hit by himself. Losing Schwarber wasn’t the only cause of the outfield offensive crater, as trading away Hunter Renfroe also hurt, but Schwarber is on an entirely different level when it comes to power production.
But Schwarber has always been more than a slugger. Even with a .218 batting average this past season, he still logged the second-best full-season wRC+ of his career (128) by walking at a nearly 13 percent rate, ranking among the top 10 hitters in baseball in that regard. That level of plate discipline and patience is why the Phillies have utilized him as a leadoff hitter for much of the season. Just like with all those home runs, Schwarber’s overall offensive production far surpasses what the Red Sox got from its outfielders this past season, as Red Sox outfielders ranked 23rd in walk rate (23 percent) and 24th in wRC+ (90). Having Schwarber around would have boosted those numbers quite a bit.
Re-signing Schwarber wouldn’t have just been a move for 2022 either. With J.D. Martinez set to be a free agent this winter, Schwarber could have served as the heir apparent at DH for the club and made the calculus of what to do with Martinez, who is a free agent this offseason, a bit easier, especially after his power stroke all but disappeared in 2022.
There would have been drawbacks to re-signing Schwarber, of course. Spending money last offseason would have left the team with less to play with this winter, potentially endangering a chance at bringing back Xander Bogaerts or extending Rafael Devers, not to mention bolstering the pitching staff. Additionally, even if Schwarber stayed in Boston and did what he did in Philly this year, the Red Sox likely still would have been on the outside looking in of the playoffs. So, ultimately, not re-signing him probably wasn’t a grave error, or at least it’s too early to make that assessment. However, as we watch Schwarber help the Phillies try to make it back to the World Series (despite struggling at the plate until last night), it’s difficult not to wonder what could have been.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated after the original version incorrectly stated Schwarber’s walk rate in 2022. We apologize for the error.