The Blue Jays need to find a new way to use Erik Swanson out of the bullpen

”I don’t know if he’s tipping pitches, honestly ... I’m not afraid to say that publicly.”
Wild Card Series - Toronto Blue Jays v Minnesota Twins - Game Two
Wild Card Series - Toronto Blue Jays v Minnesota Twins - Game Two / Adam Bettcher/GettyImages

Up 3-1 after yet another quality start from Blue Jays starter starter Yusei Kikuchi on Friday, his 4th time in seven starts going 6 innings while allowing three runs or less, John Schneider called on reliever Erik Swanson to take the ball to start the 7th inning. Things unravelled quickly, as he failed to record an out before giving up a 3-run home run to Luis Garcia Jr.

That took Swanson’s ERA from 12.60 to 18.00, which is a shocking start to the season following a stellar first year in Toronto, when he posted a 2.97 ERA over a career-high 66.2 innings in 2023.

It was so bad, Schneider wondered out loud afterwards if Swanson is tipping pitches. “Leaving pitches up in the zone... I don’t know if he’s tipping pitches, honestly... I’m not afraid to say that publicly," Schneider said.

Jays fans know Swanson had an abbreviated Spring Training after his 4-year-old son, Toby, was hit by a car and airlifted to a hospital in Clearwater, Florida in late February. At the time, Schneider noted that “Family comes first. Our love, support and prayers are with Erik, Madison, Toby and the entire Swanson family."

Thankfully his son was okay and was released from hospital in early March. “I stand here, very happily, telling you that in the next day or two, he should probably be going home,” Swanson said on March 7th. “Just based on the situation, we’re very, very lucky with everything that happened and the outcome of where we’re at now. My wife [Madison] has been absolutely amazing through this entire process. She is very strong. She’s what a strong, courageous mother should be.”

With that major family scare behind him, Swanny Pops was only able to make two appearances in Spring Training before being shut down after his appearance on March 13th. He opened the regular season on the 15-day injured list retroactive to March 25th with right forearm inflammation.

After a rehab assignment that took him through Dunedin and Buffalo, the 30-year-old was activated on April 16th and added back to the 26-man big league roster after allowing four hits and two runs over 1.1 innings in two appearances for the Triple-A Bisons.

That may have been premature given he’s lost two games in 7 appearances covering only 5 innings season-to-date, including that meltdown Friday in Washington. More worrisome may be the fact that he’s only struck out three batters, while walking two and giving up 10 earned runs on 12 hits, including 3 home runs. Fans are restless given Schneider keeps using him in high leverage situations, leading to two losses.

While 5 innings is an extremely small sample size, the concern that he may be tipping his pitches is real. According to Statcast, his velocity and spin rates are close to where they were last season.

So how should the Blue Jays use Swanson out of the bullpen?

Assuming he’s not injured, perhaps he should only be used in lower leverage situations until he can earn back the level of trust to be used in again in high leverage relief? Or could a 30-day rehab assignment in the minors at the pitching lab in Dunedin help him build back his confidence and help the team figure out if he’s tipping his pitches?

The issue there is that the depth options aren’t great, with all of Chad Green, Bowden Francis, Yariel Rodríguez and Ricky Tiedemann already on the IL. While it would be great to have the luxury of letting him work his way back into the good graces of his manager via a rehab assignment in the minors, the Blue Jays might not have that choice available to them at present. He might just have to work through his issues in lower leverage situations at the major league level.