Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Does Nick Swisher Deserve the Criticism?

This offseason, Indians GM Chris Antonetti was able to land one of the biggest names on the free agent market, Nick Swisher, for a 4-year, $56 million contract with a vesting option in 2017. As part of the deal, the Indians also forfeited a first round pick to the Yankees as compensation (that pick turned into outfielder Aaron Judge for those of you who are interested).

Indians fans were ecstatic, and rightfully so. Swisher had been one of the most consistent hitters in the league when he signed the deal, and putting him in a lineup that would eventually add Michael Bourn seemed like a dream come true for the city of Cleveland. It showed that the front office was willing to spend in order to put forth a contender, which was a big step forward for the organization.

But in 2013, Swisher hasn’t looked the part of the hitter many fans thought he would be. He’s struggled at times this year, and he’s missed time with injuries as well.

The fans are beginning to sour on him, but Swisher isn’t the only reason the team hasn’t been playing well. I’m a firm believer in the “win as a team, lose as a team” mentality and even though that was more comforting to hear after a Little League game than a Major League game, it’s still true. The Indians have struggled to score runs lately, and that’s the fault of all nine hitters, not just Swisher.

Is it fair to criticize Nick Swisher? Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

I hate to take this route, but getting mad at Swisher won’t change anything. For better or for worse, he’ll be a member of the Indians for the foreseeable future. But that’s fine with me.

In fact, if I had the chance to redo Nick Swisher’s contract, I wouldn’t change anything. That’s an awfully bold statement, but I wouldn’t make it if I couldn’t support it.

I don’t know if fans set unreasonably high expectations for Swisher and are disappointed, but his numbers are actually similar to what he’s normally done over the course of his career. This is still the same hitter that the Indians thought that they were getting all along.

Many of his stats are a little worse this year than they have been in the past, but only his slugging percentage (.397 in 2013, a career worst) is too much lower for me to even begin worrying. His line drive percentage (26.3% this year) is the highest in his career by a large margin, and his fly ball percentage (37.5%) is the lowest of his career. Swisher’s line drive percentage is over 6% higher than his career average, while his fly ball percentage is about 6% lower than his career average, so what this says is that once these ratios normalize, Swisher will hit more fly balls and fewer line drives. This would then increase the amount of home runs he hits, in turn, increasing his RBI total, as well as his slugging percentage.

I’m not just hoping that Swisher will improve. By digging deeper, the numbers say that he actually should.

Swisher’s main job is to get on base (I wish Billy Beane could read this), and his OBP of .345 shows that he’s done that and then some. The league average mark for OBP last season was .319, and has never been higher than .337 since 2001. Swisher is doing his job, making his recent move to the second spot in the lineup one that could pay dividends, given that he is not a prototypical cleanup hitter.

At a pedestrian .242, Swisher’s average could also use improvement. But he has never been a great average hitter, so expecting a lot more is unfair. He hit .288 in 2010, but that was due to an extremely high .335 BABIP, so luck was probably a factor that year. He also hit .272 last season, but again, he had a high BABIP of .324, well above the league average of about .300. Swisher’s career average is .255 (including the BABIP-inflated seasons), suggesting that even though his average this season is lower than usual, it’s not that much different from what we should be expecting from him moving forward.

Swisher’s power numbers, however, are down. Through 84 games this season, he only has 10 home runs and 32 RBI, numbers putting him on pace for about 19 homers and 62 RBI through a full season. Those numbers would both be career lows over a full season, but they still aren’t terrible. They don’t come close to the best first basemen in the league, but the Indians aren’t paying him to be one of the best first basemen in the league. After all, the Indians are also the same team that played Casey Kotchman at first base last year, the same man who failed to record a hit in 20 at-bats for the Marlins this season before landing on the DL (his .233 BABIP didn’t help him with the Indians, but his .335 BABIP with the Rays the year before did).

Furthermore, Swisher has actually been worth 2.5 wins above replacement level so far in 2013, which is the same mark as Edwin Encarnacion and a higher mark than players such as J.J. Hardy, Alex Gordon, and Ben Zobrist. Furthermore, he also ranks ahead of the Indians’ Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley. Even though Swisher’s counting stats don’t seem as high as they should be, he’s still providing great value to the team.

Speaking of value, that brings me to another point. Another argument I’ve heard is that Swisher is overpaid. Sure, his $11 million salary in 2013 (it rises over the course of the deal) isn’t pocket change for a small-market team like the Indians, but I consider

him a huge upgrade over Travis Hafner, paid $13 million by the Indians last season to play in 66 games. Entering this season, Swisher’s 2013 salary only ranked 83rd in baseball (a list of the top 125 paid players can be found here). At least 12 of the players ahead of him primarily play first base or serve as the designated hitter, which shows the high amounts of money players at those positions are paid. Swisher has produced better than enough of them to justify his salary.

Swisher has also made a few head-scratching plays in the field for the Indians, but advanced metrics say that he has saved the Indians at least 6 runs at first base, as well as another 3 in the outfield, so his defense isn’t an issue either.

In addition, what Swisher brings to the Indians off the field has changed the organization. People have varying opinions on how leadership can impact on-field results (see: Giambi, Jason), but without Swisher, the Indians are a much different team. Swisher has taken a winning attitude and a contagious personality with him to Cleveland, two things that can provide more of an impact on a team than people may think. Also, there would be no “Brohio”, which has been a big hit in Cleveland this season.

I can understand the frustration of Indians fans, but Nick Swisher is not the only problem with the team. The offense has struggled to score runs, although that can’t be the only way to measure how it has fared recently. Nick Swisher is a very important component to the offense, and when he’s playing at a high level, the rest of the offense follows suit.

After all, when the offense plays at a high level, the Indians are a tough team to deal with.

Tags: Cleveland Indians Michael Bourn Nick Swisher

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