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Free Agent Reliever Target — Anthony Swarzak

Anthony Swarzak could help lengthen the Pirates’ bullpen.
Photo from Getty Images

A week ago, Kevin asked me what I thought of the idea of the Pirates signing Tommy Hunter. The 31 year old right-hander is coming off a strong season for the Rays and had a great run with Baltimore a few years prior, but the current free agent market is flooded with good relievers. Someone will slip through the cracks, and Hunter’s back injury in 2016 may make him the baby that’s being thrown out with the bathwater.

I like Hunter, but I told Kevin that I had someone else in mind: Anthony Swarzak. Swarzak came on my radar around the trade deadline last year, and the 32 year old righty threw some quality high-leverage innings for the Brewers down the stretch. He has great swing and miss stuff, but a sketchy history is going to hurt his market. Just about every prognostication of the winter has him signing a contract similar to what Daniel Hudson got last year (2 year/$11M). I think he’s going to be the steal of the offseason.

This was a little surprising for me because Kevin and I have a knack for finishing each other’s baseball tangents. Picking two different guys in a free agent class with dozens of pitchers is hardly surprising, but we’ve landed on the same guy before. So I took a look at Hunter and compared him to Swarzak. What I found was Hunter and Swarzak are basically the same pitcher.

Let’s take a look at last year’s stats. Hunter finished with a 2.61 ERA. Swarzak’s was 2.33. Both of them got groundballs at a 44 percent clip and held batters to an average just above the Mendoza line (.208 for Swarzak, .202 for Hunter). Hunter’s heater has an extra tick on it (96.3 MPH average vs 94.7), but Swarzak did a better job striking out batters (10.59 K/9 compared to 9.82). They each had a very noticeable jump in strikeouts this past year, with both averaging less than 6 per nine in their careers entering 2017.

But what makes the connection downright odd is both pitchers attack batters the exact same way. Both are going to attack their gloveside part of the plate. It doesn’t matter if a lefty or righty is batting: three out of every five pitches are going to that side of the plate, and batters can’t hit it.

While they’re unbelievably similar in comparison, which one is the better fit for the Bucs?

I am already on the record for saying I would like the Pirates’ bullpen to throw more sliders. Swarzak is my kind of guy, throwing more snappers than heaters last year (51.5% vs. 48.5%, according to Fangraphs). That’s a radical departure of his days as a failed starter. Back then, roughly two out of every three pitches was a fastball. He was predictable and didn’t miss a lot of bats, so he adapted.

The change worked, as he posted a 14.2% swinging strike rate in 2017, which is good for 32nd among qualified relievers and fourth among his free agent class (Hunter finished 97th with a rate of 11.5%). A lot of those swings and misses came out of the zone, with batters chasing 34.4 percent of the time and making contact at a 55.9% clip (the league averages this last year were 30.5% and 60.2%). That has “slider running away from the right-handed batter” written all over it.

But even though he throws it often, his slider is not other-worldly. It still got a whiff 17.2 percent of the time according to Baseball Savant, but batters hit .274 against it. What made it so effective was it did fantastic job setting up his fastball.

Fangraphs weighted run model for fastballs (wFB) said it was 16.9 runs above the average pitch last year. 608 different players threw a fastball in relief this past season. Swarzak’s finished sixth out of those 608. That heater was better than 99% of the league. The five guys who bested him? Ryan Madson, Chad Greene, Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel and Matt Albers. Or to look at it a more traditional way: batters slugged .252 against his four-seamer last year. By comparison, Felipe Rivero’s four-seamer was worth 9.4 runs with hitters slugging .274 against it.

My only real concern with Swarzak going forward is whether or not the league will institute a pitch clock. I don’t know if slowing down on the mound had a positive effect on Swarzak, but he averaged 27.7 seconds between pitches last year, which is a good four or five seconds longer than earlier in his career. If he is forced to speed up again, it could be trouble.

But I’m not going to let a potential rule change damper my optimism for him. I already said I think Swarzak is going to be the steal of this free agent class. If he does sign a Hudson-esque deal, the worst case scenario is he becomes an expensive but not back-breaking inning eater. If 2017 was a sign of things to come, he and Rivero would be one of the most dominant 8-9 inning tandems in the league.

About Alex Stumpf (66 Articles)
<p>Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.</p>
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24 Comments on Free Agent Reliever Target — Anthony Swarzak

  1. Kevin, thanks for the well-researched article. Didn’t know much about Swarzak until now. He sounds like a possibility for the Pirates.

    You mentioned the possibility of a pitch clock being implemented. Haven’t heard any serious talk about it unless I missed something.

    • Kevin Creagh // November 21, 2017 at 8:45 AM // Reply

      Ha, it was actually Alex’s article. I just changed the byline. He’s sick so he sent it via Twitter DM, which I had to copy and paste. That was a first for me. But yes, he’s big on Swarzak. I have a counterpoint/rebuttal, whatever, about my guy Tommy Hunter coming later this week.

  2. mark delsignore // November 21, 2017 at 8:59 AM // Reply

    I dont know this guy from the man in the moon but on paper he sounds like a fit for the Pirates pen and a definite upgrade. And at $5MM a year, we can afford him with the BAMTECH money for sure.

    Regardless of this guy or similar, this is where the Prates need to spend their money if they are not having a December fire sale — in the bull pen — to get as many helpers as possible for Riviero and for our starters who like to go 5 innings or less.

    You stated it yourself Alex, “the current free agent market is flooded with good relievers.” This will be good for a team like the Pirates as the price for these guys will me, relatively speaking, low.

    • Unless they trade a few prospects away to get someone to take Hudson away, they are not bringing on another $5 million/year reliever.

      That BAMTECH money will be kept to make up for the plummeting attendance.

      • mark delsignore // November 21, 2017 at 9:49 AM // Reply

        I am just trying to help…..

      • Next year’s attendance will have no effect on the team’s payroll budget. Nor will they pocket money with the upcoming negotiation of a new local television rights deal with AT & T (formerly Root and now part of Direct TV). You must think that Bob Nutting got to be a billionaire by being stupid if you believe what you are saying. He’s tight-fisted, not stupid.

        • Huh?

          • Bob Stover // November 21, 2017 at 3:11 PM //

            Nutting is spending a ton of money to upgrade Seven Springs and Camelback to generate more snow. They’ve had two disappointing ski seasons in a row and have lost money. They are spending to make it better. I say that same strategy is what Nutting will do with the Pirates. He’s not an idiot, he’s just cheap. It would be extremely penny-wise and pound foolish to cut the Pirates payroll the next couple of years when it would kill ratings and his negotiating leverage for a new local rights deal.

            Does that explain it any better for you? If not, then I say DUH to your HUH?

          • Fish Monger // November 21, 2017 at 3:53 PM //

            That snarky reply at least makes it clear, but I’ve come to expect that from you.

            The team has publicly tied attendance to payroll for a decade.

            If you don’t think attendance is linked to payroll you haven’t been paying attention. Payroll on Opening Day 2018 will be lower than Opening Day 2017.

            I may be wrong in the end, but the 2 cases of beer you still owe me speaks to my track record, at least when disagreeing with you.

  3. On the other hand, Swarzak could be the next Hudson-flop. Hudson was coming off two pretty decent years with the D-Backs when he arrived in the Burgh. He’s been an abysmal bust so far. Why would a tight-fisted club like the Pirates gamble $11 million on a guy like that when they have a ton of young arms that will probably come close to the same results for a heck of a lot less money. I’m not against the Pirates gambling some money in the FA market, but not on a relief pitcher. To me the bullpen is or ought to be one of their lowest priorities this winter.

    • By way of reference, look at the Sunday Post-Gazette from about two weeks ago when Nutting announced that they are going to spend a butt load of money up on the mountain to increase their snow-making capacity for skiers due to two poor seasons in a row. He’s spending money to combat declining attendance at the ski resorts, not pulling back. The man knows how to make money and he won’t run his investment in the Pirates into the ground because a couple hundred thousand fair weather fans decide to stay home.

    • mark delsignore // November 21, 2017 at 12:17 PM // Reply

      “To me the bullpen is or ought to be one of their lowest priorities this winter.”

      Yeah….right Bob.

      Bull pen is where the most FA’s are and therefore supply might outweigh demand meaning — affordability for the Pirates.

      Also, bullpen is key for a team like the Pirates who a) do not have enough position players with high OPS and slugging to affect wins and therefore b)need a way to make up for that.

      OPS/Slugging and Team ERA are the two largest predictors/indicators/after the fact measurements/(i dont care what you call them ) of team wins. We agree team wins are a good thing….yeah?

      Trying to better your slugging/OPS will cost you a lot of money for FA’s. Executing very shrewd trades requires a willingness to part with prospects. Neither of these tactics seem to be a strong suit recently for TBMTIB.

      Furthermore, TBMTIB seems to be comfortable in trolling the relief pitching market.

      For all those reasons, that is why I suggested the “bettering the bullpen” route as a #1 priority.

      • I respect your opinion, I just don’t agree with it. I think that the Pirates need one impact new bat in that lineup, and some better health by several other guys that had injurious seasons in 2017 to get dramatically better in 2018.

        If you take Ty-Glass and Hudson out of the equation, that runs allowed per game in 2017 gets a lot better looking. If you add in Rivero as the full season closer instead of a half season of ineffective Tony Watson, that bullpen looks even better. If you take out eight weeks of cancer impaired results for Taillon, better yet. So you see where I’m going and why I think that the bullpen is not a high priority.

        Not saying I’d hate a nice FA pick-up for the bullpen if someone happens to fall down cost-wise due to the supply and demand dynamics for relievers, but I don’t think spending $5.5 million for Swarzak is the way to go either. If they’re going to spend $5.5 million per year on a FA they’d be better off with the Pittsburgh Kid.

        • mark delsignore // November 21, 2017 at 7:16 PM // Reply

          They are not getting the Pittsburgh kid for $5M
          That is my whole point Bob

          I, too, want a better solution for 3rd base and some general OPS punch added to the lineup but it is too expensive because supply is low and we have no internal options.

          That is the whole problem and that is the crux of my rant on building the best damn bullpen in all of major league baseball

          • Bob Stover // November 22, 2017 at 8:46 AM //

            Our track record in betting notwithstanding, you have no idea whether or not the Pirates are going to be cutting payroll for opening day 2018. Coonelly and N.H. both did a presser in which they denied that. The Pirates increased opening day payroll every year from 2010 to 2014 with no regard to attendance figures from the preceding season. Whether the team adds at the deadline may well be influenced by attendance and the team’s performance, but not opening day payroll.

            Regarding the bullpen vs. regular position debate, there are solutions that can found via a trade. None of us knows who might be available and at what price from other teams. Jonah Kerli at Sports Illustrated thinks that Cutch is worth a lot more in trade than most people on this blog. So, if the Pirates have decided to trade him, he can bring back a middle infielder.

            I think that the Pirates pitching staff is adequate as is. Could they use another arm? Certainly. But will they spend another $5 million when Hudson was such a dud? Doubtful. A lot the Pirates problems with runs allowed last year were not a direct result of a poor bullpen. Health issues all over the diamond, including Jaso and Frazier in the outfield, injuries to Cervelli, etc., cost them runs from purely defensive deficiencies. I’m just nowhere near as convinced as you that the Pirates need to do anything with the bullpen.

  4. Pathetic that the talk regarding this sub .500 team, severely trending downward for the last three years, and playing in a division with the Cubs, Cardinals, and an all of a sudden coming of age Brewers team, is about how we need to acquire a no name relief pitcher. The other teams in our division are linked to top free agents, and I’m supposed to buy this bull…that building up our relief corps is going to bridge the gap with the contenders in the division? Please!

    Somewhere, Nutting is smiling like a butcher’s dog at how well he’s tamed the baseball masses in this city.

    • Kevin Creagh // November 23, 2017 at 7:33 AM // Reply

      Here’s the list of players on the Astros who made $20M+ in 2017 —……none
      Here’s the list of players the Astros signed as FA’s last offseason — Charlie Morton 2 yr/$14M, Josh Reddick 4 yr/$52M, Carlos Beltran 1 yr/$16M. That’s it.

      The name of the game today is a strong bullpen. The Astros have “no names” like Will Harris and Chris Devenski and Luke Gregorson providing connective tissue to Ken Giles and lessening the need for their shaky rotation (outside of Keuchel, before they got Verlander).

      The Yankees were rebuilding this year and not expected to make the playoffs again. It was on the strength of a dominant bullpen that made up for a terrible rotation. Chapman and Robertson are names, but “no names” like Adam Warren and Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle were just as vital.

      Strong bullpens are the best way for teams to build wins on limited investments.

      And players like Swarzak and Hunter (tomorrow’s article) are only no-names if you don’t follow baseball outside of the Pirates.

      • Kevin….would the Astros have won it all and they not acquired Justin Verlander? They were tanking when that acquisition was made. Is the Astros young nucleus something that the Pirates can replicate? Do you seriously think that this team, seriously trending downward for the last 3 years, with the strong competition in their division, can bridge the gap by taking a chance on a free agent relief pitcher?

        No one is saying relief pitching isn’t important, especially for a team on the brink of contention (that is not the Pirates situation my friend). No one is saying you need a $20M player (although spending up to mlb average payroll for the right pieces would significantly help! which you seem to deny by your commentary). You mischaracterize my argument.

        Finally, I follow baseball Dude. Swarzak is not a well known name, as much as you might think it is. The people on the mlb network were discussing him today as being a good option “for the right team” today, even though “he isn’t well known”. Not making that up. Please sell your innuendo to someone who doesn’t know any better.

    • mark delsignore // November 23, 2017 at 10:07 AM // Reply

      ” The other teams in our division are linked to top free agents, and I’m supposed to buy this bull…that building up our relief corps is going to bridge the gap with the contenders in the division? ”

      It is not “bull”, Jim
      It is fact

      In addition to the teams that Kevin mentions, the Indians had a phenomenal bull pen the year they were one pitch away from winning it all. Ans they had “no names” in addition to Miller.

      I am not saying that it is a cure-all but there is a large supply of major league relievers and therefore the Pirates can play in this market.

      Every team will be looking to do this by the way.

      • Mark…you’ve bought into the organizations mindset. Every offseason they sell cheap. This season it’s “we can compete with a good bullpen”.

        Unfortunately, there is so much more that goes into winning than just a strong bullpen! Otherwise, all teams could win on the cheap. The teams being bandied about (Houston, Yanks) are teams on the rise who can fill in the final piece of the puzzle with “just” a strong bullpen. This is something the author of the article overlooks, even though it’s obvious. The Pirates are a team in decline, NOT on the rise.

  5. Looks like Pittsburgh’s bullpen was statistically stronger than Houston’s during the regular season 2017. Seems like Pittsburgh had better “connective tissue” during the season.

    Some help it was!

    https://www.covers.com/pageloader/pageloader.aspx?page=/data/mlb/statistics/2017/bullpenstatistics_mlb_regular.html

  6. I could see the Pirates going after Hunter or Swarzak. However, what makes them attractive to Bucs should lead to interest from lots of teams.

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