Frank Schwindel Singlehandedly Changing Cubs’ Definition of ‘Tank’

Just about two weeks ago, we were looking at this Cubs team as possibly the worst iteration of baseball in the long history of the franchise. They had recently completed their second double-digit losing streak of the season and had lost 13 in a row at Wrigley Field for the first time ever. It appeared as though they were in full-on tank mode as they pursued the No. 5 draft slot.

Now, however, they are winners of seven straight as a new brand of Tank Mode takes over. That’s because Frank “The Tank” Schwindel has come out of nowhere to become the best hitter in baseball over the last five weeks or so, leading to Cubs from double-digit skids to a double-digit pick. He’s got hits in each of the last eight games and multiple hits in the last four, seemingly driving each of his team’s seven straight wins.

Before we talk about the what and how of Schwindel’s unlikely ascension, let’s first address the notion that seems to be spreading among fans that this is somehow a bad thing. Yes, people are seriously lamenting the success of a 30-year-old goofball of a first baseman who looks like someone combined Kyle Hendricks and Craig Counsell because it has cost the Cubs a few spots in the 2022 amateur draft.

The difference in picking between 6-15 in the draft is pretty negligible and there’s virtually no variation at all from Nos. 6 (where the Cubs sat with a week left in August) and 10 (where they are now). Getting into the top 5 gives a team about a 29% chance of finding what FanGraphs classified as a “superior” player, then it drops to 20% in picks 6-10 and 18% from picks 11-15.

Similarly, the chances of avoiding a “bust” increase by 5% after the first handful of picks and another 6% after the subsequent group. So if you’re out here withholding your enjoyment of Schwindel’s exploits simply because they might mean the Cubs pick at No. 9 instead of No. 5, well, maybe consider unclenching.

Since he was called up on July 30, Schwindel’s 194 wRC+ and .465 wOBA are both tops in MLB while his 1.7 fWAR trails just four players. His .325 ISO (a measurement of raw power) over 133 plate appearances in that time ranks eighth in baseball and has buoyed his season mark to .308, which is significant because he’s doing it with an 18.3% strikeout rate. He’s the only hitter in MLB (min. 150 PAs) hitting for that much power while striking out less than 20% of the time.

To be fair, there are only nine players with ISO marks at or above .300 this season, so it’s not like we’re swimming in a very deep pool here. The Cubs are actually the only team with two such hitters, the other of whom has a .300 ISO with a 39.8% strikeout rate. Can you guess who? I’ll save you the suspense and tell you it’s Patrick Wisdom.

More than just cherry-picking stats, it’s not entirely common to find a combination of power and contact. When sorting for ISO, you’ve got to work all the way down to No. 50 (Jorge Polanco, .236 in order to find nine more hitters with less than 20% K-rate.

So how is Schwindel doing it? That’s hard to say exactly, but one significant factor is his ability to handle the high fastballs that have become de rigueur among MLB pitchers as a way to get sluggers to sell out and swing beneath their heat. Schwindel’s average launch angle of 13.4 degrees with the Cubs ranks 85th among MLB hitters since July 30, a probable product of what Lance Brozdowski calls a “flatter attack angle.”

I say it’s probable because a lot of things can factor into those results and there isn’t necessarily a direct correlation between bat path and launch angle. For instance, you can swing down on a ball with a negative attack angle and hit it in the air if you chop under and behind it. That could be one area of concern with Schwindel, though not exactly that he’s swinging down and chopping.

Rather, it’s that his barrel rate and exit velocity numbers aren’t in the same rarified air as his production would indicate they should be. He’s barreling pitches at a 10% clip, which would be right behind Kris Bryant for sixth among Cubs hitters with at least 100 plate appearances in 2021. However, that’s 67th in baseball since July 30. Schwindel’s average exit velocity of 89.8 mph also ranks 67th over the same period, raising questions about his ability to maintain this pace once pitchers adjust.

Let me clarify that a bit since there’s no way he maintains this production one way or the other. Let’s say pitchers get tired of seeing their high fastballs getting tagged and start working lower in the zone as the scouting reports instruct them to do so. Will that flatter attack angle be able to handle those pitches with the same effectiveness?

Maybe, maybe not. We can worry about that when the time comes. For now, though, it’s best to just sit back and enjoy the display Schwindel is putting on as the Cubs have become a fun team to watch once again. I totally get the idea that half-measures are no good and that finally playing good baseball after wallowing in putrescence for months doesn’t actually help the organization’s cause.

But when some dude with a goofy grin starts mashing like a Hall of Famer for a few weeks and all it does is cause the Cubs to move down a few spots in the draft, you’re only hurting yourself if you can’t enjoy it. If you’re really looking that hard for a villain in this story, I suggest you find another target. Shouldn’t be too difficult.

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