When the Sox acquired outfielder Nick Swisher from Oakland for the organization's number one, two and three prospects, the expectations were set pretty high that he would become a cornerstone in Chicago.
One line of thinking was that GM Ken Williams paid a high price because a.) Swisher was signed to a long term, inexpensive contract, b.) he would put up monster power numbers in the Cell compared to spacious McAfee Coliseum and c.) the Sox were getting him right before he made the leap from above average regular to super star.
No doubt his infectious spirit has been a welcome addition to the clubhouse, but at more than 100 games into the season, the budding superstar talk might have been a bit optimistic.
Using the blanket "putting too much pressure on himself to justify the trade" and "playing in a new city" pretexts, Swisher got off to a wishy-washy start that forced Ozzie to demote him from lead off to the 7-hole in the line up in May.
Then Swisher had a nice hot streak in June which eased some of the concern over his slow start in the Windy City. Over 27 games that month he batted .315 with 7 HRs, 23 RBIs and an OBP over .400. It was a nice turnaround that had me thinking he was settling in as a run producer in the 6 spot in the line up, and possibly even suitable to return to the lead off role if need be.
But he followed up his strong June with a disappointingly weak July in which he's currently batting .197 with 3 long balls and a .349 OBP. He's now 0-for-his-last-13. July was Swisher's worst month average-wise last year in Oakland as well-- he hit .205 in July compared with .271 for the rest of the season.
So what's up with Swish? Is he just in a prolonged slump or is he not as good as advertised?
First off, the guy is a career .247 hitter, and though we should expect to see some improvement in the department as his hits his "peak" years, we should never expect a batting title from this guy. Nor should we judge his overall performance based on that stat.
But his current .228 mark is pretty weak no matter how you slice it. Anything at .250 or above would probably get the job done, considering his high walk rate. His OBP is still a respectable .349, and some batting average-driven improvement would put him right in his 2007-2008 range. Add twenty points of BA, get 20 free points of OBP and he'll be right in line.
He's also slugging under .400 at the moment, and that has to improve. Any slugging percentage that begins with a "3" is reminiscent of Scotty Pods and Jerry Owens. (To be fair, Swisher's SLG is 80 points than Owens' mark last year. But something in the mid to high .400s would be better.)
Maybe it's due to his "slump", or maybe his 35-homer season in 2006 was a career year. He dipped to 22 homers last year, and will probably clock in at or just below 22 again when the book closes on '08. His doubles, currently at 15, are on pace to be down from last year's 36.
The patience is still there--he's seeing about five pitches per at bat, even though he's recently gone out of the zone on two strikes. His .253/.415/.507 line with runners in scoring position is about where it should be as well.
Still, it all adds up to a guy who has to improve noticeably to hold down a regular spot in the line up. His enjoyable attitude and pleasant disposition is deflecting a lot of criticism so far, but that honeymoon won't last forever. His mediocre defense is centerfield is fine if he's producing at the plate, but even his above average D at first base wouldn't be enough to offset pedestrian batting stats.
If he continues to struggle, he'll have to stay in the number 7 or 8 spot in the line up and/or be demoted to a platoon role for a while, but I still think there's time for him to turn it around.
He may never turn into a .275-35-100 guy, but if he can up the ante to a .255-.260 average with a .370 OBP and five-pitch at bats, he could still be a nice fit for the number two slot in the line up. If his power comes to the 25-homer range, he'll be fine as a run producer in the 6 spot. And if it all comes together, he could still resume the non-traditional lead off hitter role he excelled at for a few weeks this April.