Nick Swisher was supposed to anchor the Indians lineup from the cleanup spot this season, but he’s gotten off to a rough start.
We’re only six games into the season, but based on how opposing pitchers are approaching Swisher, it may be time to worry about him.
In New York, Swisher was surrounded by elite talent. He almost always had an All-Star caliber bat both and of and behind him in the order. And while the Indians lineup is much improved, it’s far from the star-studded cast Swisher played with in the Big Apple.
Due to the lack of talent behind Swisher in the order, pitchers seem to be taking a different approach to handling him.
Through the first six games, Swisher is seeing the same breakdown of pitches he saw in New York. He’s seeing roughly 50 percent fastballs with a mix of breaking pitches depending on the repertoire of the pitcher on the mound.
But the location of the pitches has changed dramatically. Take a look at the heat map of Swisher’s fastball location over the past two seasons.
Since 2009, Swisher has just a .207 average against off-speed pitches, compared to .306 against fastballs. Based on those numbers, it’s obvious that giving Swisher a fastball to hit is far from the ideal strategy.
But in 2012, Swisher often had either Curtis Granderson or Robinson Cano hitting behind him, depending on his slot in the order. Cano and Granderson combined for 76 home runs, so the potential damage done by giving Swisher a free pass was significant.
As a result, 48.4 percent of the fastballs Swisher saw in 2012 were in the zone
In Cleveland, however, Michael Brantley protects him in the lineup, and opposing pitchers aren’t nearly as worried about the consequences of walking Swisher. Even if Brantley followed up with a hit, the odds of Swisher immediately scoring are low given Brantley’s lack of power and Swisher’s lack of speed on the base paths.
As a result, only 38.8 percent of the fastballs he’s seen have been in the zone.
Given the small sample size, one could argue that this is just a fluke—and I certainly hope that’s the case. But there’s good reason to believe this low percentage of balls in the zone is an intentional approach by opposing pitchers.
Middle-of-the-order hitters routinely see the lowest percentage of in-the-zone fastballs, especially when they have limited support behind them in the order.
Here are the players who saw the lowest percentage of in-the-zone fastballs in 2012, along with their most frequent protection in the lineup:
Josh Hamilton – 38.5 percent – Adrian Beltre
Bryce Harper – 42.9 percent – Ryan Zimmerman
Matt Holliday – 42.9 percent – Carlos Beltran
Price Fielder – 43.8 percent – Delmon Young
Pedro Alvarez – 44.2 percent – Rod Barajas
Carlos Gonzalez – 44.6 percent – Michael Cuddyer
Chase Headley – 45.5 percent – Carlos Quentin
While a few of the hitters—mainly Hamilton, Harper and Holliday—had legitimate protection in the order, most of them were in a situation more similar to Swisher.
So while Swisher’s rate may rise slightly with a larger sample size, he should probably prepare himself for a long season with relatively few juicy pitches to hit, and refine his approach at the plate accordingly.