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So why doesn't Nick Swisher pitch every night? April 15, 2009

Posted by tomflesher in Baseball.
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Nick Swisher pitched for the first time in the major leagues on Monday night during the Yankees’ 15-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. As you can see from the box score, Swish pitched pretty well. In fact, in 22 pitches, he gave up only one hit and one walk, threw 12 strikes, and struck out a major-league batter (left-fielder Gabe Kapler). So, will Yankees manager Joe Girardi tap him in relief again soon?

No, of course not. Find out why behind the cut.

It’s a tempting story – that a secret, untapped pitching ability lurks inside players known more for their bats, and the idea that someone playing in the outfield could be the world’s greatest reliever if only they’d give him the chance. Scott Spiezio pitched once for the St. Louis Cardinals and has a facebook group dedicated to his pitching prowess.

The problem is that a position player pitching has two advantages, one much stronger than the other. The weak advantage is that there’s no chance to scout a position player before he pitches, with the possible exception of a known pitching threat like Wade Boggs. Even then, it’s difficult to know what the player has been holding back. The strong advantage is that, well, position players aren’t very good pitchers.

How does that work? Intuitively, a major-league batter is used to a pitcher performing at a high level. Once he’s warmed up, he has a set of skills maximized for hitting a 90-plus-mile-per-hour ball thrown at him. Timing has become second nature. This is why changeups are so effective – a player isn’t expecting a ball being hurled slowly at him, and so he swings as if a fastball were coming. Being thrown nonstop changeups (which is effectively what a position player will do, given that he doesn’t regularly practice pitching) is jarring and will throw off the batter’s concentration. To a lesser extent, this is seen when a left-handed pitcher relieves a right-handed pitcher.

Does that make sense? Let’s make the assumption that a player at the major league level will be used where his manager assumes he will make the strongest contribution to the team, as constrained by the rest of the talent available. Thus, while Swish would make a perfectly cromulent designated hitter on some teams, and plays enough first base to be a starter for some clubs, his best fit for the Yankees is playing the corners in the outfield. It would be economically inefficient and thus irrational for Joe Girardi to start him at, say, shortstop, because he has a better shortstop (Cody Ransom).

So, almost entirely because Swisher is an outfielder, we can assume that he cannot pitch at the major league level. Unpacking this, he lacks some quality – consistency, endurance, speed, control, something like that – and therefore cannot be a consistently good pitcher. However, the payoff of using a player who can’t pitch consistently shrinks in emergency relief situations, since the cost of exhausting a real reliever outweighs the expected cost of using a non-pitcher to pitch (in most cases, giving up a few runs). However, as an outfielder, we know he has the arm strength to throw the ball. (This also explains why catchers, who have to have strong throwing arms and throwing reflexes, are often used as emergency relievers.) So, given that it makes economic sense to use Swisher instead of using, say, Mariano Rivera simply to fulfill the idea that only a relief pitcher should be used as a relief pitcher, it also makes sense that Swisher will perform somewhat well. He lacks only some of the qualities of a good pitcher, not all of them. Once you factor in the lack of preparation that the Rays had to face a jarring series of changeups, and the difficulty of making that mental adjustment, it is perfectly sensible to expect Swisher to have a good outing.

So why doesn’t Swish pitch every night? For the simple reason that if players expect to face a slow-hurling outfielder every night, there would be practice time dedicated to hitting 75-mile-per-hour fastballs. It would then become inefficient to use Swisher, when a harder-throwing real reliever could get outs with greater predictability.

Sorry, Swish. Great outing, but we won’t be using you again for a while.

Nick Swisher can pitch
Struck out Kapler with a change
Now stay in the field.

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