FanPost

Examining Anthony Swarzak's Success

Jason Miller

2013 had the potential to be a huge year for Anthony Swarzak, potentially a make-or-break year for his career in a Twins uniform. Since his debut in 2009, he'd spent four mostly mediocre seasons shuttling between Triple-A and the Majors, and also shuffling between roles as a starter and as a reliever. There were some definite flashes of brilliance, but more than his fair share of lowlights as well. Coming into the season, Swarzak was out of minor league options, and potentially in danger of losing his job in favor of offseason signings Josh Roenicke and Tim Wood. Compounding his situation was the infamous 'Horseplay' incident - which resulted in two broken ribs for Swarzak and a trip to the 15-day DL to start the season. Once he was healthy, the former second-round pick and top prospect had a lot to prove to the Twins this year that he was a solution for the future.

Fast forward to August and the story couldn't be any more different - as Swarzak has had a phenomenally successful year. Inserted as a full-time reliever for the first time in his career, Swarzak has taken charge of the long reliever role and has thrived. In 33 appearances, He's posted a 1-2 record with a glistening 3.06 ERA. Furthermore, he's posted a very solid 3.28 FIP, indicating his success is not just a byproduct of luck. He's led all major league relievers with 70.1 IP, and is currently on pace to become the first Twins reliever to throw 100 innings entirely out of the bullpen since Juan Berenger threw 100.1 IP in 1990. Swarzak has been a vital cog in the best bullpen in baseball, according to WAR. Twins fans are potentially witnessing the breakout season they've been waiting for, at the age of 27.

Looking deeper at his success

So what explains his 2013 success? Simply put, it all starts with improvements to his control. He's shaved his walk rate down to elite territory, as he's walked only 13 batters in 70 innings, for a pristine 1.66 BB/9 (4.6% walk rate). He's also subsequently (or consequently?) taken his better command and improved his strikeout rate and home run rate.

Year

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

WHIP

ERA

FIP

2012

5.77

2.89

1.40

1.42

5.03

4.79

2013

6.37

1.66

0.76

1.15

3.06

3.28

Looking further at his plate discipline and batted ball data, we can see he's transitioned from an extreme fly-ball pitcher to a more neutral pitcher who, trending towards more ground balls. He's also seen gradual improvements in his contact rate (lower), pitches in the zone (higher), and swinging strike rate (higher)

Year

GB/FB

GB%

FB%

Contact %

Zone %

SwStr%

2011

0.92

38.2

41.7

87.9%

50.8%

5.5%

2012

1.22

43.4

35.4

83.2%

51.8%

7.5%

2013

1.28

44.7

34.0

82.3%

52.4%

7.9%

via www.fangraphs.com

We can use Pitch F/X to dig deeper into how he's made these changes that are driving his results.

What does Pitch F/X tell us?

According to Pitch F/X, Swarzak throws four pitches: a Four-seam fastball, a Two-Seam/Sinker (both around 93 mph), a Slider (around 82 mph), and Changeup (around 83 mph). Fangraphs classifies his breaking ball as a curveball, while Brooks Baseball classifies it as a Slider. In reality, the movement and velocity on his breaking ball really make it much more of a 'Slurve'. But for consistency, we will use the Brooks Baseball definition here and refer to it as a Slider.

Trajectory and Movement - from 01/01/2013 to 08/07/2013

Pitch TypeCountFreqVelo (mph)pfx HMov (in.)pfx VMov (in.)H. Rel (ft.)V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 145 13.49% 93.04 -5.79 9.22 -1.32 6.21
Sinker 540 50.23% 92.26 -7.32 7.00 -1.43 6.17
Change 38 3.53% 83.80 -7.41 5.61 -1.67 6.16
Slider 352 32.74% 82.18 3.44 -2.44 -1.33 6.24

via BrooksBaseball.net

His Four-Seam fastball and Sinker are not much different in velocity, and only marginally different in movement - so this could be a case of Pitch F/X classifying variations in movement in one pitch as two separate pitches (as it has done before with Samuel Deduno and his 'Crazy' fastball). His 'Sinker' also doesn't really have the 'drop' or 'armside run' of a true sinker, and is really closer to a four-seam fastball. How do his pitches compare to the prior two seasons?

Trajectory and Movement - from 03/01/2011 to 12/31/2012

Pitch TypeCountFreqVelo (mph)pfx HMov (in.)pfx VMov (in.)H. Rel (ft.)V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 380 12.27% 92.28 -3.35 10.38 -1.12 6.39
Sinker 1692 54.65% 92.41 -6.37 8.16 -1.24 6.30
Change 245 7.91% 82.86 -6.42 6.36 -1.50 6.32
Slider 779 25.16% 81.73 3.68 -2.40 -1.19 6.39

For starters, let's take a look at his usage. In 2013, Swarzak has mostly ditched his largely ineffective Change, and replaced it with more Sliders and Fastballs. As part of moving to the bullpen, Swarzak has essentially become a two-pitch pitcher. They key takeaway to focus on is the change in movement in his fastballs. We can clearly see more drop (lower Vertical Movement) and armside run (more negative Horizontal movement) in both of his pitches. The improved tailing action on his fastballs has manifested itself when using the pitch in 2013 compared to the prior two seasons.

Results and Averages - from 01/01/2013 to 08/07/2013

Pitch TypeCountABKBBHBP1B2B3BHRBAASLGISOBABIP
Fourseam 145 38 8 2 0 6 2 0 1 .237 .368 .132 .276
Sinker 540 128 21 7 0 19 4 2 2 .211 .320 .109 .238
Change 38 8 1 0 0 2 0 0 1 .375 .750 .375 .333
Slider 352 88 20 3 0 24 2 1 2 .330 .443 .114 .409

Sabermetric Outcomes - from 01/01/2013 to 08/07/2013

Pitch TypeCountFoul/SwingWhiff/SwingGB/BIPLD/BIPFB/BIPPU/BIPGB/FBHR/(FB+LD)
Fourseam 145 44.74% 15.79% 40.00% 23.33% 36.67% 0.00% 109.09% 5.56%
Sinker 540 40.93% 14.35% 44.04% 20.18% 27.52% 8.26% 160.00% 3.85%
Change 38 23.08% 23.08% 71.43% 14.29% 14.29% 0.00% 500.00% 50.00%
Slider 352 31.88% 25.63% 46.38% 23.19% 28.99% 1.45% 160.00% 5.56%

Compare this to his results in the same dimensions in 2011/2012:

Results and Averages - from 03/01/2011 to 12/31/2012

Pitch TypeCountABKBBHBP1B2B3BHRBAASLGISOBABIP
Fourseam 380 74 13 6 1 13 2 0 2 .230 .338 .108 .254
Sinker 1692 453 70 37 5 89 22 1 14 .278 .424 .146 .304
Change 245 62 4 0 0 11 3 1 6 .339 .710 .371 .289
Slider 779 186 30 5 0 37 14 0 2 .285 .393 .108 .331

Sabermetric Outcomes - from 03/01/2011 to 12/31/2012

Pitch TypeCountFoul/SwingWhiff/SwingGB/BIPLD/BIPFB/BIPPU/BIPGB/FBHR/(FB+LD)
Fourseam 380 49.70% 13.94% 28.33% 18.33% 36.67% 16.67% 77.27% 6.06%
Sinker 1692 41.00% 10.86% 42.45% 16.93% 34.38% 6.25% 123.48% 7.11%
Change 245 27.50% 23.33% 49.15% 8.47% 35.59% 6.78% 138.10% 23.08%
Slider 779 30.90% 23.32% 40.51% 17.72% 36.71% 5.06% 110.34% 2.33%

Focus in on his Four-Seamer and Sinker, We can see his fastball has improved in nearly all dimensions, especially looking at GB%, Whiff rate, GB/FB ratio, Batting Average Against, Slugging Percentage, and Isolated Power (ISO). And while his overall results in his Slider have gotten worse, we've seen improvements in the underlying whiff rate and ground ball rate of the pitch as it has become more effective as part of his two-pitch mix when set up by his fastball. Most of his slider's poor results can be traced to a very high .409 BABIP in 2013.

Swarzak's vastly improved control can also be illustrated by looking at his strike zone profile on his fastballs.

vs. 2011/12

We can see in 2013 that Swarzak has really adopted an attacking mentality, as he has pounded the zone with his fastball on both sides of the plate, especially hard inside against right handed hitters. He's also done a very good job avoiding the heart of the plate, where a hitter can really do some damage against his fastball. This stands in stark contrast to '11 and '12, where he would nibble and miss the zone too much, and far too often leave it right over the heart of the plate. His new approach is very refreshing to Twins fans as a reminder of what is the true difference between 'Throwing Strikes' (which is what the Twins organization preaches) and 'Pitching to Contact' (what most Twins starting pitchers actually do).

Is his performance sustainable?

From everything I've examined today, his new found success is due to definite changes in his approach and the quality of his fastball, which would indicate his success is sustainable. As mentioned earlier, his 3.28 FIP is not far of from his current 3.06 ERA. While his xFIP is slightly worse at 3.66, that is still not a number to sneeze at.

One area of concern to watch is his low BABIP on his fastballs. However, it is also offset by his high BABIP on his slider (.409). It is conceivable then, that even if his fastball performance regresses, he could still maintain his level of performance with some improvement in his breaking ball.

The real test of his sustainability will be if he can maintain his impressive control going forward. We've never seen Swarzak pitch at such an elite level of control before at any level, so this is definitely an area to watch going forward. Pitchers who don't generate a ton of strikeouts walk a very fine line, but Swarzak's improvement in his strikeout rate and ground ball rate suggest he could survive a small regression in his control.

What does it mean for the future?

The former Twins second rounder has finally played to his potential at his age-27 season in 2013. As a former top prospect, the Twins will want to extract as much value out of him as possible. He is arbitration eligible for the first time in 2014, so his 2013 performance was crucial to cement himself in the Twins future plans.

This begs the question of whether he can handle more important roles in the future. One school of thought is that he has been so impressive in his current role that why would the team bother to change what is really working? However, the corollary to that is that the team would always be better of placing their best pitchers in the highest leverage roles.

Could Swarzak conceivable return to the rotation once again? While Swarzak himself continues to hold this hope, his performance in this capacity has left a lot to be desired. His main reasons for his struggles as a starter - a lack of a solid third pitch and a lack of stamina to get through the order a second or third time - have still not been answered through his scintillating relief stint.

However, while starting again may not be in the cards, Swarzak could definitely be used in the future in more high leverage relief roles. His strikeout rate is not what you look for in a top set-up man or high-leverage reliever, but it could conceivably improve if he continues to develop his slider as an out pitch. His control would also play well in high leverage situations, so long as he maintains the same attacking mindset and establishes the plate with his fastball. Whatever the case, Swarzak's 2013 performance his been a bright spot in another long losing season, and he has definitely stated his case for higher responsibilities going forward.

All data via fangraphs.com and brooksbaseball.net

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