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What to make of Anthony Swarzak in free agency

Anthony Swarzak’s breakout season was well-timed, coming right before he entered free agency. Should teams in need of relief help bet on the late-blooming righty?

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Milwaukee Brewers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

We all like lists. Top prospect lists, power rankings lists, and, come this time every year, comprehensive lists of the top available free agents. Sometimes it’s a straightforward list, but occasionally these things are broken down into tiers. Personally, I enjoy a good tier-based system with an individual ranking inside of each tier; the Inception of lists, if you will. If a list gets deeper into the weeds and is separated by position, even better.

Recently I was perusing the available right-handed relief pitching on the free agent market — with the tier system in mind — something became immediately clear; the separation between tier one and tier two is pretty clear cut.

Wade Davis, Brandon Morrow, and Greg Holland are the three arms at the top of the heap, and it’s a mix of a bunch of other guys who clearly belong in a hypothetical tier two. Names like Addison Reed, Mike Minor, Pat Neshek, and Tommy Hunter jumped out as surefire second tier options, all are more than solid relief options who’ll have plenty of suitors this winter. But then I saw a name that left me scratching my head: Anthony Swarzak. What the hell are we to make of Anthony Swarzak?

At first blush, based on his exceptional 2017, 32-year old Anthony Swarzak belongs in tier one. In 77 13 innings he compiled a 2.33 ERA and a 2.71 FIP while striking out 30 percent of opposing hitters, that’ll get the job done. But like the brooding protagonist who shows up to a small town out of nowhere at the beginning of a movie, Swarzak has a past, and that past is rife with inconsistent performance. If you’re a team weighing whether or not to sign Swarzak to bolster your bullpen this offseason, how much should his inconsistencies before 2017 factor into your decision? Was his 2017 dominance a fluke or can it be maintained going forward?

If we look at Swarzak’s year-to-year outcomes, there is plenty of cause for concern. A fact that this simple representation of his career ERA and FIP fluctuations makes abundantly clear.

Graph via FanGraphs

Swarzak was tremendous last season, but his 2016 was dreadful. If you’re looking to add a reliever in free agency, a modicum of consistency would be nice, after all, we’re only talking about the last 24 months. The good news for potential suitors is that the jarring spike in the chart above tells only a small part of Anthony Swarzak’s story.

First off, Swarzak’s 2016 only consisted of 31 innings, so even as a reliever his numbers are best looked at with a small sample size disclaimer. In those 31 innings Swarzak recorded a 27.8 home-run-to-fly-ball rate. That number represents the highest rate that any pitcher with a minimum of 30 innings has recorded in the past 10 seasons. Even without his 2017 improvements that number was sure to regress. And if it hadn’t, Swarzak would’ve quickly found himself pitching in non-affiliated ball.

The inflated home-run-to-fly-ball rate explains Swarzak’s high FIP, which is a stat based exclusively on a pitcher’s walks, strikeouts, hit batters, and home runs. Looking at Swarzak’s DRA (Deserved Run Average) — the proprietary pitching metric from Baseball Prospectus that takes more factors into account than FIP — tells a different story as the right-hander posted a 3.96 DRA in 2016. That season was hardly Swarzak’s best, but it certainly wasn’t as bad as it seemed.

Last May, Jeff Sullivan wrote about the early stages Swarzak’s 2017 breakout for FanGraphs. That article focused on Swarzak’s improvement in getting hitters to chase pitches out of the zone and his improved consistency of location. Quoting from that piece:

Swarzak works righties away, all the time. He works lefties inside, all the time. He throws his fastball to the glove-side, and he throws his slider to the glove-side. His locations have gotten precise, and consistent, and hitters haven’t really known what to do.

That was in May. After nearly two months, all indications pointed to Swarzak having made great strides, but that sample included just 19 23 innings of work. While you could argue that all one-year reliever sample sizes are small — that’s the nature of the gig — Swarzak’s ability to maintain his improved command over the course of an entire season would go a long ways toward proving the hot start wasn’t just a fluke.

And that’s exactly what happened.

A fastball/slider, two-pitch pitcher; Swarzak effectively dialed both offerings in last season. Where as his fastball had previously been erratic, in 2017 the pitch became more focused at the top of the zone and to his glove side of the plate. The area of possible fastball locations had tightened significantly. Swarzak’s slider rose from the bottom glove-side corner to a more middle of the zone location vertically, but it missed over the heart of the plate with far less frequency and stayed most consistently on the edge of the zone.

Zone Plots via Baseball Savant

At first glance that’s a tremendous sign of improvement. Over the course of a much larger sample size, Swarzak’s control improved. The problem was that while his improved locations held consistent all season, hitters adjusted and stopped chasing outside of the zone. The otherworldly O-swing percentage that Sullivan talked about in his piece did not last throughout the season. Swarzak’s still finished the year with a chase rate nearly five percentage points above league average, but as you can see below, his early dominance wained.

Graph via FanGraphs

While in the end Swarzak’s chase rate didn’t maintain it’s incredible early-season highs, he finished the season with new career bests in both swinging-strike rate and contact rate. Swarzak’s 14 percent swinging-strike rate clobbered his previous high of 10.6 percent in 2015, and his 70.3 percent contact rate was more than 8 percentage points fewer than his previous best of 78.8 percent, also in 2015. His improvements in location were real and provided tangible results in opposing hitters ability to make contact against Swarzak like they once had.

If the breakout was real, Swarzak absolutely belongs in the top tier alongside Wade Davis and Brandon Morrow, but it was this uncertainty that caused Dave Cameron to rank Swarzak 27th on his piece ranking the 2018 Top 50 Free Agents at FanGraphs. In that piece Cameron includes his contract prediction of three-years and $15 million. The that Cameron crowdsourced had the contract pegged for only two years but a higher average annual value that brought it’s total to $14 million. Both estimates are totally reasonable, and indicate that there is real value to be had in signing Swarzak.

The volatile nature of relief pitchers makes signing them in free agency inherently risky, so why not bet on the late-career breakout who has the chance to be had for less than market value? The fact that Swarzak maintained his improved control over the course of an entire season indicates to me that he’s worth the gamble. Addison Reed is great, but why sign him for $30 million when you could have Swarzak for $15 to $20 million?

Luckily, along with the volatility that relievers bring to the table comes smaller contract commitments. Barring something unforseen, no relief pitcher not named Wade Davis is going to get more than a three year deal, so it makes sense to bet on the guy who has the most potential to outperform his contract. I’d imagine it’s scary to commit big money to a late-bloomer, but in Anthony Swarzak’s case, that juice is worth the squeeze.

Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @MrChrisAnders.