That shouldn’t minimize how sharp Washington’s pitching has been. Schwarber, though, has 41 plate appearances atop the lineup and a batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage slash line of .361/.415/1.111 (including nine homers). His slash line in his other 214 plate appearances this season — batting fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh — is .218/.308/.404 (with nine homers, too).
It doesn’t take a microscope to see the difference. Something has changed for Schwarber, and that something has lifted an offense that begged for his power, and any bit of production from him, in April and May. Manager Dave Martinez felt that by hitting Schwarber first and putting him in front of Trea Turner and Juan Soto in the order, Schwarber would get more fastballs and pitches in the strike zone. That follows the simple logic that pitchers don’t want runners on when Turner or Soto are up, and so they would try to avoid walking Schwarber — or any player in his spot — as a way of limiting Turner’s and Soto’s influence on the game.
If that were the reason for Schwarber’s hot streak, the Nationals would still be very happy. Yet another encouraging sign is that it doesn’t appear to be.
“Everyone can attribute it to the leadoff spot and things like that. It’s fun to get instant offense up there, first batter, but I just want to keep putting in quality at-bats for the guys behind me,” Schwarber said after clocking three homers in a 5-2 win over the first-place New York Mets on Sunday. He finished with five home runs in the four-game series, helping him earn National League player of the week honors Monday. He has clicked as Soto tries to find his stride.
“Yeah, cool home runs, whatever,” he continued. “But work the pitcher, not let him feel comfortable, not let him feel like he’s going to be able to settle in right away and feel out his pitches. And hopefully I can get a mistake and take advantage of it.”
Hitters have a clear-cut reason for disliking patterns: If they are doing one or two things well at the plate, pitchers can adjust easily and regression is all but guaranteed. And regression, though natural, is what every locked-in player fears.
So is Schwarber seeing an increased rate of fastballs in the leadoff spot? No. An increased rate of pitches in the strike zone? Also no. While hitting fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh this season, he has seen 422 four-seam fastballs or sinkers, about 48 percent of the total pitches. While hitting first, he has seen 167, about 47 percent. While hitting fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh, 47 percent of pitches to him have been in the zone. While hitting first, that number is about 49 percent, a negligible rise given how small the sample is for his leadoff statistics.
In his career, Schwarber has crushed sinkers and been an above-average hitter against four-seam fastballs. In 2021, his hard-hit percentage is 60 on each pitch. In other words, fastballs to Schwarber are good for the Nationals, while off-speed pitches — curves, sliders, change-ups — tend to give him trouble. But even his nine leadoff homers show a lack of obvious trends. They’ve come on an 0-1 four-seam fastball, a 1-2 four-seam fastball, a 2-1 change-up, a 1-0 curve, an 0-1 four-seam fastball, a 1-1 change-up, an 0-1 sinker, a 3-2 sinker and a 2-0 four-seam fastball.
Six of the nine pitches had at least a 98 percent chance of being called a strike, according to Statcast. The three others had 25, 21 and 0 percent chances, respectively, with two being four-seam fastballs well above the zone. He is swinging at more pitches overall, chasing at the right time and not missing mistakes. The results are staggering, and they could predict a higher floor for his second half of the season.
“It’s just something that, when you try to get a guy going, and you know a guy is a really good fastball hitter, for me, you try to get him up there to see what happens, see if he can make adjustments, see if he can calm down,” Martinez said Sunday, knocking aside the suggestion that he, the manager, has pulled a rabbit out of his hat.
“Schwarber rides his emotions a lot. He really does. For me it was about, ‘Hey, you’re leading off, just get on base, take your walks, swing at strikes, put the ball in play.’ And when he starts doing that, he slows everything down. And you can see the at-bats that he’s having. He’s having some unbelievable at-bats. Even the ones he fouls back, we’re all sitting on the bench like, ‘Ooh, what a good swing.’ ”
Last week, as the Nationals were sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates, Schwarber also predicted that Turner, Soto and Josh Bell, the club’s regular fourth hitter, would help him see an uptick of crushable pitches.
“I think that they’re going to want to be more in the zone,” Schwarber said. “You got those three donkeys behind you that can make them pay.”
But to this point of the leadoff experiment, Schwarber has mostly done that on his own, without Turner or Soto affecting the pitches he sees. Each of his nine homers since June 12, all against right-handed pitchers, has thrown a dash of water on early-season concerns. When the Nationals signed him for one year and $10 million this offseason, they bet that a streaky hitter could bury a rough 2020 with enough solid streaks.
The one he’s on now is a big mark in their favor. Next they will need only some of it to last.
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