Defending Swisher’s deal

When a player signs a four year/$56 million deal and is hyped as the club’s cleanup hitter, then proceeds to hit just .240 by the middle of August, it’s tough to defend such a contract.
But for Nick Swisher, it was a deal that made sense when the Indians did it and still makes sense today.
The numbers are what they are – Swisher excels hitting second in the order or sixth or later in the lineup. Prior to this season, he had hit cleanup just 22 total games in his career.  He is not a cleanup hitter and the Indians miscast him as one. 
As a complementary bat, Swisher is a proven hitter who could be penciled in to hit around .250-.260 with 20-25 homers and 75-85 RBI at the start of every season. He is a guy who is patient, sees a lot of pitches, grinds out at bats, and has been good at getting on base. Even though he is only a career .255 hitter, he gets on base at a .359 clip in his career – because he draws walks.
The Indians went into this season believing he could hit .260 with 25 homers, 85 RBI and .820 OPS, which he obviously will fall short of reaching.
It is also important to note that he has a .287 batted ball in play average (BABIP), below the league average. This shows he has been a little unlucky, and his batting average could see a late season spike as more hits begin to fall in. The walk rate and strikeout rate are in line, so he is one hot week at the plate away from raising his average and on-base percentage to career norms.
The one thing that is really missing is the power – Swisher’s .397 slugging percentage is a career low. A better measure of determining his power is isolated power (ISO) which eliminates singles and calculates extra base hits. His .157 ISO is also at a career low, and well below his career .206 ISO.
The lack of power is certainly disappointing, but Swisher has been playing through a shoulder injury most of the season. He’s missed time because it has flared up, but he’s played through the pain. At this point the shoulder issue won’t be addressed until the offseason with several months of rest or maybe even arthroscopic surgery.
Shoulder injuries can be tough on hitters because not only will the pain limit some of their strength and hinder their bat speed, but it can also lead to them compromising their approach in order to get around on a ball.
Perhaps Swisher has hurt the team by playing through the injury, but he’s still been a solid contributor. Even with his struggles and the shoulder injury he has a solid .735 OPS and a 2.1 WAR, which is right in line with fellow outfielder Michael Brantley who has a .728 OPS and 2.6 WAR.
Obviously, one big difference is Brantley was supposed to be a tablesetter and Swisher a run producer – that’s why one is viewed a success and the other a disappointment. The other, of course, Brantley is making close to league minimum and Swisher is making an average of $14 million this year and the next three seasons.
Then again, that’s what $14 million per year gets you on the open market. If you want a true middle of the order thumper, you have to dole out $25 million or more per year for the likes of Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and others. When you spend money in free agency you often don’t get anywhere near the return on your investment as you do with players in their pre-free agency years.
But while the performance on the field has not matched expectations – some of which were ridiculous to begin with – what Swisher has done in the clubhouse with his energy makes the contract well worth it. The Indians needed leadership and Swisher provides it, along with Jason Giambi. And who doesn’t like his unwavering enthusiasm even in the wake of a disappointing year?
Swisher’s signing also helped begin the slow healing process with a faithless fan base. It showed that the organization is committed to winning and will spend money to bring in and retain players. For a while, the roster was a revolving door of players – once they made a little money or got close to free agency, they were traded for prospects. In some respects that will always be the case, but they are showing a commitment to keep players and also bring in some quality players. Nick Swisher was the start of that.
If Swisher’s troubles continue, then the shoulder issue can no longer be the blaming factor. At some point soon, he will need to be the consistent, productive player he was in the past. Perhaps the addition of a middle of the order bat will take some of the pressure off.
But for now it is way too early to consider the signing of Swisher a bust because of all the intangible ways he has positively affected the team. And perhaps maybe soon he will begin to more consistently positively affect the team with his bat.