Nick Swisher wasn’t supposed to be this good, at least not as far as Ozzie Guillen and the Chicago White Sox were concerned. Swisher broke into the majors with the Oakland Athletics, where he thrived in his first three seasons, posting wOBAs of .331, .368 and .361, respectively. In 2008, his fourth full season, he found himself on Chicago’s South Side, where he struggled. His OPS+ fell from 126 to 92, his wOBA fell from .361 to .325, and Nick himself fell into Brian Cashman’s lap.
The White Sox’s brass must have never heard of BABIP. If they had, they would have known that at least some of Swisher’s poor 2008 was due to a drop in BABIP from .301 in 2007 to .249 in 2008. Other factors certainly led to his one-season decline, but that piece of analysis alone would have helped Chicago value him better. To the delight of Yankee fans everywhere, the ChiSox didn’t do their homework and sold low on Nick. Brian Cashman picked him up for Wilson Betemit and never looked back.
Ironically, the Yankees themselves didn’t even know what they had. Swisher was originally tabbed to be a backup. He didn’t have a permanent home in the starting lineup until Xavier Nady went down with an injury. After that, Swisher delivered. In his first season with the Yankees he hit .249/.371/.498 with 29 homers, good for a .375 wOBA and a 122 OPS+. Nick struggled mightily, however, in the playoffs. His October wOBA fell to .234, and Joe Girardi saw it fit to bench him a game in the World Series.
Swisher dedicated his offseason between 2009 and 2010 to working on his swing with Kevin Long so he could learn from his October mistakes. Swisher came back with a new swing, and new results. Previously he’d had an open stance and would move his body when he stepped into the box. In many ways the first Yankee to get the K-Long treatment, Swisher’s 2010 swing was closed, more compact, and calmer. He was the first, but not the last, Yankee to rest the bat on his shoulder.
Here’s where fact and myth begin to separate. The myth is that the new and improved Swisher was a significant upgrade over his already impressive 2009 self. The facts are captured in the table below:
Swisher certainly changed his approach in 2010, but it’s not so clear that the results were an improvement. He hit the same number of home runs, and improved his power a bit overall, but he sacrificed discipline to do it. He started swinging and connecting more frequently. The end result was that his walk rate plummeted while his strikeout rate remained the same. He received an assist from a career-high BABIP of .335, substantially higher than his career average of .286 but not all of that was luck. Some of that was because his 2010 swing rate was considerably higher than his career rate of 39.6%. When a player of Swisher’s caliber busts out a new swing, and uses it more than he ever has before, his BABIP will naturally increase.
While the fans and media embraced the new look Nick Swisher in 2010 as an improved player, the numbers are mixed. His OPS+ increased considerably, but that probably has more to do with the overall decline in offense in baseball in 2010 than anything else. His wOBA was virtually unchanged between seasons, indicating a trade-off between power and discipline that broke even. To the extent that Swisher was a better player overall in 2010 according to WAR, it was probably due to the already mentioned comparative decrease in league-wide power in 2010 and Swisher’s improved defense.
MARCEL is projecting a decline in 2011 for Swisher. His wOBA is projected to decline from .377 to .352. As a result, his homers are projected to fall to 24 on the back of a .245/.345/.462 slash line. Although good, all of these would be new lows for Swisher as a Yankee. There are two probable culprits for this projection. The first has been pointed out several times so far in the blogosphere: 2008. Like Robinson Cano before him, Swisher performed badly only a couple seasons ago. That poor performance continues to influence his projections. The second culprit is that career high in BABIP. MARCEL is forecasting Swisher’s BABIP to fall to .291 this season, which is much closer to his career norm.
Despite these well-reasoned inputs, MARCEL’s projection seems conservative. It forecasts Swisher to have an increased walk rate in 2011 of 11.8% but a decreased OBP of .345. That seems unlikely. Even his swing-happy 2010 incarnation posted a .359 OBP. In 2009 his OBP was .371 on a BABIP of .272, lower than what MARCEL is forecasting for this year. If the forecast is accurate, Swisher should at least figure to improve upon his 2010 OBP as his average returns back to its career range.
Factoring the improved OBP into Swisher’s 2011 forecast should improve his projected numbers across the board. The end result would be a slight regression from his exciting 2010, but an AVG in line with his career numbers and at least a stable OBP with, perhaps, a regression in power. While that seems reasonable (and would get the job done), the truth of the matter is that Swisher is a difficult player to forecast because he changed his approach so dramatically last season. In all respects 2010 would look like an outlier if Swisher’s tinkering with Long wasn’t so well-documented.
The real question, therefore, isn’t whether or not Swisher’s forecast is accurate but whether or not his increased BABIP last season is repeatable thanks to that new swing and, if it isn’t, whether or not Swisher can adjust in-season. If it weren’t for that 2008 performance the natural answer would be yes, Nick Swisher will find a way to have a good season, no matter what. Unfortunately he has that blemish on his resume and, unlike Robinson Cano, he improved his stats in 2010 on the back of material changes in his game. In light of this, the safe bet is that Swisher can be penciled in for a season that is slightly better than his MARCEL forecast but not much better than his 2009, at least until he shows that his new approach can be successful at least one more time.
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