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Swisher should rebound in 09

Nick Swisher was quite a disappointment in 2008.

After being traded from Oakland to Chicago, many (including myself) predicted improvement from Swisher, thanks to his friendly offensive environment on the South Side. Instead, Swisher produced a miserable season, hitting .219/.332/.410 with 24 homers. He did benefit from playing in US Cellular Park, but that benefit was negated by a terrible performance in games on the road: Swisher hit .247/.361/.517 with 19 homers at home, but only .189/.301/.294 with five homers on the road.

Recently, the White Sox traded him to the Yankees, where he is currently slated to be their everyday first baseman. And I think the Yankees are in for a pleasant surprise, as Swisher is quite likely to rebound in 2009.

Swisher’s BABIP in 2008 was very low: .251, to be exact. In the previous three seasons, Swisher’s BABIP had been .308, .287 and .266, respectively. However, Swisher actually hit the most line drives of his career in 2008, hitting liners 20.9% of the time. While he did strike out a lot, his strikeout rate was in line with his career rate, as was his walk rate. Swisher’s skill in hitting the ball and hitting it with authority didn’t change; rather, he simply experienced a lot of bad luck.

In a study I recently co-authored, I found that Swisher was one the unluckiest players on balls in play in 2008. I found his expected BABIP to be .294, much higher than his actual BABIP. If we credit Swisher for his lost hits, his 2008 line becomes .249/.356/.447 – not much different from his career line of .244/.354/.441 (and his career line includes his miserable 2008 stats).

In other words, Swisher’s 2008 season, once adjusted for the bad luck he incurred, was exactly in line with his previous seasons. There’s no reason to think that his inherent ability to hit the ball changed much, as evidenced by his stable strikeout, walk, and line-drive rates; therefore, we have every reason to expect Swisher to improve in 2009, thanks to regression to the mean.

Swisher is never going to hit for a very high batting average, but he’s quite unlikely to hit .219 once again. Even though he is no longer playing in the friendly confines of US Cellular Field, Swisher should be good for 25-30 homers (assuming he plays every day), and should put up a decent number of RBI and runs scored, thanks to the other players in the Yankees lineup.

Swisher is not a fantasy superstar, but he’s significantly better than he showed in 2008, and is therefore very likely to be underrated. Don’t hesitate to take him late in drafts, and don’t be surprised when he produces like he did from 2005-2007.