Not All Is Schwell And Good

Spencer Schwellenbach is talented, but he needs to make some changes.

Spencer Schwellenbach has a lot going for him as a pitcher. After being a two-way player who only pitched one season as a multi-inning reliever in college, he managed to make it to the majors as a pitcher around the same time as his fellow Cornhusker Cade Povich after they were picked in the same draft. Given that Povich was the staff ace and Schwellenbach was the starting shortstop who then became the team’s closer for just one season, it speaks to his natural talent for the position that he was able to climb the ranks so quickly. Not everything has gone according to plan for him since being called up though.

Despite his clear potential and talent, Schwellenbach has a couple of major hurdles in the way of his progression. I don’t think he’ll find much success at this level until he cleans up at least one of them. If he can fix all of them, he could be an ace. Let’s do a quick dive into his stuff to see exactly what he has to offer. His stuff isn’t the main problem here, though it’s not perfect either.

The Stuff

Schwellenbach’s first flaw is seen here. His 4-seam fastball’s movement is mediocre at best. His unique release point and extension help, but the vertical movement from that release height is below average. He’s able to create a reasonably flat plane for his fastball’s approach angle with his extension, release, and propensity for throwing the ball waist-height or higher, but I don’t think it’s enough. Hitters have not had trouble with it, as this pitch has been crushed on contact and isn’t missing bats. I do think at least some of it is location-related as he throws too many of them around the middle of the zone. If he were properly elevating the pitch above the zone, I think it could at least perform at a league-average level, which is probably all he needs from it.

On a much brighter note, his slider is fantastic. Thrown with power and exceptional depth, it dives on its way to the plate. I’m blaming the lack of whiffs on the small sample. It’s not like hitters are doing much with it even when they are making contact though. It’s been inducing weak ground balls, and it will likely continue to do so. Even if the whiffs don’t eventually come (I think they will), this pitch will probably always draw bad contact assuming he doesn’t start throwing it in bad spots.

I have mixed feelings about his cutter. In fairness, this is how I feel about most cutters. Most cutters that aren’t fastballs, or sliders in disguise, tend to be reliant on the arsenal around them and how they’re used. This one fits into Schwellenbach’s pitch mix well, and his command of the pitch is… promising. I wouldn’t say it’s pristine yet as he has a bad habit of missing down the middle with it. He does show an ability to run it in on lefties though, which is exactly what he should be doing with it. It also pairs well with his ability to land his fastball on the glove side. This pitch gets hammered when it’s hit in the zone though, so I’d like to see him be a bit less reckless with it there.

I’ll come right out and say with full honesty that I do not understand his curveball. From a stuff perspective, it is not good. It’s gotten called strikes at an average rate, but it’s missing bats and getting weak contact somehow. All I can think is that hitters think it’s the slider out of his hand and then it moves a bit more and doesn’t get there as quickly. It spins in a near-identical direction but the spin activity is different. Maybe the shallow VAA on a curve at that speed is confusing to hitters? I just don’t get this one. As a result, I can’t say I trust it yet, but if it keeps performing like this I’ll have no choice but to accept it.

Schwellenbach’s splitter is excellent. It has phenomenal vertical and velocity separation from his fastball. It may lack a bit in deception but it hasn’t needed it yet. It’s still getting chases, probably in part due to his ability to locate it. The hitters just aren’t touching this pitch. Half of all swings at it have missed so far. It’s an excellent off-speed offering that he should probably be using more.

His sinker is interesting though he doesn’t seem to be particularly fond of it. He doesn’t throw it as hard as his 4-seam, but he does get good SSW with it. It spins in the same direction as his 4-seam but they have substantially different movement. This separation is further aided by Schwellenbach cutting his fastball a bit to create movement that is further from its spin direction. These pitches could play off of each other if he’d use his sinker more. He’s shown some ability to bury this pitch on the low arm side corner, but he would probably have to throw it a bit higher to get it to work with the 4-seam better.

 The Issues (and Potential Solutions)

The aptitude that Schwellenbach has shown is impressive, throwing six different pitches with regularity. His “primary pitch” is his 4-seam, but he only throws it 23.5% of the time. Despite such a widely varied arsenal, he has been utterly demolished his third time through the order through his first seven major league starts. Certainly part of it is due to the small sample, but it’s a jarring contrast between the first two times compared to the third. This is getting in the way of him being an effective starter. His stuff isn’t deteriorating at the end of his outings, which is promising at least. It also suggests that it’s related either to his arsenal or his strategy.

Again, we’re dealing with a small sample, but his platoon splits are very far apart. He’s been getting beat by lefties for far more damage than righties. I think this is at least in part due to him using his slider less against them than he does against righties. His slider is probably close enough to platoon-neutral with its gyro curve-esque movement. It certainly isn’t a righties-only pitch at least. Its usage is the inverse of the curveball, which is thrown mostly to lefties, but not as much to righties.

His cutter and fastball are the pitches that are getting him into trouble with opposite-handed hitters. I wouldn’t be opposed to him leaning further into backward pitching and leading with his breaking balls against lefties to keep the more hittable pitches in his arsenal sheltered. Those pitches would eventually see some diminishing returns with the increased usage, but I’d bet it’s better than the alternative, being what he’s doing currently. It feels a bit silly to suggest that a pitcher who already doesn’t throw many fastballs throw fewer of them, but they are causing his biggest problem.

As much as pitchers who work 4-seam-sinker-cutter tend to play above their stuff grades, I’m not entirely certain this would work for Schwellenbach, as both of the pitches in the trio that are supposed to be working against lefties are his current issue. I also hesitate to advocate for more sinkers against lefties because those usually don’t work. There’s a possibility it would open up his other pitches but then it would likely just transfer the damage to that pitch because as stated, sinkers to opposite-handed hitters don’t work as well.

It’s also possible that all of those problems could be solved by improved execution of those pitches. His 4-seam and cutter aren’t elite pitches by their stuff, but he’s also not using them to their potential. His ym-Loc% (middle third of the zone by height) with his 4-seam is in the 98th percentile, meaning he throws way too many of them there. As you’d expect with that in mind, his hi-Loc% is too low. His cutter suffers a similar issue of being waist-high too often. Fixing those locations could make the 4-seam-sinker-cutter strategy more viable for him.

All of this may be overblown on my part. I probably won’t ever love the shape of his fastball, but the rest of his arsenal could protect it if he were locating it better.  This would also cause something of a fundamental change to who he is as a pitcher though. One of Schwellenbach’s defining traits is his relentless aggression in the zone. He goes after hitters with no hesitation and rarely has to work from bad counts as a result. It also keeps his walk rate low. But if he’s challenging with less than marquee stuff, it will continue to get him burned. He’s run remarkably high chase rates, he could stand to throw out of the zone a bit more often.

Some Final Thoughts

I’ve spent a lot of this harping on his issues. I’m not trying to tear him down, I want that to be abundantly clear. I like Schwellenbach, I think he’s a fascinating and talented pitcher. Furthermore, I want him to clean up his flaws as a pitcher so he can reach his potential and be the best pitcher he can be. Focusing on the problems is how they get fixed. Praising everything he does well and calling it a day would be more fun, but the fact of the matter is he has problems to work on. The ceiling is there, but there’s likely to be some frustration in the immediate future.

Signs of progress for him for those of you who watch or track every game would largely be in improved locations for his fastball and cutter. If he’s throwing those away from the middle of the zone, and elevating the fastball especially, he’s more likely to find success. It should be noted how little experience he has compared to his fellow rookies. Again, he pitched 30 innings in college. Missing out on two seasons that other college pitchers got the luxury of means he’s working from behind the normal development curve. Having six pitches he’s confident enough to throw regularly is impressive for even the most veteran of pitchers. He’s a unique case, and I ask that you be patient with him. I think he’s fully capable of reaching his best form, he just needs the time required to get there.

Jack Foley

Jack is a contributor at Pitcher List who enjoys newfangled baseball numbers, coffee, and watching dogs walk by from the window where he works. He has spent far too much time on the nickname page of Baseball-Reference.

One response to “Not All Is Schwell And Good”

  1. Pat says:

    Nice article.
    Upside is staggering. Many swing and misses are far enough away to embarrass the hitter.
    Atlanta, with its pitching heritage, is a great place for this young man.
    Skills, aptitude and heart fit well with people who know pitching.
    It is only going to get better and better.

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