Is R.J. Swindle For Real?

Every bit of skepticism you've heard about Mark DiFelice, it goes just as much for R.J. Swindle.  He's gotten great results in the minors, but he doesn't throw hard and he's the kind of guy scouts don't look twice at.  I mean, his curveball is clocked in the 50's. He got a cup of coffee with the Phillies last year, but I hope we'll see more of him with the 2009 Brewers, starting this weekend.

He's kind of like Chad Bradford, another guy without typical "stuff," but who has gotten guys out everywhere he goes.  Counting indy league performances, he's struck out more than a batter per inning in his career.

But, the skeptics always say, that kind of thing won't translate to THE SHOW.  (I don't mean to dump on the skeptics here--I mean, the guy throws a 55mph curveball.  I'm skeptical too.)

So let's see if we can find some grounds for skepticism in the numbers.  Most of his minor league stats aren't very valuable when it comes to predicting major league performance.  Last year was the first time he threw any meaningful number of innings even in Triple-A.

To keep things simple, I'm going to focus on his strikeout rate.  That's usually a good indicator of success for relievers, and Swindle has always had solid control.  Plus, as you'll see in a moment, there's plenty to keep us busy with just one stat.

In 36.7 innings at Triple-A Lehigh Valley last year, Swindle struck out 51 guys.  That's 12.5 per 9, and that, my friends, is ridiculous.  Here's how it breaks down by handedness:

  • vLHB: 28 K's, 57 BF (49.1%)
  • vRHB: 23 K's, 88 BF (26.1%)

Obviously he's better against lefties, but keep in mind that the MLB average is well under 20%.  At least at Triple-A, his stuff is plenty good, however fast he throws it.

Translating

Usually when we want to use minor league numbers in a major league context, we use Minor League Equivalency (MLE) stats.  Swindle's MLE K rates are still ridiculous:

  • vLHB: 23 K's, 57 BF (40.1%)
  • vRHB: 19 K's, 88 BF (21.6%)

That's not that big a difference, and here the skepticism kicks in once again.  I won't go over all the arguments against MLEs here, but I think our intuition is howling about one thing in particular: He was probably feasting on minor league journeyman.  You know, the types of guys who are in Triple-A precisely *because* they can't take advantage of something throwing the crap he throws.

The reputation of Triple-A, of course, fits right into that.  For every Gamel or Escobar, there's a Chris Woodward, Abraham Nunez, or (dare I say it) Tony Gwynn Jr.  So maybe those numbers won't translate.

One K at a time

I've been kicking around an alternative MLE method for some time now, but I haven't done anything with it.  (Partly because, as I discovered tonight, it's enormously work-intensive.)  Since we're interested in how Swindle will perform against Major League hitters, why don't we look at how Swindle performed against--wait for it, folks--major league hitters?

Since he only spent a brief time with Philly last year, let me explain.  Let's say, one night last year Swindle pitched a 1-2-3 inning against Nashville, striking out Joe Dillon, Russell Branyan, and Chris Woodward.  Woodward is organizational fodder.  Dillon and Branyan, though--Swindle could've faced them in Milwaukee.

If we look only at Swindle's matchups against guys who appeared in the bigs last year, that cuts down our sample from 145 BF to 64 BF.  That isn't much to go on--under 20 innings, now--but check out the results:

  • vLHB: 16 K's, 36 BF (49.4%)
  • vRHB: 11 K's 28 BF (39.3%)

So against guys who saw time on big league rosters, Swindle did better.

Adjustments

We still aren't really done.  It's impressive that Swindle struck out nearly half the "major league" hitters he saw in Triple-A last year, but it doesn't exactly mean he'll do the same for Milwaukee.

The obvious problem is that guys who spend time in Triple-A aren't a very good sample of Major League hitters.  Sure, there's the occasional Ryan Braun on his way to the bigs, but mostly it's Joe Dillons and Tony Gwynns.

To consider that, I looked at how those 64 batters did in their MLB time.  While the average MLB hitter struck out in 17.5% of his plate appearances last year, Swindle's opponents K'd 22.1% of the time.  Definitely a step down from league average, as we'd expect, but not so much to take all the shine off of RJ's performance.

Do some fancy math, and it turns out that this sample suggests that Swindle's MLB K rate would be 33.4%.  By contrast, the Brewers bullpen last year managed just 18.8% and no individual reliever topped 25%.

Of course, no amount of number crunching can fully do away with the natural skepticism.  Maybe Swindle will strike out every third batter he faces, and the other two will hit laser-like doubles off the wall.  I don't know.  But to me, this is another reason for optimism.  Giving Swindle and DiFelice lots of innings may or may not help the Brewers make the postseason, but it will certainly help us answer some questions about the "stuff" it takes to make it in today's major leagues.

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