As the offense sputtered against Boston last week the calls for the Yankees to add another bat to the lineup got louder. Carlos Beltran is the current cause celebre among some fans. The hope in picking up someone like Beltran is that he’ll fill in the spots in the lineup where the offense has been dragging, especially in the corner outfield and designated hitter slots, and give the team another solid offensive bat. As a long-time Beltran fan, it would certainly be exciting to see the Yankees add him. However the team may be getting a Beltran-esque level of production going forward from one of their own hitters, Nick Swisher. Swisher has had a rather ugly start of to the year. For the first two months of the season he hit .213/.335/.314, a mouth-vomit-inducing line of mediocrity. Those first two months are gone now. They’re lost. He can’t go back and recover those days of 0-fer and cause those groundballs to squeak through and line drives to fall in, and his end-of-year stat line is going to bear the imprint of his slow start no matter how well he hits for the remainder of the year. But what’s done is done, and the question is what we should expect from him going forward. If he’ll simply go back to hitting as he has in the past, specifically as a left-handed hitter, then the team will benefit and the need for offensive reinforcement will be lessened a bit.
When understanding why Swisher has done so poorly this year so far, and he now stands at .216/.343/.345 with a .311 wOBA and 5 home runs, it’s important to focus in on his platoon split. He’s always fared better from the right side of the plate than from the left side of the plate. In almost 1200 plate appearances batting righty against left-handed pitchers he has hit .264 with a .400 on-base percentage with a .441 slugging percentage, a superb record of plate discipline and a decent mark of power. When hitting from the left side the results are a bit worse. Swisher has hit .245 with a .338 on-base percentage and a .471 slugging percentage. It’s a bit more power, yes, but it’s a far worse mark in on-base skill.
There’s value in treating Swisher the right-handed batter and Swisher the left-handed batter as two discrete and separate hitters. Swisher from the left and Swisher from the right have their own separate power, on-base, power and BIP data. We don’t usually like to treat them separately, and this is mostly because of impatience. By June we’re ready to treat the data we have as reliable and trustworthy. After all, we’ve been watching for two months, and we’d like to think that we know, thank you very much, what Swisher’s deal is. It’s his approach, it’s his “at-bats”, it’s just not working. Sure, it’s all of those things, even if saying his at-bats have been bad is kind of another way of saying he’s not getting hits. But in order to avoid falling down a rabbit hole of tautological and self-referential logic, of confirmation and recency bias, we have independent evaluative methods, measures that don’t depend on our mood or emotion or our own two eyes, as keen as the latter might be.
Here’s the main issue: Swisher has hit right-handed at a healthy rate, as always. From the right side, he’s hit hit .327/.412/.491 from the right side in 68 plate appearances. He’s hit two home runs, and his batting average on balls in play is .356. He’s been the man as a righty. As bad as Swisher’s overall numbers look right now, if he hadn’t been killing the ball as a righty his season would look even worse. The culprit is his line from the left side of the plate, where he currently resembles the love child of Alcides Escobar and Yuniesky Betancourt. It’s been horrific. In 166 plate appearances he’s hitting .175/.313/.292. His batting average on balls in play is .210, well below any mark considered reasonable for a major league hitter unless there’s some reason to believe that Swisher’s skillset has deteriorated to the point where he’s no longer a major league caliber hitter. If that’s the case, it’s probably time for him to abandon switch-hitting entirely.
Considering he’s in the midst of his physical prime, this doesn’t seem like the smartest course of action. This is especially true because all his peripheral split stats as a left-handed hitter are exactly where we’d hope they’d be. His career walk rate is 11.8%, and this year it is 16.4%. His strikeout rate this year is 25.2% versus a career mark of 27.5%. He’s hitting line drives around 2% more often than he has historically. His ground ball and fly ball rates are nearly identical to his career marks. He has a career 15.8% home run to fly ball ratio, but this year it’s only 6.4%, a likely candidate for regression. Smart money is on Swisher bouncing back from the left side and seeing better results in average and power.
The fact is that we don’t really learn a whole lot from 68 plate appearances from the right side of the plate and 166 plate appearances from the left side of the plate. Virtually anything can happen in a small sample size, and that’s not hyperbole. So it doesn’t matter if we’re in June, a small sample is a small sample. We can find value in examining this sample, then, when we contextualize it properly in the hitter’s historical profile. Swisher hasn’t been the best from the left side throughout his career, but he’s been far better than a .600 OPS hitter. It boils down to a simple question. Do we believe in the 2788 plate appearances as a left-handed hitter throughout Swisher’s career, or the 166 plate appearances as a lefty in 2011? Do we trust the advanced split data, cool our jets and wait this thing out, or just assume that Swisher’s ability as a left-handed hitter has completely abandoned itself and argue that he should bat strictly from the right-side? My preference is to stick with the larger sample size and give Swisher some more runway.
They say that time heals all wounds. In baseball, the time needed to heal all wounds is generally a weekend sweep. Should the Yankees hammer the Indians all weekend the calls to trade Swisher for Beltran, an actual proposal I saw, to DO SOMETHING, will likely subside some as the frustration of losing dissipates and confidence returns. Yet this doesn’t mean the decision-makers on this team should stand pat their attempt to make this club better, any more than they should panic after a losing streak. And so even while there is optimism for and upside in Nick Swisher there will still be some opportunities to improve and turn this team into a real juggernaut. I’ll get to one of those opportunities tomorrow morning.