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40 in 40: Anthony Swarzak

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It’s an odd-numbered year, so Anthony Swarzak will be just fine

Minnesota Twins v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Anthony Swarzak is a right-handed pitcher.

While you might have come to expect a more hard-hitting entry point of analysis at Lookout Landing, I am compelled to outline that fact in writing at the top. Despite zero evidence to suggest it, Swarzak has an undeniably left-handed pitching name, and just like Jason Hammel, it will take insurmountable evidence to convince my brain otherwise.

With that out of the way, we can address what else Anthony Swarzak is. He’s a 33-year-old two-pitch reliever. He’s coming off the worst season of his career since shifting full-time to the bullpen in 2013-2014. He’s a year removed from the best season of his career, which was the 2016 campaign, split between the White Sox and Brewers, that boosted him from a guy in his early 30s on his second-straight minor league contract to someone the Mets were lauded for signing at two years and $14 million. He’s four years removed from missing over two weeks with a fractured rib after getting into a “friendly” wrestling match with his Twins teammates. Now, after another season limited by injury, Swarzak is in Seattle as a salary dump, seeking to reestablish his value and perhaps earn a plane ticket to a competitive team in July. That’s what the Mariners will hope for, and it’s likely what Swarzak is hoping for as well.

To do so he’ll need a few things that he didn’t have in 2018. Number one? His health.

Swarzak has been a popular snack for the injury bug throughout his career. In addition to a 2010 liner off the foot taking over a month from his season, he’s faced rotator cuff issues in both 2012 and 2016. Those issues sandwiched the aforementioned broken rib, as well as strains to his forearm and ankle in 2014. Perhaps the Giants quit offloading their leftover even-year magic backwash onto Swarzak, because 2018 was a disappointment almost from day one. A left oblique strain sidelined him on April 1st, eventually sending him to the 60-day DL and holding him out until June 5th. It could be pure coincidence, but as oblique strains are known to lead to overcompensation in other areas, it’s no surprise that less than two months later Swarzak hit the DL once more with another bout of shoulder inflammation. He’d return in September, but the final tally on his season was grim.

Normally, a list like this would continue on to highlight a second feature Swarzak was missing in 2018. Unfortunately, everything was absent. The velocity was down, the command regressed, the ability to miss bats plummeted, and the results were predictably poor. Swarzak posted a 6.15/5.48/5.71 ERA/FIP/DRA in 26.1 IP and a career high 12.1% walk rate that counteracted his still-respectable 26.7% strikeout rate. He allowed more hard contact than any season in his career, and while it’s unfortunate that many of those balls left the yard (20.7% of the 29 fly balls he allowed, to be precise), nothing else looked good either. There’s a great deal to look at with Swarzak and think his brilliant 2017 was an outlier, and statistically thus far it is.

But when healthy he can still do this:

That’s from July of 2018, and looks an awful lot like Swarzak from July of 2017, when he was one of the best relievers in all of baseball:

A clear concern was that, on a season-long basis, Swarzak’s whiff rates dropped from an elite 14.0% in 2017 to a below-average 9.0% in 2018. But where Swarzak was remarkably consistent with his velocity in 2017, injuries appeared to sap both his command and velocity for much of the year, and it showed most of all upon his early return from his strained oblique in June.

Month-by-Month Velocity from 2017 and 2018 for Swarzak
BrooksBaseball.net

The velocity isn’t everything, and the sample sizes as always for relievers are too small to be gospel, but it lines up nicely with his results.

FanGraphs

For the Mariners to get more out of Swarzak this year they’ll need a healthy player headed into camp with focus, and as they lack any clear closer or high-leverage relief options, it’s a great chance for him to seize a role. At his best, Swarzak is an Álex Colomé-like force, with wipeout stuff, but he lacks The Horse’s durability.

He’ll also be reunited with former White Sox catcher Omar Narvaez, with whom he has yet to allow an earned run in 18.0 innings of work as a battery. Maintaining that streak is a lofty goal, but so long as his body holds together, Swarzak has a good shot at closing some games for Seattle this spring. If he can manage that, he’ll be well-positioned to be shipped to a playoff contender for a couple low-to-mid-level prospects in July. After all, it’s an odd-numbered year, what’s there to worry about?