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40 in 25: Erik Swanson

Can a change in pitch mix help Erik Swanson stop giving up so many meatballs?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Seattle Mariners
Erik Swanson, seen here eyeing up a hot dish fresh out of the oven
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not impossible to recover from a bad first impression, but it does raise the difficulty level to “expert.” Knock over a glass of water when the waiter is halfway through reciting the specials, run into your new boss while on a sweats-and-unbrushed-hair grocery store run, confess your distaste of anime on a first date only to have your companion raise their shirtsleeve to show a lovingly detailed Goku tattoo; all these things can likely be overcome, with sufficient time and effort. The problem for a major league reliever is you’re not always given the time you need to come correct, and sometimes no matter how much effort you expend, it’s not always enough.

Erik Swanson came to Seattle as a part of the James Paxton trade that signaled the beginning of Seattle’s don’t-call-it-a-rebuild in the 2018-2019 offseason, and Mariners fans’ first impressions of him—beyond being the cost of their beloved Big Maple—was Swanson entering a game in early April against the Royals assigned to protect a one-run deficit and instead giving up back-to-back doubles and a single to let the Royals pull ahead by three. The Mariners would come back and win that game in ten innings thanks to some Vogelbachian heroics, but the first-impression damage was done. The Mariners tried moving Swanson into the rotation, as the back-end starter he was projected to be, but his stuff simply did not fool major league hitters multiple times through the order, and by the end of the season, it was pretty clear the bullpen would be Swanson’s long-term home. Even a seven-game scoreless innings streak to close out the season wasn’t enough to undo the sour first taste of his early-season struggles, landing Swanson with an FIP pushing 6 and an unsightly HR/FB rate of 23%.

Swanson only tossed seven innings in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, dealing with a forearm strain, and although he was able to boost his strikeout rate modestly (to a respectable 24.3%) while maintaining solid command of his walks, the homer issue persisted. Victim of a small sample size, perhaps, but three homers allowed in under eight innings is bad no matter how you slice it. Swanson was also held off the field in 2021, dealing with a groin strain that kept him shelved from late May until early July. Encouragingly, over a slightly larger sample size of 35 innings, Swanson’s 2020 numbers normalized; he struck out exactly the same percentage of batters he did in 2020, although walked quite a few more (still a fairly moderate 7%), and saw his ERA regress down to a single digit number (and one that starts with a 3, even), with an FIP of around 4. Most importantly, that noisy HR/FB% fell all the way down to under 10%, suggesting a pitcher who may still be homer-prone, but not unplayably so.

But the damage to Swanson’s reputation was done in by those early outings—just check Mariners Twitter when he enters a game late and close, a veritable sea of NOOOOOO reaction images—and hasn’t been helped out this spring by a recent appearance against the Rangers where he surrendered a double and two home runs to almost blow what should have been an easy Mariners win. It would appear that at least this spring, the homer monster is back, and it is hungry.

Since moving to the bullpen, Swanson has adjusted his pitch mix since his days as a starter, and even more so in recent years. He ditched his changeup and introduced a split finger in 2020, which he threw about on par with his slider in 2021, giving him a mix that’s roughly 20% sliders, 20% splitties, and 60% fastballs. It’s that fastball, though, that’s the problem. In 2021, batters hit .250 against his four-seam, which is middling-good, but they slugged .500 against it, which is moredling-bad, and especially when that’s the pitch you’re throwing almost two-thirds of the time. It’s frustrating, because it should be a better pitch; Swanson’s four-seam has elite, near-perfect 99% active spin, giving it excellent riding action. It should work. It should work! And yet, for whatever reason, batters see this pitch and their eyes pop out of their heads like the Pizza Hut worker just put out a fresh dessert pizza on the buffet (#90sKidsThings):

It turns out that good, but not elite, velocity + elite riding action only does so much when the pitch winds up in the middle of the plate. Ah, but when it is at the top of the plate but curls in a little? Welp, it also gets punished (and this is Martín Maldonado, not exactly known as an offensive threat). Okay, but what if it’s at the top of the zone but away from a batter, and also that batter is Pull King Joey Gallo? Well grab a Duff and a donut, because we’re still in Homer Country, pals. And okay, it’s not a high fastball in the zone, it’s just a straight-up shitty pitch, but remember when Jonah Heim walked it off twice in a row against the Mariners? That second time was also a Swanson meatball special, and yes, I’m still mad about it.

One possible culprit for these crummy results is that even though the fastball has elite characteristics, it doesn’t play nice with the rest of his arsenal. Pitches pair most nicely as mirror images of one another, so ideally the slider would come in more at the 7 or 8:00 part of the dial, keeping the hitter guessing later about whether the pitch would be riding up or tailing out, and hopefully inducing some uglier hacks. As it seems, batters can either ambush him early in the count or wait until he falls behind and sit fastball and then take their best cut against it.

So instead of featuring the fastball, maybe what Swanson needs is a good old fashioned case of pitching backwards. In the future, less bad fastballs please, more hoisting Shohei with his own petard:

Shohei getting a taste of his own splitfinger medicine

Familiarity breeds contempt, and no other relationship is the same as the strained intimacy a fan feels with a middling-to-bad reliever probably no other baseball fan recognizes but who creates such a visceral distaste that you catch yourself being a little meaner to people who share the name (“you sure you got all that, Bobby?” “Have a great day, Brandon”). Swanson’s poor first impression, for a team with no legitimate hopes of making it to the post-season, can be papered over if he adjusts and becomes the pitcher he’s shown flashes of over the 2021 season, helping the new-look Mariners lock away wins late into games. If he continues down the path of mop-up man with an unfortunate propensity to give up homers, though, not even queen Olivia Pope herself could rehabilitate his image.