A cursory perusal of their offensive statistics might lead you to believe new Cubs left fielder Joc Pederson is nearly the same hitter as old Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber. The former Dodger has a career slash of .230/.336/.470 with a .344 wOBA and 118 wRC+ over 2,517 plate appearances while the current National is at .230/.336/.480 with a .343 wOBA and 113 wRC+ over 2,108 PAs. Pederson’s career swinging-strike rate of 11.3% is slightly better than Schwarber’s 11.9%, though their numbers crept closer this past season.
There is, however, one area in which Pederson’s performance may represent a decided improvement over Schwarber for a Cubs team that has some noted flaws. And no, I’m not talking about defense. The Cubs offense has been exposed over the last few seasons, in particular by left-handed pitchers and high fastballs.
“(The Dodgers) put a big emphasis on it and they scout for it,” Morrow shared with the Tribune’s Mark Gonzales during spring training in 2018. “For me, it was learning how low you can go, where you’re still above the barrel. Throw a high strike that doesn’t have to be at the eyes and working down, finding where you can get guys to swing.”
As Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma noted in their piece for The Athletic about the Cubs’ roster projection for 2021, Pederson has done a better job of handling high heat. Though Schwarber’s whiff rate against hard stuff in in the upper third of the zone and higher has improved over time, he has just a .430 slugging percentage against those pitches since 2017. The league average over that same time is .530 and Pederson is at .633 despite being only slightly better at avoiding whiffs.
That might seem like a nominal difference on the surface, but this Cubs team needs to find every possible leverage point after several seasons of a promised reckoning that never came. The offense “broke somewhere along the lines,” yet no one was ever able to figure out what really went wrong. Hitting coaches came and went, buzzwords were placed on t-shirts, and the same bad habits continued.
Is signing Pederson a meaningful step forward in that regard? Yes and no, since the lefty hitter’s career .576 OPS against southpaws does nothing to improve the team’s league-worst .619 mark from last season. And that’s before you consider the loss of Victor Caratini, whose .892 OPS against lefties was easily tops among Cubs with at least 30 plate appearances.
An argument could be made that Pederson’s .333 average and .733 OPS, part of a 112 wRC+, against lefties last season — which were all significantly better than his career marks and what he did against righties — are signs that he’s improved. But that argument would dissolve quickly when you see the numbers came from just 10 plate appearances. Let’s just hope the Cubs don’t see it as even a shred of evidence in favor of playing him in anything other than a strict platoon.
Beyond just the results against high fastballs, the Cubs would receive another boost by simply adjusting their deployment strategy. Schwarber has gotten more total plate appearances than Pederson in each of the last four seasons and has more than double the number of PA’s against left-handed pitchers over that time (374 to 172). In fact, Schwarber’s 61 appearances against lefties in the shortened 2020 season are four more than Pederson recorded in any of the three previous full seasons.
By platooning Pederson with the righty-batting Phil Ervin, who carries a career 118 wRC+ against lefties, the Cubs will significantly improve two noted offensive issues. One is a matter of Pederson being better than his predecessor at hitting high heat, the other is bolstering a weakness through better matchups. Hey, I think we just fixed that broken offense.