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.