A Case For Swarzak

I’ve been mildly surprised to read many posts/comments on BCB regarding Anthony Swarzak and his status as a possible free agent signing for the Milwaukee Brewers this winter. It seems many, not all, are against bringing Swarzak back into the fold for 2018 and the prevailing theme appears to be an unwillingness to want to pay mid-tier FA reliever money for a player with only one good season on his resume.

So I went back and looked at his past 4 MLB seasons (basically his career as a relief pitcher) and tried to figure out if Swarzak just fell backwards into his best season right before hitting unrestricted free agency, or if there were some trends pointing to how he was finally able to break through as a very effective relief pitcher last year. I came to the conclusion Swarzak definitely had a great year in 2017, but it was not as much of an outlier as I originally thought based on many of the comments I’ve read recently. There seems to be trend over his previous seasons pointing towards sustainable success and it seems likely to me he finally put everything together on the mound. Likely enough I would strongly consider bringing him back to the Brewers on a reasonable two-year deal.

The first think I looked at was his strikeout rate, which was very good in 2017 and something I personally value in relief pitchers. I think GM David Sterns values it too, as most of the relievers he’s acquired since becoming GM have boasted a K/9 rate around 10 or more (even "human dumpster fire" Neftali Feliz). Swarzak’s K/9 rate has been steadily improving since 2014 in Minnesota (4.9 K/9), which was marked the beginning of his transition into a relief role. As a full-time reliever, Swarzak has now posted K/9 marks of 8.8 in 2015, 9.0 in 2016 and 10.6 in 2017 (with a sterling 12.1 in his time with the Brewers). In addition, the amount of hits he’s been giving up has been trending in a positive direction as well 10.5 H/9 in 2014 down to 6.8 in 2017. His two concerning stats (if you wanted to point to something that might lead you to believe he’s destined to fall apart) were a 12.2 H/9 in 2015 with CLE a 2.9 HR/9 rate in 2016 with NYY. Both of those numbers came in relatively small sample sizes and his minor league numbers in both or those seasons were on par with the continual "improving" trends. The point I’m trying to make is this: Swarzak has been steadily getting better as an MLB relief pitcher and 2017 quite possibly represents him finally putting it all together on the mound. Plus he finally got the chance to contribute significant innings at the MLB level as an RP. Prior to 2017, Swarzak hadn’t really been given an entire MLB season as a reliever.

In terms of value last year, there were hardly any better. Swarzak was worth 2.7 WAR in 2017. That’s an elite number for a non-closing reliever. Andrew Miller, widely regarded as the best "fireman" in baseball posted 3.1. Addison Reed, who saved 19 games with the Mets, posted 2.4 and Bryan Shaw, a very popular potential signing for Brewers fans this winter, posted 0.6. Swarzak represented a huge value over all of those players last season, especially when considering his salary. But Swarzak is ranked below Reed, Shaw and almost every article I read says Swarzak should expect a 2-year deal vs other RPs: Shaw, Reed, Juan Nicasio, Steve Cishek , Brandon Morrow who are all expected to land three year deals. MLB Rumors has Reed and Mike Minor getting four. If Swarzak is willing to sign a two year deal with Milwaukee, he would represent much less of a financial risk than either of the aforementioned players.

Swarzak continued to get better as he was given higher leverage situations last season. He started out as middle relief for the White Sox, a team going nowhere. Swarzak wasn’t initially used in a set-up role for Chicago, he was more of a 7th inning guy or someone asked to cover two innings. He had 10 "holds" with the Sox, and only one of them came with him pitching in the 8th inning. Following the trade, Swarzak pitched almost exclusively in the 8thinning. For Milwaukee, he recorded 17 holds, one save and of his 29 appearances only six ended in Brewers losses (one of those losses was a rare blown save from Corey Knebel). There’s some age-old logic behind manager’s giving relief pitchers clearly defined roles, rather than simply managing each pitching change based on pure statistical analysis. In a lot of cases, a player with a clearly defined role thrives thus defying sabermatricians everywhere. Swarzak appears to be one of those players.

Also, I find it slightly ironic Swarzak is being knocked for his "one good year" when other players the Brewers are really relying on for for the future (Travis Shaw, Corey Knebel, Manny Pina, Jimmy Nelson, etc) seem to get a pass. Obviously those players are in their arbitration years, so had they been UFAs there may be different feelings towards them. But I think its fair to point out many Brewers in 2017 experienced breakout seasons and Swarzak seems to be the only guy discussed widely as unlikely to re-produce his numbers over the next 2-3 years (excluding Nelson who obviously won't due to injury in 2018). Is Swarzak really more of a risk versus, say,Travis Shaw to fall off the map in 2018-2019? I think there's a case to be made both players finally found an organization willing to play them in a defined role and give them meaningful playing time which led to superior production. The only difference being Shaw is locked into the organization contractually and Swarzak, at this point, is not.

Given the fact Swarzak out produced many of his peers in 77 IP last season and there’s good evidence pointing towards him progressing as an MLBer, not just being a one-year-wonder reliever; I think there’s a good case to bring him back on a two year deal. Is he the best relief pitcher on the market? No, he's not. Wade Davis, Greg Holland and Reed are probably a tier ahead of him and will be paid accordingly. But, in my opinion, he’s far and away the best option being widely discussed for a two-year contract. He might even be the best RP in the projected 3-year contract pool. I think there’s a very good chance of realizing value from a Swarzak contract and he seems very open to returning to the organization. I’m not saying he’ll ever post 2.7 WAR over a season again, but I think 1.5-2.0 WAR is not out of the question. And for a non-closing reliever, that's outstanding. The Brewers are a better team with Swarzak in the fold than without him, which was clearly evidenced last season when he helped the bullpen carry this team down the stretch. Provided the contract doesn't exceed his projected 2yr/$14MM deal on MLB Trade Rumors, I feel Swarzak should be retained.