When Francisco Liriano had shoulder trouble late last May, Anthony Swarzak stepped in to make a couple of starts for him. When Scott Baker had some arm troubles in July, Swarzak was there again. And when Liriano, Baker, and Brian Duensing all hit the shelf in August and September, Swarzak became a regular part of the rotation. In between, he was a fixture in the Twins bullpen, often the first pitcher called on to pitch three or four innings when Minnesota’s starter was knocked out early. Swarzak never dazzled hitters, but he was healthy and reliable – two qualities that the Twins sorely needed last year.
So how good is Anthony Swarzak, and how should the Twins use him going forward?
Let’s start by taking a look back. Swarzak was once considered a very good prospect for the Twins. Taken in the second round of the 2004 draft, he did well in Rookie ball, then had a solid year in 2005 between Beloit and Fort Myers (12-9, 3.89 ERA, 156 strikeouts in 150 innings). That performance was enough for Baseball America to rank him as the 100th best prospect in the game prior to the 2006 season. His numbers even improved a bit in 2006, with a 3.29 ERA and 131 whiffs in 145 innings. In ’07, Swarzak had a succesful introduction to AA, and he looked like a future middle of the rotation starter, consistently ranking in the Top 10 among Twins prospects.
But he hit a wall in the high minors. In 2008 and 2009, his strikeout rates plummeted to 6.3 and 5.1 per nine innings respectively. He got a call-up to the Majors in 2009, but his 3-7 rookie record and 6.25 ERA didn’t really turn any heads. Swarzak spent all of 2010 at Rochester, and that season did not go well: 5-12, 6.21 ERA, 5.56 K/9. Which brings us up to 2011, when Swarzak was a very useful role player on the mound for the Twins.
Swarzak throws the standard four pitch mix: fastball, curveball, changeup, and slider. The fastball averaged 91.3 mph last year – by no means overpowering to a Major League pitcher, but not terrible either. Usually when a pitcher lacks strikeout power, you would like to see a high ground ball rate, but Swarzak has never achieved that. Swarzak had 38.2% grounder rate last year. For comparison, the league average is usually in the low to mid 40s, and Nick Blackburn led the Twins with a 53.5% rate last year. Add it all up, and Swarzak is like a poor man’s Scott Baker, without the strikeouts.
Since Swarzak doesn’t induce a lot of double play balls or easy grounders, he has to rely on his outfield to make outs for him. Believe it or not, this strategy could actually work. Target Field is notoriously tough on homer hitters, so homefield advantage could help keep those frequent fly balls from leaving the yard. Additionally, Ben Revere and Denard Span are slated to occupy two slots in the Twins’ 2012 outfield. Both players are speedy runners with good range and enough talent to rob hitters on a regular basis.
Thus, it would not be a terrible idea for the Twins to let Swarzak compete with Blackburn for the #5 slot in the rotation. Swarzak gave up a lot fewer hits than Blackburn last year (1.34 WHIP vs. Blackburn’s 1.60). Swarzak is also more than three years younger than Blackburn, so there is a lot more potential for Swarzak to mature as a pitcher and improve with some experience. And as mentioned above, Swarzak’s flyball style might actually be better suited to the Twins than Blackburn’s reliance on ground balls. Jamey Carroll may improve the Twins’ infield defense, but it will still be far from elite. Danny Valencia lacks range, and Alexi Casilla has never been able to hold down second base for a full season. The outfielders will almost certainly be more competent at saving runs.
How would Swarzak do in the bullpen? To tell the truth, I do not see Swarzak ever developing into a late inning option. Setup men and closers have to be able to come into the game with men on base in a key situation and induce a double play or a strikeout. The best late inning guys can blow away two or three hitters and squash rallies. Swarzak will never be able to do that, unless he suddenly adds a couple miles per hour to his fastball or figures out a new way to make his slider dance. If Swarzak stays in the bullpen, he will likely stay in the same role he had in 2011: a long reliever who does mopup duty for a few innings at a time and makes occasional starts in emergency situations.
All in all, I think that Swarzak’s best role for the team would be as a starting pitcher. Either way, though, don’t be surprised to see Swarzak rack up a significant number of innings for the Twins next year. He’s never going to be an exciting presence on the mound, but if things go right he could continue to be a very useful pitcher.
(Special thanks to commenter Twinsfaninsaudi for inspiring this post)