One of the main reasons the Oakland Athletics reached the postseason this year is their young slugger, Nick Swisher. His play in left field and at first base, along with an above-average bat for both positions, helped the A’s stay ahead of the Angels in the AL West. Swish improved across the board, hitting 35 home runs and drawing nearly 100 walks in his second major-league season.

Swisher, son of former major-leaguer Steve Swisher, was drafted 16th overall in the first round of the 2002 draft. Swisher was the first Oakland pick in the famed Moneyball draft, which also included current teammates Joe Blanton, Jeremy Brown, Mark Kiger–who may very well make his major league debut in the American League Championship Series–as well as current Royals third basemen Mark Teahen. Swisher walked in 18.8% of his plate appearances and posted a .290 Secondary Average during his college career, playing center field for Ohio State from 2000 to 2002.

Swisher’s professional debut came at Low-A Vancouver, but he quickly jumped to High-A Visalia for the remainder of the season:

                  AB    AVG   OBP   SLG   SecA   XBH%    ISO   2B+3B    BB%      K%
Vancouver (A-)    44   .250  .433  .455   .568    45%   .205     3    21.7%   18.3%
Visalia (A+)     183   .240  .340  .399   .311    42%   .159    15    12.1%   22.4%

Secondary Average says that Swisher held his own thanks to a nifty walk rate, but he struggled with maintaining his power, and his strikeout percentage was fairly high. Of course, these were the first 62 professional games of his career, and things would brighten up as quickly as 2003.

Baseball Prospectus 2003 didn’t have a great deal to say about Swisher, but one statement sticks out:

He’s all about the strike zone. First round pick of the A’s in the June draft. He’s got a long way to go, and I don’t think anyone who’s seen him thinks he’s going to stick in center field.

Baseball America ranked Swisher as prospect #11 in the A’s organizational Top 30, with an intriguing scouting report to boot:

…A’s scouting director Eric Kubota describes Swisher’s defensive skills at first base as magical, but the organization wants to keep him in the outfield. He appears a step or two slow to be a center fielder, but he has ample speed and arm strength to be a plus defender on one of the corners…He’s a hard worker who’s driven to become a major league star. The A’s actually may have to convince Swisher to diminish his workload, as his extensive pregame workouts sometimes left him worn out by gametime.

At the start of 2003, Swisher was placed in High-A once again, this time at Modesto. In his 51 games there, Swisher hit .296/.418/.550 with an improved walk rate (17.3%) and a slight reduction in strikeouts, down to 20.7%. His home-run percentage climbed up to his collegiate levels, up from 1.9% at Visalia to 4.2% in Modesto. A significant part of the production came from a bump in his batting average on balls in play, the highest mark of his professional career. His .354 BABIP in Modesto helps to explain the jump in average and slugging to some extent, especially considering the only other time his BABIP has been above .300 during his career was at High-A the previous season. This isn’t a recurring theme like last week’s Robinson Cano profile, just a one-time blip I wanted to mention.

Upon his promotion to Double-A Midland, Swisher seemed to scuffle somewhat. He only managed a .230/.324/.380 line, along with walks in 11% of all plate appearances. He strikeout rate jumped back up to almost 23%, and his Isolated Power plummeted to .150. His BABIP was .296, which helps account for some of the drop coming out of Modesto, but his home-run rate also dropped back down to about 1.5% of all plate appearances. This is the last case of Swisher struggling a great deal at any professional level of play.

Baseball Prospectus 2004 was fairly neutral with Swisher, labeling him a “good prospect”:

…Swisher played pretty well, at Single-A Modesto, but had a tough time when exposed to better pitching in the Texas League. At both stops he was vulnerable to the strikeout, but showed pretty good power to go along with what will end up being corner OF defense. Swisher’s a good prospect, but not one of the top OF prospects in the minors. That said, he may well have a big consolidation year and climb the prospect lists.

PECOTA forecasted a lowly .199/.279/.336 line based off of his minor-league career to that point. Swisher would start the season in Triple-A Sacramento and put together his strongest campaign since his college days:

                  AB    AVG   OBP   SLG   SecA   XBH%    ISO   2B+3B    BB%      K%
Sacramento (AAA) 443   .269  .406  .537   .501    50%   .268    31    18.6%    19.7%

It’s somewhat obvious at this point that Swisher is going to strike out, and often. On the flip side, he was walking in close to 19% of all plate appearances in his Triple-A debut, and also managed to rediscover his power stroke. This was no fluke sign of progress like his previous season in Modesto either; Swisher’s BABIP was much closer to his career rates, finishing at .295. Swisher walked 103 times in just 125 games for Sacramento, which made the decision for calling him up to replace the injured Jermaine Dye fairly simple come September. Swish made his major-league debut on September 3 against Toronto and, you guessed it, walked in his first plate appearance.

Swisher hit .250/.352/.417 in his first 60 major-league at-bats, but didn’t get any playoff action as the Athletics missed out, snapping their four year streak. Considering his previous trouble in the minors, his 2004 campaign was just what Baseball Prospectus 2004 had ordered to get his serious credibility back into form. Baseball America ranked Swisher as the top prospect in the A’s organization in 2005, and John Sickels rated him a B+ prospect, saying “the only thing that could prevent him from a starting job would be injury or an abysmally horrible spring training.” Baseball Prospectus 2005 hit on an interesting change in Swisher’s approach in 2004:

…As a hitter, he learned the critical distinction between working counts to try to get his pitch and kill it, versus working counts for a walk as an end unto itself…The optimal choice is to learn pitch identification, and know what to do with your pitch when you get it. Swisher’s started doing that. There was also a concern that his gregariousness could become a nuisance, but everyone agrees that he seems to have settled down in the last year.

Much like Michael Cuddyer and Alexis Rios did this year, Swisher’s patience revealed itself when he found the right pitch to drill. PECOTA forecasted a .244/.351/.423 line, which was fairly reasonable. Swisher ended up at .236/.322/.436 for the season, with walks in 10.5% of his plate appearances and strikeouts in over 20%. Injuries and a stay on the bereavement list limited Swish to just 462 at-bats in 2005, but all in all it was a successful rookie year at age 24. Swisher collected 55 extra-base hits and 55 walks while playing league-average defense in right field. He was the definition of league average, as he managed a .260 Equivalent Average, with both Rate and The Fielding Bible rating him as average defensively.

For 2006, PECOTA forecasted .252/.347/.453, a slight improvement over the 2005 projection. Swisher outperformed that by a bit, hitting .254/.372/.493 with 97 walks and 35 home runs. Swisher also managed to strike out 152 times, a new career high, but it obviously did not affect his performance all that much. Swisher split time between first base and left field, defending well at both positions, finishing with 10 Fielding Runs Above Average. How did he increase his production from 2005 to 2006?

Year    P/PA      FB%   LINERD%      GB%    POPUP%     HR/F     BABIP
2004     4.2    48.0%     14.0%    38.0%       N/A     8.3%      .277
2005     4.1    36.5%     16.1%    38.2%      9.1%    16.3%      .266
2006     4.1    35.7%     20.6%    34.2%      9.5%    23.8%      .287

First off, Swisher hiked his BABIP back up to around his career rates in 2006 after a down year in 2005. Couple that with the increase in power–a 7.5% jump in home runs per flyball–and it’s easy to see how his offensive game improved. The jump in BABIP can most likely be attributed to an increase in his line drive rate; his flyball and pop-up tendencies remained steady, but he hit a few more liners and fewer grounders in 2006.

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; a positive sign for an Oakland club that will battle their rival Angels–who also just happen to be stacked in the minors–for supremacy of the American League West over the next few years.

Marc Normandin is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Marc by clicking here or click here to see Marc’s other articles. You can find some of Marc’s other work here.

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