We don’t really have full information on the shoulder injury that has been bothering Nick Swisher this season. We do know that it’s bothered him off and on, that he’s missed a handful of games, and that he’s had a cortisone shot recently. And from a results standpoint, we know that his power is down… and yet he’s showing the best line drive rate of his career. I set out to ask the Indians’ slugger about those two things in particular.
Instead of chopping it up for you, here’s the answer he gave me about battling through his shoulder injury and what that has meant for his swing, with minor edits:
I’ve been super lucky in my ninth, tenth season, not really dealing with any major issues, no joints stuff, elbows, shoulders knees, I’ve been pretty lucky but when you do go through something like that — slight tear and soreness at the beginning of the season and we’ve just been rehabbing it because I’m not a needle guy, bro, I don’t like surgeries. I think the biggest thing is when that happened, and the numbers started to go down, you gotta find a way to get the numbers back. It’s all about results, and if you’re out there, oh-for-four with four line drives, that’s a s_____ day in most people’s eyes. My wife always says they come back two-fold but I’m not quite sure. But maybe. Maybe it is one of those things where you cut down on your swing, try to get some base hits. I feel like offensively I have been putting good swings on the ball, just haven’t gotten a whole lot to show for it. You’re going to run into seasons like that. Sometimes it just happens. That’s why this game is so crazy, because you can only control making contact. You can’t control where it goes. I just wanted to get hits, bro, I didn’t care how I got em. Whether it was a one-hand finish or a two-hand finish. There at the beginning, it was just trying to find something that didn’t hurt.
He’s right about his health — he’s averaged 151 games since 2006 and his slate is mostly clean — and his wife is right that line drives eventually turn into hits. Almost 70% of the time. And now we know that he’s had a rotator cuff injury that could have required surgery and that he chose rehab.
It’s nice to know those things, but it’s the idea that he was trying to find a swing that didn’t hurt that might be most impactful on his current statistics. While his ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio is virtually identical to his last three years, his fly ball rate is at a career low. And so is his isolated power. And while he’s generally trended towards more ground balls and higher batting averages on balls in play — three of his best four BABIPS have come in the last four years — this year, he hasn’t been as fortunate on balls in play (.288 BABIP).
That said, a career high in line drive rate would be a good thing most years. Did he stumble on a new swing thanks to a barking shoulder? Let’s look at four swings — one from each side, one from a period last year in which he was hitting fly balls and no line drives, and one from a period this year in which his line drive rate was close to 30% thanks to more grounders. Last year is on the left, this year is on the right.
These are just four swings, even if they were hand picked for a reason. In this year’s swings, he looks like he’s staying inside the ball better and not opening up as fast. But you can notice that he keeps both hands on his bat longer as a right-hander in 2012. That makes sense — his injury is to his left shoulder, and it must be harder to keep the front hand on the bat if the front shoulder is hurting.
But as I hunted for swings, I noticed that he seemed to be swinging at the high strike less often. That makes sense, since those pitches turn into fly balls more often. Let’s use Baseballheatmaps.com to look at Swisher’s swings this year compared to last year. They are overlaid — blue means that Swisher is swinging less this year than last year in that area. Lefty pitchers on the left, righty on the right.
It looks like Swisher is swinging at the high strike less often. But he’s also swinging at the low and inside pitch less often as a right-handed batter, and that’s the pitch that leads to golf shots. Is that because it hurts to swing there, or because he wasn’t showing as much thump, so he has stopped swinging there? Chicken, egg? But it is interesting to note that Swisher’s average batted ball distance on flies and liners is up a half foot from last season.
His power isn’t completely gone. But he is pulling less. And it’s part of a career trend, particularly from the right side of the plate:
|Year||Pull%||Pull% as RHB|
Perhaps Swisher is just getting healthier, and he’ll turn in the same year he usually does after a couple extra home runs in the last frame of the season. Perhaps anything we’re seeing now is really just part of a career trend that’s been going on for a while.
But then it’s still worth noticing that he’s slowly started to become more like Joey Votto as his career has gone on. His ground-ball-to-fly-ball mix has evened out, he’s hit more line drives with every season, and he’s pulled the ball less. Of course, this newer version of Swisher has been about as good as the old version given his career baseline, but perhaps this new approach will help him thrive even as his power succumbs to the nicks and dings of age. It’s probably helped him this year.
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