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June 14, 2010

Fantasy Beat

An Unlikely .300 Hitter

by Craig Brown

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He was slow getting out of the blocks, but Nick Swisher found his stride by the end of April.  His .314 TAv is currently good for fourth among American League outfielders.  With a career TAv of .285, he’s performing well above expectations and has a 3.6 WARP so far, which matches his value from 2009.

Swisher owns a career contact rate of 77% and has whiffed once every 3.9 at bats, so while he’s not necessarily an impatient hitter, he has always had his share of swings and misses.  This year though, it’s been more about the contact Swisher has been making than the misses.  He currently owns a .358 BABIP, built on the strength of a line drive rate of 25%.  Both numbers currently represent career-high marks and are well above his normal rate of 20% line drives and .281 BABIP.

A change in approach at the plate has powered Swisher’s numbers.  This year, he’s swinging more than ever, taking a rip at 44% of all pitches he’s seen compared to a career rate of 39%.  To reach a percentage that high, he’s obviously swinging at more strikes, but he’s also expanding his personal zone as well.  After swinging at 17% of pitches outside the strike zone last year, he’s now offering at 27% of those pitches in 2010.  From mid-April to the first of June, it was an approach that paid some nifty dividends.  In 150 plate appearances he hit .356/.416/.615 with 18 extra base hits.  Overall, it was a nice run where the switch-hitting Swisher was spraying line drives to all fields.  Although, despite his success, he was just as likely to strikeout or fly out as he was to hit a single.  According to texasleaguers.com, here were his top five plate appearance outcomes during his streak:

Strikeout - 19.4%
Flyout - 19.4%
Single - 19.4%
Groundout - 11.8%
Walk - 7.6%

It’s been a different story in the 10 games since.  Swisher is hitting just .205/.347/.333 over his last 49 plate appearances.  Here are his top five outcomes:

Strikeout - 24.5%
Walk - 18.4%
Single - 10.2%
Groundout - 10.2%
Flyout - 10.2%

What’s changed?  For starters, he’s hitting fewer liners.  He’s hitting a line drive just 17% of the time this month.  Also, it’s probably not a coincidence his recent slide has corresponded with a move to the second spot in the Yankee batting order.  Normally, it’s a luxury for a hitter to be sandwiched between Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, but Swisher’s low contact approach should disqualify him from hitting higher than sixth in the lineup.  He’s been more patient here with a huge number of walks (even for him), but that seems to have hampered the rest of his offensive game.  When Alex Rodriguez is sidelined with hip discomfort, it looks as though manager Joe Girardi will push Robinson Cano into the cleanup spot, so it’s conceivable Swisher could take a few reps in the fifth position in the order.  OK… Seems like a fair compromise.

Currently hitting .299, Swisher’s days as a .300 hitter are likely in the rearview mirror as his BABIP and line drive rate normalize.  While Swisher may be an option to “sell high” at this point, should you decide to hang on, you will still collect some value.  His career high batting average is just .262, but he still has roughly 15 home runs waiting to spring from his bat this year and will continue to get bushels of RBI and run scoring opportunities.  For the season, he’s driving in a run once every 5.4 at bats, a number that hasn’t suffered since his move up the order.  He’s picked up nine RBI, and average of one RBI for every 4.3 at bats.  Considering the run scoring, he’s touching the plate 35% of the time he reaches base.  As you would expect from someone who makes his living in the high-octane Yankee offense, that number is above the league average rate of 31%.

If you're debating whether to trade or hold, know that if Swisher's average finishes the year at .270 (which would tie his career high), assuming he gets 550 at bats, that means he would hit .250 from now to the end of the season.  Sure, you'll get the RBI and runs (and some power) but can you afford to absorb the drop in batting average?

Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

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