Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Would it be cool if we talked about Anthony Swarzak's role for a bit?

Anthony Swarzak believes in Bigfoot.  I'm cool with that.  Anthony Swarzak is his own man and believing in Bigfoot doesn't affect me much at all.  I do not believe in Bigfoot.  I feel that if Bigfoot existed, there would be more evidence.  Of course, Bigfoot could be a super genius who covers his tracks really well.  If that's the case, more power to Bigfoot and more power to Swarzak.  The fact that Swarzak believes in Bigfoot clearly does not affect his ability to be a reliable and productive relief pitcher. 

The Minnesota Twins (and baseball in general) believe very strongly in bullpen roles.  I'm less cool with that.  It affects me as a fan.  There is a closer, a set-up man, a lefty specialist, a 7th inning guy, and 8th inning guy, etc.  Once a player has a role, it takes a very long time for a team to switch a guy into a greater or lesser role.  Basically, if a closer struggles, the team keeps trotting them out to close games.  If the "long man" is pitching well, that success is often partially attributed to finding the right role. 

I find Baseball's belief in bullpen roles to be far more confusing than Anthony Swarzak's belief in Bigfoot.  Swarzak himself illustrates exactly why.

By most measures, Swarzak has been the Twins' second best relief pitcher.  He is second to Glen Perkins with a very impressive 146 ERA+.  He has easily thrown the most innings of any Twins' reliever, with 92.2 and counting.  He has provided the team with 1.7 WAR, just 0.1 less than Perkins and better than not only the rest of the bullpen, but the entire Twins' starting staff.  A pitcher like this should be pitching important innings because he is a valuable resource. 

The problem is that Swarzak hasn't pitched in high leverage innings much at all.  There are a couple of obvious reasons to explain this reality.  First, the Twins are terrible, so there aren't many high leverage innings to go around.  Second, Swarzak hadn't really pitched all that well in his career, prior to this season.  He had an ERA just over five and he hadn't shown that he really needed to be used in high leverage situations.

Thus, Swarzak was used in the "swingman" or "long-man" or "mop-up" role, or whatever you want to call it.  Swarzak was the guy who came in when the starter got rocked, like he did on April 9 when Mike Pelfrey spotted the Royals six runs in the first two innings.  Often, he came in when the Twins had a comfortable lead, like he did on April 16 when he entered a 7-4 game in the sixth inning and nearly completed the game.   Most days, he was just used when the team was losing.  In fact, the Twins' record when Swarzak pitches is 11-33.  That works out to a .250 winning percentage, a percentage even the lowly Twins couldn't expect in their worst nightmare. 

Now, every team needs a guy like this, especially a team which stands to lose a lot of games due to inept starting pitching.  However, the Twins overall winning percentage stands at .427, so it is clear that Swarzak could have pitched in more winnable games.  Setting wins and losses aside, the long-man role is an important one for all teams.  Starters fail (especially Twins starters) and someone needs to be available to throw 2-4 innings to keep the bullpen from getting taxed.  There is value in that role.  I get that.  My question is - Is Swarzak the right guy for that role? 

He may have been early in the season.  Again, ERA just over five.  However, once Swarzak showed that he was better than the role he was given, shouldn't his role have been adjusted?  Or, and this might be too crazy to comprehend, did he really even need that defined role in the first place?

I'm certainly not arguing that Swarzak should be used as a starter.  We've seen that movie and it was a bit short, not very exciting and left you feeling empty.  However, as a member of the bullpen, Swarzak has proved to be a valuable and reliable pitcher.  Some may argue that his value comes from his ability to throw multiple innings.  Great!  Let's use him the 7th and 8th then.  What's the difference?  Will Swarzak fall to pieces because the inning number is higher? 

His split stats would say that the inning is somewhat irrelevant.  Swarzak hasn't given up an 8th inning run this season.  It's only 11.2 innings, but that's the only data we have.  By comparison, his 3rd inning ERA is 4.50.  Quite the difference!  Well, actually, that's just four third innings.  His 7th inning ERA is his worst, at well over six.  However, he gave up four 7th inning runs to the Yankees on July 2.  One bad inning really skews small samples. 

The samples aren't the point anyway.  The point is that if Anthony Swarzak is a good pitcher, he should be pitching more than a quarter of his games when the Twins can win.  Granted, he probably did enter a few of those games with a lead only to squander it or see his mates in the bullpen squander it, but simple probability would indicate that he's entering with a deficit more often than not. 

Again, most stats would indicate that Swarzak has been the Twins' second best pitcher this season.  If you value innings over saves, you might even make the case that he has been the best.  Regardless of where you land on that side of the argument, it's hard not to see that Swarzak would have helped the Twins win games if given more opportunities to do so.  Leave the mopping-up to the less talented players.  The Twins certainly have those. 

In the end, this isn't even really a criticism aimed at the Twins.  More or less, this is a criticism of general baseball thinking.  One of the biggest sabermetric gripes involves not using your best players in the best situations.  Saving a closer for a 9th inning lead that may never materialize.  Keeping a player at a defensive position they cannot handle because of their leadership skills.  Caring more about a role than the player.

The Twins weren't going to win a World Series if Swarzak had been used more effectively.  There might be a greater Bigfoot awareness if Swarzak had a bigger share of the limelight, but that's just conjecture.  More importantly, the Twins might have won a couple more games this season.  As a fan, I'll take a couple extra wins.  What can I say, I'm a fan of handshake lines. 

If you like what I have to say, and want to hear me moan about sabermetrics to my 12-year-old self, you can find that here.  It's deep.

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