Countdown to Opening Day

Schwarber still an unconventional leadoff choice, but the data backs it up

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CLEARWATER, FLORIDA – MARCH 05: Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Philadelphia Phillies looks on during a 2024 Grapefruit League Spring Training game against the Baltimore Orioles at BayCare Ballpark on March 05, 2024 in Clearwater, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Over the next two weeks leading up to Phillies Opening Day on March 28, we're taking a daily look at the biggest questions and storylines surrounding the team in 2024.

Just maybe, the top-secret Bat Cave that houses the Phillies' analytics department includes a powerful computer that clicked and beeped and whirred while running its proprietary software and, after analyzing millions of data points, spit out the conclusion that having Kyle Schwarber lead off exponentially improves the team's odds of winning.

Or maybe it's just something manager Rob Thomson feels in his experienced baseball bones.

Probably a little of both. Still, it's a debate that's been swatted back and forth like a shuttlecock in the two seasons since Schwarber came to town after signing a 4-year, $79 million free-agent deal. And it remains a hot-button topic as the Phillies prepare to open the 2024 season on March 28 at Citizens Bank Park with a 3:05 p.m. game against the Braves.

Look, everybody gets that Schwarber doesn't profile as a prototypical leadoff hitter. He runs hard, but not fast. His .197 batting average was dead last among qualifying hitters last season and his 215 strikeouts were numero uno. He didn't steal a single base.

You can almost visualize Richie Ashburn looking at a lineup with Schwarber batting first, tapping the ashes from his pipe and muttering, "Hard to believe, Harry."

On the other hand …

Going into play on June 2 last season, the Phillies were 25-31 (.446). Schwarber had batted leadoff in just four of those 56 games.

That night, before the series opener at Nationals Park, Thomson filled out a lineup card with Schwarber leading off. And then he did it again. And again. And again and again and again. For the final four months of the regular season, Schwarber got two days off. In the other 104 games, he batted first.

The Phillies were 63-41 (.606) in those games, regardless of how the other eight slots were aligned behind him. This is both 100 percent true and only part of the story.

Now, factors that contributed to the turnaround surely include the fact that Bryce Harper came back from elbow surgery in May, lengthening the lineup. That he was eventually able to transition to first base from designated hitter which, along with the July promotion of Johan Rojas to play center, resulted in a dramatically revamped — and improved — defense.

That Trea Turner, fresh off inking a massive $330 million free-agent contract, finally turned himself around after struggling mightily in the early going. That Cristopher Sanchez arrived from Triple-A Lehigh Valley in June and stabilized the rotation. Not to mention that Schwarber himself has a history of flipping the switch about two months in. Even the team's media guide refers to him as Mr. June.

As the Phillies climbed the standings, though, Thomson continued to catch a certain amount of flak for continuing to lead off with a hitter who would struggle, and ultimately fail, to get his average above the Mendoza line. His response was usually a shrug, a lopsided grin and something along the lines of, "Well, hey, it's working."

It could also be that he doesn't wash his socks, eats the same lunch and whistles the Canadian National Anthem before the first pitch every game while the Phillies are on a winning streak. But there has to be more than superstition at work here. Doesn't there?

If there's a Rosetta Stone that cracks this case, it would probably come down to two things:

• Like it or not, baseball has changed.

"During the last 30 to 40 years, Sabermetric analysis has made it clear how valuable a high OPS is at the beginning of the order," explained Dave Smith, founder of "Before this time, there was an emphasis on speed and stolen base prowess (that) was a major driving force."

• Schwarber may not be the best leadoff hitter in baseball history. Or even the best leadoff hitter in the game today. But he's the best leadoff hitter the Phillies have.

Ronald Acuña Jr. stole 73 bases last year. But he also hit 41 homers. And plays for the Braves.

The Dodgers led the league in runs scored with Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman batting 1-2. They were the only two players available to manager Dave Roberts with a .400 on-base percentage. Again, those names appear nowhere on the Phillies' roster.

And so on …

For most of the first two months of 2023, either Bryson Stott or Turner were tasked with setting the table. They combined for a .258 batting average in that role with a .299 on-base percentage and slugged .352 for an OPS of .651. By contrast, even though Schwarber batted just .205, he slashed .345/.493 for an .837 OPS.

(Stott was in his first full big-league season. Turner, as noted, was locked in a horrendous slump. This isn't to say either one couldn't be effective leadoff hitters. Just that they weren't in April and May of 2023.)

We'll never know for sure why Schwarber didn't rise to the top until more than a third of the schedule had elapsed. It may have been that the Spreadsheet Squad upstairs leaned on Thomson to utilize Stott and Turner in that role. After all, both fit the traditional mold far better than Schwarber. It's also worth pointing out that, after replacing Joe Girardi in 2022, Thomson had Schwarber leading off every game he played for the rest of the season and rode that all the way to the World Series. If it ain't broke, etc.

Another explanation could have been Schwarber's reputation for being a notoriously slow starter and that the manager was strategically keeping him lower in the order until both the weather and his bat could logically be expected to heat up.

Thomson, in a backhanded way, debunked that theory in his press conference after the first full-squad workout this February in Clearwater. Asked point blank if Schwarber would lead off this year, the manager demurred. Not sure yet, he said. Still have to do a lot of thinking, convene high-level meetings, doodle a bunch of options on the back of an envelope. Pinkie swear. Scout's honor. Cross my heart and hope to die.

In the Grapefruit League opener, Turner batted first and Schwarber was the cleanup hitter.

But then, as surely as the sun rises in the East, the next nine times Schwarber played, he hit out of the top spot. In poker, they'd call that a tell.

Now, it's true that statistics are similar to well-trained pets. You can make them sit, roll over, speak and fetch on command. The key, Smith said, is to look beyond the batting average to examine whether other aspects of Schwarber's offensive performance mitigate that.

On-base percentage: Schwarber walked 126 times last season, second only to Juan Soto, and his .345 overall OBP ranked a respectable 46th among 134 qualified players. More to the point, among Thomson's options, Harper was the only Phillie who reached base at a higher rate.

Further, Schwarber opened the game with a walk 21 times and the Phillies won 15 of those games, a .714 percentage.

Power: He set a club record by starting off a game with a home run 11 times and the Phillies were 8-3 eight when he did.

"It could be argued that many of his home runs were 'wasted' in a sense because he batted so often with the bases empty," Smith acknowledged. However, he went on to note that of the other 23 Schwarbombs launched from the leadoff spot after the first inning (including three multi-homer games) the team was 16-4.

Strikeouts: Schwarber whiffed 26 times to start a game from the leadoff spot. But the negative impact was minimal. The Phillies still went 15-11 on those occasions.

OPS: This gets into some complicated math but, Smith calculates, Schwarber's .837 OPS batting first is fifth-best, ahead of 25 other MLB clubs. The .651 by others Thomson used in that spot would rank 28th, ahead of only the A's and Tigers.

While conceding that he's an "unconventional" choice to bat where he does, the bottom line is clear. The connection between Schwarber leading off and winning is more than a coincidence. No matter how the Phillies got there, they ended up in the right place.

"My conclusion is that Schwarber's atypical performance as a leadoff batter was very valuable and he was a good choice for this position," Dave Smith said.

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