The run on relievers is officially underway. The latest one to sign is Anthony Swarzak, who’s getting $14 million and two years from the Mets. Like, say, Tommy Hunter, or Brandon Morrow, Swarzak wasn’t that highly thought of a year ago. Then he was great. There’s no other way around it, and, while every front-office executive would tell you they want to find the next Anthony Swarzak, or Tommy Hunter, or Brandon Morrow, you can’t very well not sign a guy who just did what Swarzak did for the White Sox and the Brewers.
Swarzak is 32 years old, and through 2016, his career WAR was 1.2, over nearly 500 innings. Last year alone, Swarzak was worth 2.2 WAR, which ranked him eighth among all relievers, between Andrew Miller and Mike Minor. Part of that was a matter of increased effectiveness, and the rest was a matter of increased trust, which saw Swarzak throwing high-leverage innings for the first time. Swarzak’s average leverage index last season was 1.49. His previous high was 0.95, when he was a rookie starter. Swarzak’s personal stock skyrocketed.
A few images here can tell the story. More recently in Swarzak’s career, he’s started getting strikeouts, which is linked to a sharp uptick in his usage of his slider.
Beginning in 2016 and carrying over into last year, Swarzak has thrown his slider slightly more often than his fastball. He’s not the only reliever to do that, but things just truly came together, as Swarzak got as many missed swings as Brad Hand. Swarzak’s contact rate this past season plummeted.
And to really cap it off, Swarzak’s velocity has increased as he’s gotten older. It’s not the way this usually goes, and I’m not sure how Swarzak has pulled this off, but the trend is undeniable. Swarzak had problems with his rotator cuff in 2012 and 2016. In 2017, he was healthy, and he was blowing his fastball at 95.
Swarzak’s is a forgettable name, because, for most of his career, he was a forgettable pitcher. Even last season, as he was terrific, he was both terrific and out of the spotlight, so for Mets fans he’s not a familiar acquisition. But this does seem like a big bullpen add, for a Mets team that isn’t as far out of the race as it seems. A healthy Noah Syndergaard should make a whale of a difference, and the Marlins, Phillies, and Braves could and should all struggle to reach 70-75 wins. The Mets still aren’t the Nationals, but they’re the only threat in the division, and that very division gives them a better shot at the wild card. There’s something here, and Swarzak ought to help.
Investing in free-agent relievers can be an uncomfortable exercise. Relievers are constantly appearing and disappearing, with Swarzak being a case in point. So many relievers seem to suddenly emerge that it’s tempting to try to find the next pop-up guy before he pops. With a guy like Swarzak, though, you don’t have to squint or project. The Mets can comfortably assume he won’t forget what he just put together. He appears to be good now, and while that’s a little bit weird, there’s no reason those points can’t both be true.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.
Jeff I salute your unflinching devotion to giving the middle relief market the coverage it has so far been denied.