I've never really been a fan of Anthony Swarzak.
When he made his major league debut in 2009, he impressed many by throwing 7 shutout innings against the Milwaukee Brewers in a fashion not unlike what we saw from Andrew Albers last year. Swarzak only struck out three hitters, but he induced weak contact in giving up only 5 hits. He pitched pretty well for most of the season, but had a disastrous September as he allowed 22 earned runs in only 13 1/3 innings.
The next year, Swarzak didn't even get to join the Twins in the playoffs in their first year at Target Field as he was left in the minors the whole season. However, he did receive a call-up in 2011 and that was the year when it seemed like he could be a good pitcher on the staff. In a swing role that led to 27 appearances, 11 being starts, Swarzak had a 4.32 ERA and his success stemmed from what we've typically seen from Twins pitchers lately: few strikeouts and fewer walks. He entered 2012 in the same swing role but it didn't go as well that time around, throwing a 5.03 ERA while pitching 96 2/3 innings.
Last season, the Twins committed to using Swarzak only in long relief, and he certainly took advantage of it. Though the strikeout rate was still low at 6.47 K/9, it was a career best, as was his 2.06 BB/9, 0.66 HR/9, and plenty of other stats to boot. All combined, Swarzak had a 2.91 ERA which probably would have earned a promotion to the setup role if it weren't for the presence of Casey Fien and Jared Burton.
This offseason, Ron Gardenhire said that the Twins would look to use Swarzak in a higher leverage role this season, and I quickly scoffed at the idea. After all, Swarzak was not your prototypical shutdown reliever. He didn't rack up the strikeouts nor did he get a ton of grounders, so I had the belief that his performance from last year, despite all the career highs, was really just a mirage.
This is going to sound ridiculous and will fly in the face of sabermetrics, but after his performance on Opening Day, my opinion quickly changed.
I should offer up a disclaimer first. Yes, it was nice to see Swarzak strike out two of the three hitters he faced on Monday. No, that's not why I think he will succeed this year.
Instead, I was focused more on the recipe for why Swarzak had two strikeouts and a ground out two days ago, and it depended on what and how he was throwing the ball. First, I noticed an interesting trend from Swarzak during his outing. Every fastball he threw had a bit more run and sink than I was accustomed to seeing from him in his career. A check with PITCHf/x yesterday confirmed what I thought: Swarzak was throwing almost exclusive two-seam fastballs.
At the beginning of his career, Swarzak would have been classified as a flyball pitcher thanks to a groundball percentage that was under 40%. However, every season he's managed to improve on that mark, and I get the feeling that it's been due to his gradual increased trust in his sinking fastball. Last year his GB% was at 45%, showing that Swarzak was starting to trend closer to a groundball pitcher. Yesterday, Texas Leaguers (my preferred choice for PITCHf/x) counted Swarzak with 18 two-seam fastballs in 24 total pitches, an extremely high rate especially when we note he threw that 2-seamer only a third of the time last season. Now, I don't expect that 75% rate to stick for the entire season, but I could see him upping that percentage to 40% or so this year if he indeed is attempting to throw it more often.
The second reason I have more faith in Swarzak is due to his velocity spike. In his career, Swarzak has typically hovered around the high-80s to low-90s with his fastball. Last year, he averaged right around 92 MPH with both his four and two-seam fastball, but Monday we saw a big jump as his two-seamer was averaging 93.9 MPH, and he even hit 95 and 96 a couple times. In the past Swarzak was more of a long reliever and thus still had to conserve a little energy, but if he indeed is going to be a one inning reliever, he might be turning up the heat a bit more.
Again, I must say that this was just one game, and I'm not using this to say that Swarzak is guaranteed to turn in a good year in 2014. These two things I've noted have simply given me faith that Swarzak can be an asset to the bullpen, instead of a pitcher that is perpetually stuck as the long reliever until he becomes too expensive to retain.
Me from as recently as last week would not believe I'm about to type this, but... I actually look forward to Anthony Swarzak's next appearance.