Erik Swanson Hails From Fargo and Is Excelling in Toronto

Erik Swanson
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Erik Swanson has quietly emerged as a top-shelf reliever. Since the beginning of last season, the 29-year-old right-hander has made 75 appearances — 57 last year with Seattle and 18 this year with Toronto, who acquired him along with Adam Macko in exchange for Teoscar Hernández — and boasts a 1.64 ERA and a 2.18 FIP. Moreover, he’s allowed just 46 hits and fanned 93 batters in 71.1 innings. Thanks in part to one of baseball’s best splitters, his K-rate over that span is a robust 34.7%; with the Blue Jays this season, it’s an even higher 35.4%.

His path to Canada’s largest city was circuitous. Born in Fargo, North Dakota, Swanson proceeded to “bounce around a little bit growing up,” eventually landing in suburban Cincinnati where he graduated from Mariemont High School. From there it was on to Mount Carmel, Illinois, where he attended Wabash Valley Community College — “one of my only options for baseball” — and then to Council Bluffs, where he spent his sophomore year at Iowa Western Community College. It was at the last of those stops where he began to blossom as a pitcher. The Texas Rangers selected the raw but promising youngster in the eighth round of the 2014 draft.

More moves were afoot. Texas subsequently swapped Swanson to the Yankees in August 2016 as part of the Carlos Beltrán deal, and in November 2018, he was shipped from New York to Seattle in a trade involving James Paxton. The latter move went a long way toward shaping his future. A handful of months into his 2019 rookie season — his MLB debut came that April — Swanson was switched from a starter to a full-time reliever. Even more impactful was a suggestion he received from Seattle’s then-bullpen coach Jim Brower.

“He told me to think about throwing the splitter and pairing that up with my fastball,” Swanson said. “My changeup hadn’t been very good. A lot of guys were shutting it down right out of the hand, and I was also having a tough time throwing it in the zone. So I started messing around with grips after the 2019 season. The splitter changed the course of my career.”

It took time for Swanson to develop what is now his signature pitch. The COVID-19 pandemic shutting down spring training in 2020 just as he was getting a feel for it was one hurdle to overcome. His anatomy was another.

“I’ve got really small hands,” he admitted. ”Initially, I was having a lot of pain [below the crook of the pointer and middle fingers] because I couldn’t get around the baseball very well. It definitely wasn’t a good pitch from the get-go.”

North Dakota backroads provided a panacea. Swanson had moved back to Fargo in 2015 — his family had previously relocated when he was six years old — and spent many hours of his offseason driving around in his pickup truck with a baseball tucked between his fingers, stretching them out. The increased flexibility improved the comfortability of his new splitter grip, the genesis of which was a video clip of a now-Blue Jays teammate.

“One of the guys I watched when I was trying to figure it out was Kevin Gausman, who was with the Giants at the time,” Swanson said. “I watched a video where he explained his grip, I started holding it similar to the way he does, and from there it kind of just clicked.

“Initially, I’d tried to use a traditional splitter grip, but my hands just couldn’t do it. I ended up bringing [the pinky and ring fingers] up on the side. They’re together with [the middle finger]. Then I’m just kind of running the two seams and getting around it a little bit. Gausman’s is similar to that. but he’s got bigger hands than I do, so he’s actually able to curl [his index finger] a little bit. I don’t do that. He’s also got the one seam that comes down the middle, and I’ve got the two seams that comes down the middle.”

Asked how Swanson’s and his pitches compare, Gausman, who arguably possesses the game’s best splitter, pointed both to movement and mechanics.

“It’s a different shape of a split,” Swanson said. “I would say he probably has more horizontal, while I have more vert. He’s also got a little funk in his delivery and hides the ball really well. I think hitters see his later than they do mine. So while the grips are very similar, the way we throw is pretty different. Arm angle, approach angle… but what matters is that we both have success with the pitch.”

That’s an understatement. Opponents are batting .203 with a .234 slug against Gausman’s split this season, and they’ve fared even worse against Swanson’s. The well-traveled reliever has delivered 124 splitters this season — 48.6% of his total pitches thrown — and allowed a .105 batting average and a .158 slugging percentage. Not bad for a kid from Fargo, which is how Swanson identifies himself, despite plans to change his home address yet one more time.

“I’m Fargo through and through,” he said. “Even though I haven’t spent my entire life there, it will always be home for me. I’m actually moving north, though, to Roseau, Minnesota, where my wife is from. Roseau is 12 miles from the Canadian border, around 3,000 people live there, and I love that area of the country. I love the outdoors, so it’s the perfect place for me.”

Given the success he’s having on mound, Toronto is a perfect place for him as well. Fargo’s own has been a stalwart out of the Blue Jays’ bullpen.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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