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Kincade & Salciunas: Weekdays 6am – 10am

Should Rob Thomson move Kyle Schwarber out of the leadoff spot? It’s a question that’s persisted among Philadelphia Phillies conversations since Dave Dombrowski landed the former World Series champion entering the 2022 season.

Thomson has said publicly during Spring Training that he hasn’t decided on Schwarber as his leadoff hitter just yet. However, the power-hitting lefty is the likeliest player in the Phillies lineup to step to the plate in the one-hole.

The Heart of the Controversy

There’s elements of the issue within the heated controversy that don’t even crack the conversation, however. The real issue is a divide within the game between a shifted focus on sabermetrics and a traditionalist approach.

Tim Kurkjian spoke on The John Kincade Show last season about Schwarber’s unorthodox statistics as a microcosm of the modern game presenting itself at Citizens Bank Park on a high-profile team in a heated media market. 

“This is the way it works with Kyle Schwarber. You accept this because this is the way the game is played today, as we know. Walks, homers, strikeouts, and Kyle Schwarber is like the poster boy for all three.” -Tim Kurkjian

The most passionate fans in the world characterize Philadelphia sports uniquely. Every single decision that impacts a win or a loss will draw incredible scrutiny. Phillies legends like Lenny Dykstra and Jimmy Rollins have hit in the leadoff spot. Modern fans naturally want the same glory.

Of course the wild fanatics will react passionately to Thomson’s choices. However, too many conversations about Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot focus on a lightning rod topic that isn’t impactful enough to be a major controversy.


  • MLB Sabermetrics/Analytics

    The implementation of sabermetrics has become a polarizing MLB debate. The divide is partly generational considering the more recent emphasis on gathering large samples of data with advanced statistics with the goal of useful objective evaluations. The concept is more prevalent in baseball than in other professional sports.

    The close-knit, fraternal nature of baseball manifests itself in debates on the value of sabermetrics. Look no further than the easiest example of an analytically-driven GM who impacted the direction of MLB team-building, Billy Beane. Moneyball opened the eyes of fans who had to think twice about trusting experienced baseball scouts. 

    Beane’s own playing experience helped him recognize flaws in MLB scouting systems heavily focused on five-tool players. The scouts’ favorite prospects made organizations gush without enough consideration to simple statistics that pushed Beane to take a more objective approach. His challenge to conventional thinking caused heated debate.

    The shifted focus of MLB teams toward sabermetrics also indirectly contributed to the slowed pace of the game that made rule changes necessary in 2023. The negative perception of mathematical algorithms grew, especially with the older generation who favored more traditional approaches accepted in the game for over a century.

    Enter the Kyle Schwarber leadoff debates.

    Matt Chapman and Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics

  • Schwarber’s Statistical Extremities

    MLB front offices in the modern era tend to put less emphasis on batting average and contact than they did in past eras. They don’t focus on RBIs as a key way to evaluate hitters.

    Instead, they value on-base percentage (OBP) and slugging percentage (SLG%). They’re also perfectly okay with hitter tendencies to swing for the fences even if the aggressive approach drives strikeout numbers much higher. The data collected over 162-game seasons validates their emphasis.

    The most extreme microcosm of the shift in statistical focus happens to play in the most heated professional sports media market in the country. The issue is obvious even when considering the most superficial baseball statsitics that fall well short of the work of the statistical brainiacs within successful MLB organizations.

    Schwarber takes these new-age preferences to incredible extremities. He finished dead last in batting average among 134 qualified hitters in 2023, and he led the majors in strikeouts in 2023 with 215. 

    He became the first player in major league history to hit below the Mendoza line with over 40 home runs. He didn’t steal a base the entire season.

    The former Chicago Cubs fan-favorite also finished second in the National League in walks, becoming the first player ever to walk 120 or more times with a batting average under .200. The bases on balls offset the poor .197 average and drove his OBP to a respectable .343. 

    Watch him on a daily basis, and you’ll probably grow frustrated at his lack of concern for putting the ball in play. Making contact is a fundamental instruction accepted within baseball circles for generations.

    However, Scwarber posted excellent power numbers. His 47 home runs led the team, and he had 18 more than the second-place Nick Castellanos. Jimmy Rollins is the only other player in Phillies history to hit nine leadoff home runs in a single season. Schwarber was one of two qualified Phillies hitters with an OPS higher than .800 for the 2023 season.

    Schwarber’s style at the plate is completely counterintuitive to traditional leadoff hitters who consistently make contact and run the bases well. Shouldn’t he have hit in the cleanup spot then?

  • Batting Order Is Overrated

    Would the power serve the Phillies better in the clean-up spot? Maybe. However, the advanced numbers drastically downplay the overall impact of batting order.

    It’s a statistical reality that Jayson Stark has mentioned as a key piece of analytical information that the Phillies use.

    FanGraphs estimated before the NL implemented the DH that using a pitcher in the cleanup spot for 162 games would subtract only about 15 total runs away from an offense. The optimal batting order, conversely, would add under 15 runs to a lineup per 162 games, a difference that won’t impact an MLB offense significantly.

    The Phillies finished eighth in the majors with 796 runs in 2023. An additional 15 runs would’ve bumped them to seventh, and subtracting 15 runs would’ve dropped them to ninth.

    In other words, a genius statistical performance by Rob Thomson and the other Phillies’ decision-makers to create the best possible lineup permutation for 162 consecutive games would’ve helped them jump from eighth-place to seventh-place in runs scored. An extreme decision in the other direction would’ve dropped them from eighth to ninth.

    Schwarber’s polarizing stat line goes against the idea of a traditional leadoff hitter. A batting average below the Mendoza line certainly isn’t ideal in the leadoff spot or any other position in the lineup. However, it simply doesn’t make as big of a difference as many people think.

    Kyle Schwarber, Philadelphia Phillies

  • Rob Thomson: "A Player's Manager"

    Joe Girardi became the fourth consecutive Phillies manager to end his tenure without a postseason appearance when the organization let him go in June 2022.

    Rob Thomson suddenly led the team to five playoff series wins in two seasons. This is the sport where managers make the most impact on their teams by controlling the clubhouse dynamic and keeping talented players in a daily comfort zone.

    Thomson has built a reputation as a player’s manager. He spoke about the approach that’s led countless players and media in Philadelphia to praise the clubhouse dynamic at Citizens Bank Park. When the Phillies go into slumps, he stays confident in his players. 

    “I think you have to be consistent in your approach in the way you come to the ballpark and the way you interact with your players… It’s not just me, but it’s the entire coaching staff. I have a lot of help in that area, so the (players) don’t sense any panic whatsoever.” -Rob Thomson (via 

    Part of that consistency is using Kyle Schwarber as his leadoff hitter. Doesn’t the collective attitude of the ballclub outweigh the minute statistics of batting order and the nauseating clash of the traditionalists versus the new-age statistical focus?

    The trademark “Schwarbomb” will send Citizens Bank Park into an uproar in the bottom of the first inning quite a few times this summer.

    You’ll inevitably hear this debate resurface the next day, and when you do, remember the big picture of Rob Thomson’s strengths, the direction of Major League Baseball, and the fact that the Fightin’ Phils should sniff World Series contention for the third consecutive season.

    Rob Thomson and Kyle Schwarber of the Philadelphia Phillies

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