Erik Swanson is the type of pitcher the Blue Jays need
The Toronto Blue Jays' journey to 92 wins and the top Wild Card spot in the American League in 2022 obscured two glaring weaknesses: the lack of high-quality, swing-and-miss relief pitchers, and an impact left-handed hitter.
The Blue Jays took care of one of those concerns on Wednesday, acquiring right-handed reliever Erik Swanson from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for Teoscar Hernandez. The 29-year-old had a 1.68 ERA and 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 57 appearances with the Mariners last season.
Swanson possesses a skill the Blue Jays staff desperately lacked: he misses bats. Swanson induced a swing and miss on 15.1 percent of his pitches last season, 26th among 152 qualified relievers. No Blue Jays relief pitcher was that productive at missing bats, not even All-Star closer Jordan Romano.
The postseason revealed just how important having a pitcher who can keep the ball out of play is. Of the clubs in the top-five in swinging strike percentage last season, all of them made the postseason, led by the World Series champion Houston Astros. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, were 23rd. It was a weakness that was glaringly revealed in the final game of the Wild Card series against Swanson’s Mariners, when the Blue Jays bullpen couldn’t protect an 8-1 lead and saw their once-promising season come to a shocking end.
Blue Jays relievers were 16th in the league in K/9 last season and 13th in ERA. Swanson, meanwhile, was one of only four relief pitchers to appear in at least 50 games with a sub-1.70 ERA and more than 11 K/9. He’s the type of pitcher that can be called upon to get that strikeout in the later innings, to put an end to a budding rally.
An at-bat against Tampa’s Randy Arozarena in April perfectly encapsulates what Swanson is bringing to the Blue Jays. Arozarena faced the Blue Jays in the seventh inning or later 23 times last season. He had eight hits in 21 at-bats, including two doubles, three RBI, and two walks while striking out four times.
On April 26, Arozarena faced Swanson with the Rays trailing the Mariners by four runs with one runner on and nobody out in the eighth inning. After missing with a slider in the dirt, Swanson painted a 93 mph fastball on the outside corner before getting Arozarena to tap a ball foul on a check swing. Two pitches later, after another low splitter, Swanson blew a 94 mph fastball past the Rays’ slugger for a strikeout. What looked like the start of a rally ended without the Rays putting a run on the board.
Swanson is primarily a four-seam, split-finger fastball pitcher. Opponents hit a combined .162 against those two pitches last season. He piles up the strikeouts and gets opponents to whiff at those pitches, something that was sorely missing from the Blue Jays bullpen in 2022.
The Blue Jays will miss Hernandez, who had been with the club for the better part of six seasons and endeared himself to the team’s fanbase and his teammates. He ranks 11th all-time in franchise history in homers. He’s been one of the most productive offensive outfielders in MLB.
But moving him gives the Blue Jays some flexibility. Hernandez was due to earn nearly $14.5 million next season, the last year of his contract. Swanson is under team control for another three seasons and will earn $1.6 million. The move frees up payroll to pursue a left-handed bat to reduce the Blue Jays' over-reliance on right-handers. It also gives them a swing-and-miss pitcher.
Hernandez is gone, but he’s being replaced by a pitcher who checks off just what the team needed.