Words often uttered by nerds like me when statistics are the basis of praise or criticism heaped upon teams and players just a few weeks into a new baseball season. The default reply from this seam-head when confronted with early-season numbers promoted by enthusiastic fans is typically “small sample size.” But there’s a reason for taking a guarded approach towards those April stats.
Often times, April’s stars become also-rans or, in some cases, long-forgotten by October. Patience isn’t just a virtue during a 162-game MLB season. It’s a means to maintain one’s perspective and sanity.
Still, it’s important to acknowledge what happens in the first month of a season matters just as much as what occurs in September. At least from a statistical perspective. With this in mind, there’s a Seattle Mariners reliever worthy of recognition 22 games into the team’s new season – at least I think he’s deserving.
No, it’s not Andrés Muñoz, who’s been wowing fans and media members with his 100-mph fastball and almost unhittable slider. Muñoz has been amazing to watch. His day will come, just not today. Small sample size and all that stuff. Instead, my focus is on Erik Swanson.
Since being dealt to Seattle by the Yankees along with Justus Sheffield and minor-leaguer Dom Thompson-Williams for James Paxton, Swanson has evolved from a projected fifth starter into a valued contributor to the Mariners’ bullpen. During this very young season, the 8th round draft pick of the Rangers in 2014 has been one of the team’s best relief arms.
Erik Swanson’s 2022 stats (and M’s ranking)
2.7 BB% (1st)
35.1 SO% (3rd)
21.7 Hard-hit% (1st)
0.83 WHIP (1st)
.194 AVG (1st)
.216 OBP (1st)
.250 SLG (1st)
.210 wOBA (1st)
.216 xwOBA (1st)
Swanson leads Seattle relievers in every category listed above with the exception of strikeout percentage, which belongs to Muñoz (44.1%) followed by Matthew Festa (38.8%). Essentially, Swanson is striking out hitters at a high rate, while avoiding walks and hard contact. This is a recipe for success for any pitcher.
Okay, I know what some of you are thinking.
True, Swanson has just nine appearances with 9.2 innings logged in 2022. Moreover, the preceding rankings only reflect Mariner relief pitchers facing at least 20 hitters this year. As a result, the pitcher considered to be Seattle’s best relief arm – Paul Sewald – wasn’t included after a recent COVID IL stint. Besides, the small sample listed above shouldn’t be the basis for strong declarations about Swanson’s role with a club looking to reach the postseason this year.
But what if we expand our view and still find great numbers from Swanson?
That’s exactly what I did.
I combined the 2021-22 season numbers of Swanson and 12 relievers facing 100-plus hitters as a member of the Mariners. All the familiar names were considered, including a few some fans would rather forget: Sewald, Drew Steckenrider, Anthony Misiewicz, Rafael Montero, Casey Sadler, Yohan Ramirez, Will Vest, Kendall Graveman, Diego Castillo, JT Chargois, Keynan Middleton, and Héctor Santiago.
Erik Swanson’s 2021-22 stats (and M’s ranking)
7.0 BB% (6th)*
25.0 SO% (6th)*
28.4 Hard-hit% (1st)*
1.07 WHIP (6th)*
.216 AVG (7th)*
.267 OBP (4th)*
.373 SLG (9th)*
.292 wOBA (6th)*
.274 xwOBA (4th)*
*Better than MLB average for relief pitchers in 2021-22
Swanson’s overall stats don’t rate as highly as they do in 2022. But his combined numbers do suggest he’s played a critical role in a bullpen considered one of baseball’s best since the start of the 2021 season. Furthermore, the only MLB player ever produced by Cincinnati’s Mariemont High School was above league-average in every category listed above. This seems very good to me.
When we consider Swanson’s standing against 342 MLB relievers with 100-plus batters faced in 2021-22, he again fares well with a walk rate, OBP, and wOBA ranking in the top-25 percent. Not only that, the right-hander’s .274 xwOBA places him among the best 10% of relief arms in the majors. This too seems very good to me.
Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA for relievers in 2021-22 = .313
Am I suggesting Swanson is or will be the Mariners’ best reliever this year?
Still, Swanson has delivered outstanding results for a bullpen that’s had to survive without several key arms due to IL-related absences – Sewald, Sergio Romo, and Ken Giles. Realistically, relievers capable of providing the level of excellence Swanson has demonstrated lately shouldn’t be dismissed too easily. At the very least, the 28-year-old’s contributions this season merit celebration – even if it’s a small sample.
Some of you may point out that Swanson started strongly last year before missing time with an injury and encountering some challenges later in the season. This is true. On the other hand, his overall 2021 numbers combined with the small sample size that is the 2022 campaign leads me to believe he can remain a valuable contributor for the Mariners moving forward. That’s a good thing considering it takes a village to sustain a contending bullpen.
With this in mind, I believe Erik Swanson will be an important villager in the Mariners’ bullpen this season.
Perhaps into the postseason too.
My Oh My…
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