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2019 Mariners Exit Interview: Erik Swanson

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Less is more

Minnesota Twins v Seattle Mariners
Erik disappears into his jersey, claiming to be invisible.
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Manager: Thank you for coming in, I wasn’t sure you would show.

Erik Swanson: Why wouldn’t I show?

M: Well, to be straight with you Erik, everyone around the office thinks you’re a liar.

ES: That’s ridiculous!

M: Is it? Let me ask you a question: How many pitches do you throw?

ES: Three. I throw three pitches.

M: You’ve proven my point. [tapping pages against the desk] OK, we’re done here.

ES: I—I threw my fastball (67.7%), my slider (17.7%) and my changeup (14.6%) this season.

M: Huh. Oh, yes, I see that now in your file. I’m sorry. What I meant to say was good pitches.

ES: Oh. [rubbing back of neck, glancing at shoetops] Just the one then, yeah.

M: I appreciate the candor. Let’s get into this, Erik. I’m going to paint for you the big picture breakdown of your year with the organization and, at the end, I want you to tell me, in detail, why you should keep your job and your benefits—and I don’t want to hear the “I have a family” spiel. Trust me when I say I’ve heard that no less than fourteen times this year.

ES: You’re going to fire me? I thought—

M: That’s a great start Erik but save it for the end. OK, so you came over in the Paxton trade, yes? That was a big trade. Paxton is a big person. You are also a big person. Naturally, similarities were drawn. When you were acquired, the expectations were that you were a major league ready back-end starting pitcher. The scouting report said you had a live fastball, decent control, and two serviceable secondary pitches. We started you out in AAA, where you made one start, struck out 8 in 5 innings very nice, and then made your major league debut. You want to explain what happened?

ES: I threw two innings in relief on April 11th against Kansas City and—

M: Were terrible.

ES: Sure. Though technically I struck out 4, so.

M: Fine. After that we moved you into the rotation, as we’d planned. Erik please believe me I take almost no joy when I tell you this: you were bad. We tried it. We really did. You had a great first start in Cleveland, went 6 innings, then you completely collapsed for four starts, couldn’t strike anyone out, gave up hard contact, and then, somehow, had another great game against Cleveland. So that brings me to my question.

ES: Yes?

M: What is it about Cleveland?

ES: Greatest city in the world.

M: This is why no one trusts you. However, even including those, through your first six starts, you gave up eleven home runs. Eleven. In six starts. Eleven.

ES: The balls, were—sure, OK—but they are juiced, you know.

M: Even still, you had a 6.89 K/9, an xFIP over 5, and your ERA couldn’t sleep because it was too excited to finally be starting the Third Grade.

ES: [staring blankly into the far wall]

M: It was 8.

ES: Got it.

M: [thumbing through file] Your pitch mix was more balanced as a starter, I see, yet it wasn’t enough to handle a lineup turning over.

[passing paper across desk]

Fangraphs

Your ERA the second time through the order was 11.85. It seems the more hitters saw you, the worse you became. We decided, it wasn’t easy up here trust me, to transition you into a reliever. You rewarded our daring and conciliatory decision by putting on a damn dinger parade. All your FIPs and whatnot were in the mid-5s in AAA. You struck out over 10 per 9—which we were hoping to see—but somehow walked 12 batters in only 24.1 innings. You don’t have that kind of stuff, Erik.

ES: Then why call me up?

M: You ever been desperate, Erik? You ever felt the weight of expectations and disappointment of hundreds of thousands resting heavy atop your weary shoulders? We were willing to try anything. So. Up you come in July. We stick you as an opener, then, later, in the bullpen. The end of the year is a blur, we barely see you at the office, you’re in, you're out, you go home. Frankly half the staff forgot you were here until we wrote the checks.

ES: Great.

M: In all, you finish out the year in the 2nd percentile in exit velocity allowed, negative WAR, below average in K%, and your 37% ground ball rate helps to explain your laughable 23% home run fly ball rate. And that’s it. That’s what I have for you. You failed as a starter, failed in AAA, and ended the year a well below average pitcher whose greatest strength is throwing a decent fastball (real original) and not walking people. Now I will give you a moment to explain why you should keep your job, I’ll fire you, and then we can move on with our lives.

ES: Wait. Let me see those papers.

[M slides the file to ES]

ES: OK, yeah. I struggled, but remember, I’m a rookie. If I recall you gave Sheffield all the chances to stick at starter. And talk about having one pitch—

M: Whoa there Erik.

ES: Too far? Yeah. But here’s the thing: I didn’t ask to be put in the bullpen but damn if I didn’t answer the freaking bell. Like this page, here.

Fangraphs

M: I cannot read that.

ES: It says that as a reliever I improved on every single fault I had as a starter. All my results improved, my K rate, my xFIP is down below 4. Serviceable.

M: All I see is a .211 BABiP and an almost 90% left on base.

ES: And this?

Baseball Savant

M: Erik that is all well and good but you not getting your ass kicked for 24 innings doesn’t tell me much.

ES: Hold on [spreading a chart out on the table]. OK, so my average velocity for all pitches went up 1 MPH. Maybe that’s not much, but look at this.

Baseball Savant

As a reliever my spin rate on all my pitches improved. Especially my changeup. You want to see what I did with my changeup?

M: No one is interested in your little changeup, Erik.

ES: I changed my release point in August, maybe you didn’t notice.

Brooks Baseball

But that small shift changed the game for me. My changeup was coming out at two MPH faster with over 6 more inches of vertical movement! And that led to a 33% changeup whiff rate in August and, to your earlier point, my groundball rate?

Brooks Baseball

Since I made the change in my release and added 300 RPMs to my changeup, it’s been giving me those ground balls and I’ve thrown it to lefties and righties equally now. I have a video.

M: You have a video?

ES: I have a video.

M: How did you get a video?

ES: As you can see...

MLB/Erik Swanson’s iPhone

This is an 88 MPH change up that breaks down and away. It breaks late.

M: An 88 MPH change up is not a good thing, Erik.

ES: Except it is good if, like after my adjustment in August, you can get late break on the pitch the opposite direction of the fastball. And even better if, like I have, you’ve got a well-above-average fastball to changeup tunnel. All the other tunnels are mediocre, but since I paired their release points, the tunnel has been outstanding as they are separated by only 1.16in at the decision point, the average is 1.54in. At the decision point the change darts down and the fastball, which has well above average vertical movement according to statcast, keeps riding. Now I get ground balls and whiffs with a pitch that was previously “bad.”

M: [begins slow clap]

ES: And if you isolate my performance as a reliever and stretch it to a full season I would have ended with nearly the same line as the Angels’ reliever Ty Buttrey.

M: Heh.

ES: Buttrey.

M: Yeah. Buttrey.

ES: We had nearly identical K% and BB%, our slash lines almost directly in line, and both of us relied on a fastball-heavy arsenal. Ty Buttery was a 1.4 WAR reliever. We’re even the same age! Would you cut Ty Buttery?

M: Heh.

ES: Heh.

M: OK, OK. Very good, that’s all great. Just let me hone in on your, uh, thesis here today: You’re saying that you perform better the less you perform?

ES: I suppose.

M: That we should continue paying you the same amount for half the amount of work?

ES: The contract is guaranteed, so I don’t see—

M: Can you imagine, me walking up to my boss and saying, Excuse me, sir, I decided I am taking Mondays and Tuesdays off from now on because the less I do the better things seem to go. And, please, sir, a raise would be swell! Please, my lord, may I have some less?

ES: That’s not my voice, you did a kind-of British voice.

M: Why should I believe that you can keep this up? That a few more RPMs, a bit more break, and some shiny results, are enough to keep you around?

ES: Because your team is bad, you don’t have other options, and I might be useful.

M: Wow. Sold. Very well, Erik, you are not fired.

ES: I wasn’t expecting to be.

M: In fact, we might revisit the whole “rotation” thing with this changeup.

ES: Sure.

M: Thank you for your time, and, uh, Keon Broxton is in the hall, you can send him in.

ES: Want me to have someone grab his file?

M: [pulling out a single batting glove from the desk] No need, Erik.