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40 in 40: Erik Swanson

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Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

I remember the two moments I was excited about Erik Swanson. The first was at his acquisition, the ~second piece in the return for James Paxton from the Yankees behind headliner Justus Sheffield. Swanson had traits that were and are all the rage in MLB. Near-pure backspin on his fastball that translated to “ride” that deceives hitters and misses bats. I uploaded this very gif December 11, 2018 as I sought to learn more about who would be pitching in place of The Big Maple. I was impressed.

MiLB

The knock then was a concern with the secondaries, as Swanson’s control was then a positive, yet he tended to beat hitters with heat, heat, heat. In the bigs, the heat has gotten hotter but the results haven’t followed consistently. Despite a Yusei Kikuch-esque leap in velo from sitting around 92-93 in 2019 to 95-96 in 2020, as our Michael Ajeto put it last August, Swanson is “So Close, and Yet So Far”:

The thing about Swanson’s fastball is that, aside from raw spin and velocity, it has a lot of good traits. His fastball’s 207-spin axis is nearly optimal, which allows him to throw it with 93.1% active spin that ranks him in the 93rd percentile of all fastballs. That allows him to throw a fastball with a lot of backspin, and really good ride ...

... What’s not so dreamy about him is that his secondaries aren’t very good at all. In fact, they’re quite bad. His slider isn’t necessarily a disservice to him, but it absolutely should not be his best secondary offering. It doesn’t get chases out of the zone (28.9% chase rate), which leads him to to throw it in the zone (47.0% zone rate), which means it doesn’t get many swings and misses (8.7% swinging strike percentage). In the end, that means it’s not a pitch that gets hit hard, but because he can’t get whiffs with it, it doesn’t earn him any strikes ...

... And then there’s his changeup, which I would argue is worse. It’s essentially the same story as his slider. The difference is his slider, by pitch properties, doesn’t seem like it would be as poor of a pitch. His changeup does. In general, I would say that there exists no good changeup in a vacuum. It all depends on the velocity and/or movement differential it gets from one’s respective fastball. For Swanson, it gets none of the above. His changeup has a 7 mph velocity gap from his fastball, which is fine, but not around the 10 mph you would want to see. Horizontally, it gets almost zero separation, and vertically, just four inches (without accounting for gravity). This is all to say that his changeup, as is, is just a really bad, really slow fastball.

At the time, Michael suggested Swanson toss his current off-speed in the woodchipper and start fresh, perhaps with a split-change and/or a 12-6 curveball effort. Either could scarcely be less deceptive than his current fare, which is leaving Swanson in the unenviable position of being Seattle’s new Dan Altavilla. The traits are present for an excellent reliever, with above-average velocity and some deceptiveness, but if Swanson has to rely on throwing fastballs up, again and again, without something to change eye level or miss bats, eventually the ball will leave the yard no matter how much MLB deadens the ball.

The good news is by the end of 2020, we’d seen some slightly varied velocities from Swanson, including a tasty 12+ mph gap between the heat and the change. That was in a helpful sample size of... 12 pitches, and we saw little to drastically shift Swanson’s rep in limited spring outings. The 27 year old will start the year at the Alternate Site, and almost assuredly see time in Seattle. Hopefully the extra month of semi-spring training can allow for more tinkering and refining, because a huge fireballer with a bat-missing heater-changeup combo, even in competent long relief, would be a good outcome at this stage. Swanson simply doesn’t have too many more chances to show he can add to his repertoire. If he does, maybe next time we won’t forget to write a 40 in 40 about him.

Sorry about that Erik. That one was on us.