Oct 13, 2012; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher misplays a ball hit for a double by Detroit Tigers designated hitter Delmon Young (not pictured) in the 12th inning during game one of the 2012 ALCS at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY SportsWith the Cleveland Indians signing of Nick Swisher, the whole direction of their offseason seems to have changed. No longer is the Choo trade going to be seen as a salary dump – rather as a canny move that let them (in effect) trade Choo money for Swisher money and get a couple of high risk, high ceiling pieces in Trevor Bauer and Drew Stubbs. No longer will we be wondering when the next item in their fire sale gets dealt, they (like the White Sox and Royals) are positioning themselves a tad above .500 in range to take down the Tigers if (and only if) everything goes their way.
The Indians are certainly a better team with Swisher than without (as basically any team would be) but for Cleveland the question of whether they are getting enough bang for their buck is unusually important. At first glance, it appears that they got a fair price or maybe even a bit of a deal – probably because so many teams were turned off by the draft pick compensation associated with Swisher. After all, prior to the offseason’s beginning Swisher’s agent said he would be seeking a Jayson Werth-type contract. Dave Cameron at Fangraphs predicted Swisher would get 5 years and $90 million. He wound up signing for far less.
Swisher has been remarkably consistent (at least over the past 4 years in pinstripes). According to Fangraphs, Swisher has been worth no less than 3.2 wins and no more than 4.1 wins over that span – and based on their value calculations has been “worth” between $14.4 and $17.7 million. So, in each of the past 4 seasons he has added more value than the average annual value of his new contract with the Indians.
In terms of Fangraphs WAR value over the past 3 or 4 seasons, Swisher for Choo looks like a perfectly lateral move. But… that might not really be the case. Age i a factor: Swishe is 32 – so that is a reason for some concern and probably another reason that many other teams stayed away. That isn’t the reason that I’m skeptical about this deal though. If I were an Indians fan (and I am anything but) I’d be worried about Swisher’s glove. The thing is, Swisher has a steady and above average (though not elite) offensive skill set. Lots of walks, decent power. The big question mark concerns his glove: advanced metrics (which are used to generate the defense component of WAR) simply cannot agree on whether Swisher is a good defender or one barely able to field the position. If we look at Fangraphs FLD and UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) he looks pretty good: 3.7 runs above average last season. UZR has him at a cumulative 17.2 runs above average as an outfielder over his career (he spent a bunch of time earlier in his career as a first baseman) but DRS (Defensiv Runs Saved) has him at -21 as an outfielder. That’s a huge swing, and mostly responsible for the yawning chasm between Swisher’s value according to Fangraphs and his value according to Baseball-Reference.com. BR – using their dWAR stat – has Swisher down for below average defense every single year of his career and as a result an average of only 2.5 wins added over the last 4.
If you believe BR, Swisher’s peak value between the ages of 28 and 31 has only been about $11 million per season and puts him only slightly above average overall. If so, I’d be pretty skeptical that he’ll be worth anything like $14 million per season between the ages of 32 and 35 – particularly since defense seems to degrade more rapidly with age than anything else (particularly for a guy who never had exceptional range). So which is it? Good value? Bad value? It all comes down to nitpicking over the details of the formulae that generate DRS, UZR, FLD and dWAR. Since those are basically black boxes to all of us, that isn’t even a debate we can have. Still – though I can’t fault Cleveland for the idea of flipping Choo and replacing him with an equivalent free agent – I’m not overly worried about Swisher putting the Tribe over the top.