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Trend Spotting: On Swisher, Expectations and Acquisitions

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While the Michael Bourn signing was exciting, bordering on a shockingly bold move towards contention, it was clear during the offseason that Nick Swisher was the man most pined for.  Even the most emotionally distant type of Indians fan felt as if Christmas came on December 23rd when Swisher signed with the Tribe.

Swisher brought a couple of things, most notably being leadership, an infectious smile and an impressive track record of production stability. Unfortunately for Swisher, the hype of his signing as well as irrational expectations or lack of understanding as to what sort of piece he was has created derision and criticism of his performance that may not be entirely fair.

On the surface, criticisms of Swisher can be made pretty easily creating doubt as to the reasoning behind his acquisition. His batting average .243, homeruns 15, and RBI 43 are all down and while they are surface statistics highly dependent on a collection of variables, they are concerning. They are concerning because of his stable production over the course of his career which seemingly never wavered except for 2008 in Chicago.

I suppose the concern is triggered because of not only this season but because he has in all reality four years left in Cleveland. So the question that is most frequently raised when looking at his production is whether we are witnessing the beginning of his offensive decline or if this season is just a blip on the radar.

Which is where we dig in as we will be looking at a couple of things with the scope looking to see whether he will improve inside what is left of this season, how valuable he has been to date and hopefully consider how effectively he will age.

First we will take a look at Swisher’s batting average and OBP to see if we can find any underlying issues or trends that offer insight to his season to date.

Batting Average/OBP

Year BB %  K% BABIP LD %
2004 11.3 15.5 0.271 14.0
2005 10.5 21.1 0.265 19.4
2006 14.4 22.6 0.283 19.3
2007 15.2 19.9 0.301 17.5
2008 13.9 23.0 0.249 20.9
2009 16.0 20.8 0.272 16.3
2010 9.1 21.9 0.335 19.6
2011 15.0 19.7 0.295 21.8
2012 12.3 22.6 0.324 22.3
2013 12.2 22.1 0.290 24.8

Swisher is an interesting case because in generality when a player has elevated seasons of line drive percentage his BABIP tend to elevate as well. And in some seasons to date this has been true for Swisher but there has not been entirely perfect correlation.

While each season has not necessarily correlated over the course of his career on average the higher his line drive rate, the higher his BABIP. However, this season’s BABIP – while not equal to last years – is fairly acceptable from Swisher.

Swisher’s career BABIP is at .291 compared to this season’s rate of .290 which means one cannot really expect any shifts based on career numbers. However, when looking at his batting average on  line drives, fly balls and groundballs this season they are all at least thirty points below his career average on those contact profiles. Therefore, it is possible a slight shift could occur in BABIP and that this could be a tick lower than would be expected but nothing more than a negligible 5-10 point impact could be expected.

Moving to plate discipline and diminished balls in play we can look at both walk and strikeout rates coupled with some background information. The walk rate is a step below career average but it remains one of his most valuable skills and contributions. As well as his walk rate peak which has held up, his career average was from 2006 through 2009 with another peak in 2011.

There are two real concerns, however, for Swisher surrounding plate discipline and contact rate that have shifted over the last few years. First, is his escalating tendency to chase pitches outside the strike zone which has risen and now sits above 20% in terms of O-Swing %.  In fact you can see Swisher’s walk rate decline and strikeout rate increase over the past four years as he has begun chasing more pitches outside the zone and flat lining at a higher level than the peak OBP years of 2006-2009.

The other reason for an increasing strikeout rate is his 10.1 SwStr% which measures his swing and miss on strikes. This is the second highest it has been in his career.

With Swisher there are beginning to be some very scary signs surrounding his best ability which is plate discipline and while he is still above average at it, there are some tangible effects we are seeing born out of his batting average as well as value offensively.

Power Production

This we can address far more quickly and succinctly, beginning with using his HR/FB rate this season compared to his last few seasons as well as career production.

This season’s HR/FB: 12.7%
HR/FB rates while in New York: 2009 (17%), 2010 (15.1 %), 2011 (14.3%), 2012 (15.4%)
Career HR/FB: 14.7%

Now take a look at park factor:

Progressive Field: Basic 96, HR 94
Yankee Stadium: Basic 102, HR 111

(Note: A neutral park factor being a hundred, pitcher friendly being sub-100, hitter friendly being over-100.)

After looking at these numbers it is pretty obvious where I am going with this. Swisher’s power production has taken a hit which honestly was to be expected purely based on the shift in ballpark. He went from one of the top five most hitter friendly, specifically home run friendly ballparks, to a pitcher leaning park and his HR/FB has taken a dip accordingly.

Value

There are indeed some long term concerns but that does not by any means suggest that Swisher has been  a piece without immense value to the Tribe.

Of course I tend to measure value as frequently as I can using on field production making it even tougher to capture Nick’s whole value. As a leader and as a teammate we cannot measure what he brings and one tends to think he brings a lot to both of those roles.  So acknowledging those imperfections, we will just use a simple WAR calculation to close on his on field value as well as how it measures compared to contract expectations.

Through 127 games Swisher has a WAR total of 1.9, projecting the same WAR per game production over the remainder of the season he would sit at around 2.5 WAR.  A 2.5 WAR player is a starter and valuable complimentary piece on a contending team which is what the Indians pictured when they signed him.

In 2013 Nick Swisher’s salary with the Tribe is $11 million dollars; his projected end of season WAR value would have him as a $12-13 million dollar player. Of course if you wanted to use the annual average of his contract it is at $14 million dollars. So he is either underperforming or over performing his salary this season by a negligible amount.

More importantly, Swisher has refreshed the organizational outlook and offers a solid complimentary piece for a young roster with improving talent, barring injuries or a rapid decline, which is possible but not at all likely.

A few things that may only interest me:

  • Lonnie Chisenhall’s batting average in the following counts: 
    • 3-0: .167 
    • 3-1: .214 
    • 2-0: .167 
    • Small samples in all cases but he is alarmingly poor at forcing a pitcher to come to him when he is up in counts. He has to improve when he has the advantage in at-bats. 
  • Jose Ramirez has a walk rate of 7.6 % and a strikeout rate of 7.1% as a 20 year old in Double-A (which is outstanding). Coupled with plus defense and speed on the base paths, what an impressive season. 
  • The Indians rotation has the tenth best xFIP in all of MLB at 3.81. 
  • Asdrubel Cabrera OBP .293, Drew Stubbs OBP .302. One is an above average defender, the other a bad defender. Despite hitting higher in the lineup, Cabrera only has six more runs batted in. Of course Stubbs should be hitting exactly where he is, but food for thought.
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Author: Michael Hattery

I am a pre-law student at Clarkson University obsessed with all sports Cleveland. I am a columnist at Cleveland Sports Insiders, IBI and the managing editor of the Clarkson Integrator. As well as raconteur extraordinaire. You can follow me @MichaelHattery.

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