Mariners’ left-handed pitchers are craftier than you think
Considering how many pitching different roles he’s appeared in for the Seattle Mariners this season — starter, opener, and a handful of different scenarios in relief — rookie Erik Swanson has found ways to adapt.
“It’s definitely been kind of a whirlwind,” said the 25-year-old right-hander, who joined Seattle’s organization in November. “I’ve done so many different things so far this year. Started the year as a starter, did a little opening. Had to work on a few different things. And going out to the bullpen now, I’m finally starting to find my footing out there and get consistent with the routine.
“It’s been good. It’s just been a lot of learning here and there, and tweaking a few things.”
After making six starts for the Mariners between April and May, and then spending some time with Triple-A Tacoma, Swanson has been quietly transitioning into one of Seattle’s more consistent relievers in the past month.
Entering Sunday, he’d appeared for the Mariners — twice as an opener, but primarily as a reliever — in 11 games since being recalled from the Rainiers in July, and hadn’t allowed a run in his six previous outings, giving up just two hits and two walks while striking out 11 across 8 1/3 innings.
“I do think his confidence is rising,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It’s really important for young players to feel like they belong.”
Working with the Mariners throughout this season, Swanson seems to have found where his particular skillset — which includes a fastball that sits around 92.6 mph, but has tracked as high as 96.4 in the majors this season — plays best. It just took a few months to get there.
When Swanson came to Seattle as one of the three prospects the Mariners received from the Yankees in exchange for former ace James Paxton, he was still projected as a starter, and had meaningful experience as one his first five seasons in the minors.
He was drafted in the eighth round in 2014 by Texas out of a junior college in Iowa, and spent two seasons bouncing around minor league bullpens with the Rangers organization before starting 15 games in A-ball in 2016. That was enough to get him looped into a deal with the Yankees, along with two other right-handers, halfway through the summer in exchange for Carlos Beltran.
With New York’s organization, Swanson pitched almost exclusively as a starter — 66 of 73 games from Low-A to Triple-A — for two-plus seasons, and had a 3-2 record and 3.86 ERA in 13 starts in Triple-A last season.
“The plan when I came over (from New York) was to be a starter,” Swanson said. “Go into spring, be a starter, and then throughout the season, obviously a few things changed, a couple things I needed to work on. We felt like the bullpen was the best spot for me to do that.”
Swanson made his major league debut with the Mariners in April, during that historic 13-2 stretch to open the season that seems like a very distant memory now. He came out of the bullpen in Kansas City that day, but his next six outings were as a starter, and he went 1-5 with a 7.98 ERA in that stretch before he was optioned to Tacoma. There, he said, is where the organization put a new plan in place.
“Right when I went down in May, we had talked, and the plan was to convert me into a bullpen guy, have long relief, open here and there,” Swanson said.
He still started five of the nine games he appeared in those two months with the Rainiers after being sent down — a hamstring injury cost him two weeks of June — but never tossed more than three innings or 57 pitches.
Servais said once the Mariners got into the season a ways, and saw what Swanson did best, it became clear where he could have the most success.
“His fastball has ability to play up in the zone and get on hitters, and when they see him one time, it’s more effective than trying to get through a lineup twice,” Servais said. “Trying to get his confidence going, get him in a good spot, I think this has worked out a little bit better, using him for an inning and 2/3 or a couple innings or just an inning at a time. (His arm) seems to bounce back pretty quick.”
There’s still room for growth on Swanson’s secondary pitches, Servais said, but positive results have started to come around in August.
“I think that’s the big reason I got into so much trouble the second and third time through the order starting earlier this year, is just inconsistency with my secondary stuff,” Swanson said. “That was my big focus when I went to Tacoma, was trying to figure out the slider and changeup.
“And now we scratched the changeup and I’ve been working on an split, trying to figure that out. But, that was kind of my main focus, and still is.”
Swanson said he’s still adjusting to this newfound reliever role after starting the majority of the past few seasons in the minors, but he’s getting closer to establishing a routine that works for him.
“That’s still kind of something I’m trying to figure out — how much to throw between each outing — because obviously … there’s an opportunity for me to pitch each and every day,” he said. “So, I’m trying to manage that workload a little bit better.
“Unlike being a starting pitcher, where you have those five or six days mapped out, every single day, what you want to do, I’m still trying to figure out a routine here (in the bullpen), and really set it in stone. But, I feel like the last couple weeks it’s getting a lot better.”