Located off the northernmost peninsula of the European continent and bisected by the 75°N parallel, the island called Novaya Zemlya – known to the west as ‘Nova Zembla’ – is, neither figuratively nor literally, warmly regarded. Boasting a mean annual temperature of a balmy 23°F and notable for serving as the testing site for the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated, Nova Zembla was regarded so bleakly by British author William Boyd that, in his 2001 book, Armadillo, he coined the term ‘Zemblanity’ as a previously non-existent antonym for ‘Serendipity;’ in contrast to serendipity meaning ‘the unexpected, coincidental occurrence of lucky events,’ zemblanity means ‘the unexpected, coincidental occurrence of unlucky events.’
Zemblanity is perhaps a nearly-perfect word to describe Nick Swisher’s 2014 campaign. Although, unlike the island, Nick Swisher has not been radioactive hitherto in 2014, nevertheless, entirely like the island, Swisher has been below-freezing. Most applicable of all, however, is the actual definition: Nick Swisher’s season has been zemblanitious in the sense that his presently sub-Mendoza batting average is as the result of terrible luck.
While it’s frequently difficult for baseball fans – people, generally – to accept, the fact is that in all things, results can vary widely without regard to its input processes. In sum, a good approach at the plate infrequently leads to great results, frequently leads to good results, and infrequently leads to poor results. This unlikely situation – that Swisher’s approach has been good but yielded poor results – is precisely what has occurred.
To establish a baseline for how well Swisher’s been swinging the bat, one should wish to look at his plate discipline numbers – if, for instance, he were swinging at more out-of-zone pitches, whiffing more frequently, walking less, or striking out more, then one might conclude that something substantial had changed in Nick Swisher’s offensive profile.
None of this has happened. Nick Swisher is no worse at the plate than he has been at any point in his career. His occasionally hilarious bat-dropping is as indicative of plate discipline as Joe Biden’s manifold gaffes are of an ignorance of foreign policy: they’re memetic by virtue of their oddity but are unreflective of reality. In truth, despite narratives to the contrary, Nick Swisher’s plate discipline numbers are quite steady.
Nick Swisher’s approach at the plate in 2014 has resulted in the same number of strikeouts, walks, and whiffs as in previous years – better, in fact. His plate discipline certainly isn’t eroding. So much for that meme.
Pursuant a different narrative, however, the assertion arises that Nick Swisher’s contact is weaker than in previous years. In addressing this point, one must contend with his Batting Average on Balls in Play. Swisher’s BABIP has been, thus far, .243 (16th worst among qualified hitters) indicates some combination of three things: weak strength of contact, bad luck, or defensive adjustments (i.e.: the shift).
Regarding the Shift
The Shift, gaining particular fame in 2014 by means of its widespread use, has become a trendy explanation for depressed BABIPs. In most cases, this explanation is correct, yet there’s no evidence to suggest that the shift is negatively affecting Nick Swisher. Jeff Zimmerman from FanGraphs compiled a list on May 1st of early shift leaders in 2014 – and Nick Swisher, as of publication, had a BABIP of .500 against the shift, contrasted with a much lower BABIP without the shift.
Certainly, early May results ought be taken with wholly unhealthy amounts of salt. Yet even in 2013, with a full season of shifts, Swisher’s BABIP against the shift was nearly identical to his un-shifted BABIP: .280 with the shift on, .278 without the shift. The shift cannot be used as either a predictive of explanatory reason for Swisher’s low BABIP.
Hence, one is forced to move to the only remaining tangible explanation: skill. The sole skill element of BABIP is strength of contact – the harder a ball is hit, the more difficult it is for defenders to cleanly field it, so the likelier it is that ball in play becomes a hit. To investigate whether Swisher has hit the ball poorly, three possible metrics will be examined.
Line Drive Rate
Line Drive percent is the quickest, easiest, and most accessible method to determine BABIP. Of the three FanGraphs batted ball categories, Line Drives are by far the most likely to fall for hits, with the category of Line Drives in any given year having a BABIP in the range of .600-.700. A below-average line-drive rate would suggest a below-average BABIP, an above-average line drive rate would suggest an above-average BABIP.
Swisher’s Line Drive rate – higher than league average by a substantial margin – suggests that Swisher’s BABIP should be substantially above league average (approximately in the .330 range), whereas in fact, his BABIP is .055 below league average. One might easily assert that Swisher’s speed, slower than league average, would suppress his BABIP. This argument is persuasive; nevertheless, .100 points of BABIP does not disappear due to speed – even Travis Hafner had a career BABIP of .308, burner that he was. Speed is a factor, but rarely is speed a substantial negative factor. Given this skill-dependent metric, one could easily conclude that Swisher’s low BABIP is entirely skill-independent.
If one were to attempt to rebut this, one might suggest that FanGraphs’ Line Drive classification contains a fair amount of ambiguity – on this note, they would be correct. One could easily entertain the thought experiment that Swisher’s line drives are merely softer than the average line drive. The second metric to be examined is the concept of Hard-Hit percentage, the rate at which – unsurprisingly – a ball is stricken with great vigor. This concept and its application to Nick Swisher’s luck is examined in greater detail by ESPN SweetSpot blogger Mark Simon:
Nick Swisher is 6-for-37 over the last two weeks, but this doesn’t appear to be of any fault of his own. Swisher has the second-highest rate of hitting balls hard over that span, registering a hard-hit ball in 13 of his trips to the plate.
But those 13 trips have produced only four base hits. Swisher has been crushing balls into power alleys, but they’ve been tracked down in the gaps by hard-pursuing outfielders.
Swisher’s track record is that he gets base hits when he hits the ball hard about 70 percent of the time. Had he done so here, he’d gave gotten nine hits.
As of the most recent season leaderboard, Nick Swisher was the owner of the 23rd-highest hard-hit percentage in the league – despite its 16th-worst BABIP. Swisher’s putting barrel on ball – his strong contact is simply not resulting in hits.
In the aftermath of the 2013 season, Lonnie Chisenhall became an outcast. After a season in which he hit .225 on the back of a .243 BABIP (identical, incidentally, to Swisher’s current BABIP) despite a line drive rate entirely un-reflective of a BABIP that poor, ostracizing Lonnie became a very popular cause – yet two groups resisted this temptation: first, those who examined the statistics, realizing that his high line drive rate and excellent opposite-field stroke were indicative of a BABIP far better than he was showcasing. Second, those with legitimate scouting eyes noted that the fluency of Chisenhall’s swing that made him such a promising prospect had never left, noting that the contact he was making was still quite strong.
Qualitative analysis is useful insofar as onlookers cast aside pre-conceived notions of a player’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness. With this in mind, this article shall examine the four choicest outs made by Nick Swisher in the two most recent series in St. Petersburg and Toronto (excluding the 5/13 series finale in Toronto).
A straightforward terrible-luck out. Swisher hits the ball hard, he hits it on a line, and directly at a fielder. In any other part of the park, this would have been extra bases. Nope. Instead, Swisher gets an out – and, as a bonus, fodder for his nascent Twitter reputation as a professional baserunner neglector. The hesitation at the end of the .gif represents the hesitation all Cleveland fans should feel at discussing batting average before comparing to BABIP and Line Drive rates and is not at all a production error on the part of the author.
The typical 400-foot out one comes to expect from batters who aren’t hitting the ball as hard as they’re getting paid to. Hit it like this in the gap, it’s an extra-base hit; hit it like this to left or right field, it’s a home run. Hit it to dead center, get accused of strength of contact issues.
The MLB.tv feed cuts out during the actual catch, and onlookers are left to gaze upon Erik Bedard’s bearded, pond’rous visage. Another 350-foot out, another game that Erik Bedard wins effortlessly despite an xFIP of 5.41. Erik Bedard isn’t worried about the looming, grim specter of regression, clearly. He’s just grateful Nick Swisher can’t buy a hit.
Likely the weakest contact of the group. It was a Fliner, neither distinctly a fly ball nor a liner. It still goes 300 feet in the air rather quickly. Solid contact, resulting in an out.
The above four pictures were examples of Swisher’s ability to hit the ball hard – and instances of his very recent propensity to hit them very close to defenders. Hitting balls in play at defenders is not a repeatable skill, nor is it a trend. It’s a fluke of luck – one that might as easily continue as end tonight.
Strength of contact is entirely within a batter’s control. Swisher has control over how hard he has hit the ball, and regardless of medium one chooses to use, he has absolutely hit the ball hard. And not illustrated here but nevertheless entirely true is the fact that Swisher has hit line drives at a very impressive rate. Whether he keeps that trend up is entirely up for debate.
Much less worthy of contention is the concept that Swisher has had bad luck, and the fact that hitters with bad luck tend to regress toward the mean dictated by their line drive rate – earlier in the offseason, an article was written regarding Asdrubal Cabrera’s unfortunate 2013 offensive performance, a downturn fueled by bad BABIP luck. Substantial pushback to this concept arose – based on the idea that Asdrubal Cabrera’s bad plate discipline somehow excepted him from the statistical rules that govern all established major league hitters. The Batting Average proposed based on what his BABIP should have been was .260 – as of publication of this article, Asdrubal’s batting average is .262.
Players regress. As much as Cleveland fans, myself included, love to think that our own players are somehow an exception to the rules of positive regression, such a perception is both defeatist and arrogant. Yan Gomes was never going to hit .300 this year, and Asdrubal Cabrera was not going to continue to hit .242. Regression is a phenomenon that affects all players, Cleveland or otherwise.
Cleveland fans should bear this inexorable fact as they watch Nick Swisher hit. His batting average will not remain under .200 by season’s end. With this start, he’s not hitting .400 on the year, but his BABIP will heat up as the season goes along. Swisher’s season has been the very epitome of zemblanity, thus far, and readers should rest assured that, from this proverbial Nova Zembla of bad BABIP, Nick Swisher will heat up, trekking into the sunlight of serendipity.