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October 28, 2009
Nick Swisher was a valuable member of the division-winning Yankees during the regular season. He has not been a valuable member of the now World Series-bound Bombers though, thanks to a line of .083/.083/.167 against the lowly Twins in the Division Series and a .152/.292/.150 showing against the Angels in the Championship round. Anyone is capable of two bad weeks, though (or a whole month, given the way playoff scheduling works these days), and with the Phillies and Yankees evenly matched in many ways, having Swisher at his best would be a big boost to the boys from the Bronx.
Nick Swisher was originally profiled back in 2006, when it was still early enough in his career that he could be referred to as a "young slugger." As many of you know, Swisher was the first pick in the so-called Moneyball draft of 2002-that was the year after Billy Beane threw a chair following the Jeremy Bonderman selection, and summoned his loyal minions to wipe the A's scouts from the face of the planet. I'm iffy on the details-it has been a while since I read it-but I remember the story going something like that.
Swisher was considered a pretty good prospect for most of his time in the minors, but once he got a shot in the majors, he did his best to stay there. His batting average in 2005, his first full season in The Show, was just .236, but he walked in 10.6 percent of his plate appearances and posted a .210 ISO, showing some promise in both the power and patience departments. He broke out in 2006 though, and it was also the season that gave us a pretty good idea of just who Nick Swisher would be going forward. He bumped his average up to .254, his walk rate to 14.9 percent, and his ISO to .239 thanks to 35 homers. Here was a player that didn't make a ton of contact-Swisher has struck out between 110 and 152 times in each full season of his career-but he made up for it with walks and a healthy serving of power.
His profile concluded with this:
Combine Swisher's display of power from 2006 along with his superb plate patience, and you have yourselves one of the more talented young sluggers in the league. He may not hit for as much power as some other first basemen or corner outfielders, but his glove work more than makes up for that, never mind his excellent plate discipline. All the information on hand points to Swisher's improvement as a reality, and he should just now be entering his peak years.
Swisher continued to show he was a quality contributor in 2007, hitting .262/.381/.455 with 22 homers, even more walks, and a slightly better handle on whiffing while also playing solid defense. The Athletics took this opportunity to deal him over the offseason, as he was in line for a raise and his value was high. It was a surprise trade in many ways, as the raise was due to the A's signing him to an extension that May-he made $700,000 instead of $400,000 in 2007 thanks to this extension-but there was just a hair over $26 million owed to him over the next four years of the deal, plus a $1 million buyout on his 2012 season. Clearly the thought process here was to lock him up in a deal that seemed reasonable and covered some of his free agent time in order to increase his trade value.
The Athletics would get Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Sweeney, and Fautino de los Santos from the White Sox in exchange for Swisher, and while none of those three have done much in the majors (yet), at first it didn't look like it mattered much, as Swisher struggled with the White Sox. "Struggled" might be an understatement; he was hitting .201/.330/.310 at the beginning of June, despite hitting line drives in 22.5 percent of his plate appearances up to that point. He was also seeing more pitches than anyone else in the league with 4.5 per plate appearance, and he was making more contact than he normally did on more swings than he normally made. It's one of those situations where it's pretty clear that Swisher was unlucky, and it's a shame too, given he was playing in a park that was built for someone like him, someone who hits loads of fly balls.
Those mid-season numbers above were pulled from a piece at Beyond the Box Score by Peter Bendix from June 2. Bendix stated that the adjusted line for Swisher, based on some batted-ball data, should have been something like .271/.371/.359. My own adjustments (which can be found in the comments) put him at .253/.400/.371, which looks similar but has a pretty big difference in ISO when you realize the average has dropped. The spreadsheet I used tries to distribute the missing hits at the same rate a player has been hitting their singles and extra-base hits at; the one problem with this is that a player may be missing some extra-base hits to begin with, but as long as you know you're looking at the lower end of things, you get the point.
It was obvious from both the simple adjustments and the more complicated ones that Swisher was the victim of terrible luck, and that he should have been hitting much better than he was-a .371 slugging from a starting corner outfielder obviously isn't ideal, but if he's on base 40 percent of the time and plays solid defense like Swisher does, it's a little easier to deal with in the short term. Almost immediately after that piece was published, Swisher caught fire: he hit .315/.402/.630 in June with seven homers. This didn't continue though, as his second half line was an ugly .191/.298/.427; the only good news there is that his power was clearly back, he just couldn't catch a break on getting a ball to land somewhere besides a defender's glove.
Following the season, Bendix co-developed a system that blows both of our previous batted-ball adjustment efforts away. It's much more complicated and involved than the methods that now look like shortcuts, but it's also super accurate. To bring it back to Swisher, this system pegged him as one of the unluckiest hitters in the majors-his xBABIP was .294, whereas his actual xBABIP was .245. His 2008 season ends up looking pretty Swisheresque if you throw 30 or so points of average, on-base, and slugging back into the equation, and that's without even distributing the extra-base hits for a more accurate slugging rate.
PECOTA covered its bases pretty well heading into 2009-Swisher's weighted mean was a disappointing .237/.345/.429, but within his 75th and 90th percentiles existed the possibility of a rebound (.253/.363/.468 and .267/.379/.502 respectively). Baseball Prospectus 2009 was also cheery about his chances:
An investigation into Swisher's lost season suggests that it was the product of little more than bad luck. His walk rate and isolated power were right in line with his career rates, and his line-drive rate was up from his previous two seasons, but his batting average on balls in play fell 52 points from his 2007 mark. That doesn't scan, nor does the fact that he was Nick Swisher at the Cell (.247/.361/.517) and Bob Uecker on the road (.189/.301/.294). Given a fresh start, he should snap back to form with the Yankees, who will do him (and themselves) the additional favor of not asking him to play center field.
The Yankees didn't immediately give Swisher the job though, probably partially thanks to an awful run in spring training. Back in March, during his struggles, he was still thought of as a comeback waiting to happen:
Swisher has hit .130/.344/.174 this spring, and he's done very little to support the belief that 2009 might be a rebound season for him after a disappointing 2008. He should have been better last year; he posted the best liner rate of his career while managing to put up the lowest BABIP at the same time. That makes 2009 a crossroads of sorts, where we'll learn if Swisher is going to follow Andruw Jones' path of no longer being a viable major league slugger, or if he'll bounce back and give the Yankees a quality corner guy as we would expect to happen via what we know about BABIP.
Swisher would eventually get a chance to play for the Yanks in April, and he made sure to lock down the job by hitting .312/.430/.714 in the first month of the season. Things got a little hairy in May (he slugged .275), but that was just one speed bump on the road to a fine overall season. Swisher finished the year with a .249/.371/.498 line, one in which he hit against both lefties and righties with success. His home/road splits are a little stranger, but not in a way that changes the way you should think about Swisher: he hit .268/.359/.509 on the road (classic Swish) but just .226/.382/.394 at home, in Yankee Stadium 2.0, where homers flew out of the park at the same rate tops fly off at Mardis Gras. That makes this writer a bit curious as to what his 2010 season will look like, once he gets to reap the benefits of his local homer haven.
A quick look at his hit charts shows that Swisher hit quite a few long fly balls in the park and 14 doubles (a few of them landing pretty deep as well):
Doubles aren't necessarily marked where they landed though; they're marked where they were fielded, so using them is a little sketchy. It's possible that some of those deep fly balls are home runs in 2010 though, assuming Yankee Stadium plays like it did this year.
Swisher led the AL in "just enough" homers, those that clear the fence by less than 10 vertical feet, or landed less than one fence height past the fence, according to Hit Tracker. Assuming a few of those disappear (and from his road numbers; as you can see, he cleared the wall on his homers at home) while his home numbers bounce back with some kind of normalcy, his line should even out. He may lose a little bit of his slugging or ISO, but that wouldn't be out of the ordinary for Swisher, who sits between .190 and .230 in most years.
It's pretty clear that 2008 was an outlier, one the White Sox either didn't understand or didn't want to wait around for. They may have been rewarded for their patience if they had though, considering Swisher rebounded as multiple systems and analysts felt he would. Now he's in the World Series for the first time-something his dad, Steve Swisher, never did in his major league career-and has a chance to help the Yankees wrap up their bid for team of the decade and one last World Series victory before the decade expires. He's a much better hitter than he has shown during these last few weeks, and if he can bounce back, the Yanks' lineup will be more potent than it has shown this October.