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The Many Junes of Kyle Schwarber

Man, myth, and month

MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Independence Day has passed. The fireworks are over, the last of the litter from the barbecues has been cleaned up, the pets have come out from under the couch. Phillies baseball continues, but June, Kyle Schwarber’s month, is over. Do you recall when you first became aware of his claim to it? Maybe, but perhaps at some point it simply entered your consciousness and lodged there. It’s worth taking a look at Schwarber’s Junes, both the previous ones and this year’s entry into the canon, to see what lies under the hood.

Schwarber slashed .223/.339/.515 in June of 2023, better in each category than he delivered in a just-okay April and lackluster May. Comparing June to both previous months, he came to the plate more, crossed it more, hit more, homered more, struck out more, drove more runners in; everything he did in June, except for walk, was simply more. This most recent June certainly seems to add to what we already know: Schwarber finds a different level of play once June hits.

There is, however, a difference between something being known and something being true. Baseball is full of narratives that aren’t, of half-truths that spring from the minds of fans, achieving escape velocity and becoming self-sustaining. Does the June Schwarber narrative hold in the bigger picture?

The first full season of Schwarber’s career was 2017, when the future Phillie plied his trade with the Nationals. His stats in June of that year were unspectacular, both in an absolute and relative sense: .196/.327/.522. The OPS was significantly better than what he had in previous months, but 2017 June Schwarber was no titan. 2018, too, showed no signs of June glory; although he hit more home runs in that month than in any other, his batting average, OBP, and slugging percentage were all down from where they had been earlier in the season.

By 2019, however, signs of a nascent summer colossus were visible. After a tepid start to the season, he put up a .262/.304/.551 line in June. Not spectacular, but a significant improvement from where he was in the first two months of the season (OPS of .620 in April, and .769 in May). 2020, of course, was the season without a June and can be dismissed.

The next time we saw Schwarber in June was the first time we truly saw June Schwarber. A lousy April (OPS .619) and solid May (OPS .857) in 2021 suddenly gave way to a titanic June. His batting average and OBP were up from where they had been in the past two months, but it was his slugging percentage that made the difference: .365 in April, .500 in May, and .760 in June. His overall OBP for the month was 1.122, helped along by 16 homers. He was good to great at the plate for the rest of the season.

2022 was when the June Schwarber mythos went mainstream among Phillies fans, who may have missed his June heroics in Washington. A middling April (.169/.298/.423) and May (.196/.320/.402) preceded a June eruption: batting average, OBP, and slugging percentage all shot up for an OPS of 1.065, and more homers than he had in the first two months of the season combined. Little else about his June 2022 need be said, as you likely remember it.

We are now at three consecutive seasons of substantial improvement for Schwarber in the sixth month. That’s not enough to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the phenomenon is the result of something concrete as opposed to chance, but it is enough to suggest a trend. If it is something other than randomness, what could be behind it?

It could simply be that Schwarber takes a good deal of time to settle in and find his groove. Spring training may not be enough time to work out all the rust. In his 2022 season, for example, he cut down on his strikeout rate in June (32% in May vs. 25% in June, rounded up), while maintaining his walk rate and getting a few more hits. You could call it seeing the ball better, getting locked in, or whatever gently approving language you want to use. That’s a simple enough story.

His 2021, however, complicates the story. He had 1 more strikeout in June than he did in May, and 1 fewer walk. He had 4 more hits in June but 4 fewer doubles (for a grand total of 0). And yet, his June was undeniably a breakout month: his OPS was 1.122, up from .857 the prior month. What’s the explanation? The long ball, the moonshots, the dingers. 16 of them. Most of that spike in OPS was the S.

This, too, could be in part the result of seeing the ball better, of making better contact. But it could also be something about June itself. It’s been well-established that higher temperatures result in fly balls traveling farther. Schwarber relies, and relies quite heavily, on the long ball. It seems at least plausible that part of his June success is the result of higher temperatures giving his fly balls more distance, transforming April and May flyouts into June homers.

But if it were so simple, you would expect to see a nice, clean increase as the weather gets hotter, followed by a decline as it cools. And it isn’t so. In 2021 Schwarber’s slugging percentage did follow a similar pattern, but the decline began in August, when the weather would have been plenty hot. And in 2022, his slugging percentage plummeted in July, then stayed relatively steady for the rest of the season before rising again in the chilly postseason.

There is no One Weird Trick that explains Schwarber’s success in June; no known equation to bring the phenomenon into the realm of the mundane. In this way, the exceptional nature of Schwarber in June is unexceptional. Very little, if anything, in baseball has one single cause, though we often pretend this isn’t so. We like to tell stories about the one thing that explains the changes we see in performance: the hitter made this one change to his swing or the pitcher made this one change to his grip, and as a result… But even in a game as carefully watched and observed as baseball, there is room for the inexplicable. Yes, much of what Schwarber has done can be explained, and could be dissected more thoroughly by someone more versed in statistics than myself. But there’s midsummer magic in there too.