If you were asked to name the Phillies 24 year old left-handed pitching prospect with a career minor league mark of 21-11 and an ERA of 2.34 over four-plus minor league seasons, would you be able to do it? Probably not.
Keep the name R.J. Swindle in mind.
Swindle started the season at Double-A Reading and baffled hitters at that level to a point where they hit just .143 against him and with that plus good career numbers coming into the season on his resume, the Phillies decided to promote him to Triple-A Lehigh Valley. There, the results have been similar, with hitters posting a .190 average against him. His combined numbers between the two stops? 1-0, 0.81 with opponents hitting .156 against him. Coming into 2007, Swindle had pitched in both the Red Sox and Yankees organizations, but found himself back in a familiar place last spring when he wound up pitching in independent baseball with the Newark Bears. Actually, it was the third straight season that Swindle was starting the year in independent ball, so Swindle had become somewhat used to the routine even though he had put up impressive numbers at every stop along the way in both independent and affiliated ball. So, how does a guy with his numbers wind up in three different organizations and two different independent teams, in four seasons?
Swindle was originally drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 14th round of the 2004 Draft. He signed quickly and reported to Lowell in the New York-Penn League and went 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA. When he got to camp in 2005, it was discovered that he had a herniated disk and the Red Sox doctors decided that he wouldn't be able to pitch again, so he was promptly released. Swindle didn't accept the prognosis and set out to prove the Sox wrong and pitched the entire 2005 season with Schaumburg in the Northern League, but didn't get a call to pitch for an affiliated team even though his numbers were impressive (6-4, 3.27) and he was working as a starter and had thrown two complete games and a total of 118.1 innings. "It wasn't easy to get picked up again because I got released due to injury, so teams were kind of skeptical," remembers Swindle. Eventually, Swindle underwent surgery to repair the disk and was back at Schaumburg to start the 2006 season, just hoping that somebody would finally be convinced that he could pitch. Eventually, the Yankees called and assigned him to Charleston in the South Atlantic League and gave him a late season, one-game audition at Triple-A Columbus and things seemed to be back on track. Then, when the Yankees broke camp in 2007, they simply didn't have roster room on any of their minor league rosters for Swindle, so he was back in independent ball, this time in the Atlantic League. Now, it was the Phillies turn to take notice and he was soon in Lakewood and then in Clearwater. "The Phillies have been really good to me. They're giving me a chance to break spring training and I hadn't gotten that chance before," said Swindle. "They gave me my first stint in Double-A and this is my first real stint here in Triple-A and they've been great. I feel great being here [in the Phillies organization] and this could be my shot."
With a history of back problems, Swindle knows better than to try to become a power pitcher. Instead, he'll finesse hitters to death, leaving them twisting in the batter's box. The key for Swindle actually came about when he was just throwing in the outfield prior to games with Lowell in 2004. That's where he developed the curveball that has become the pitch he's known for and the one that he relies on to get hitters out. The pitch combines good breaking action with the speed of a snail on performance enhancing substances - generally around 52 miles per hour - and hitters don't want anything to do with the pitch. When he's "on", Swindle can even drop it to around 50 miles per hour just to give it that little extra something. "I'll throw that in a lot of two strike counts," said Swindle of how he uses the pitch. It's possibly one of the toughest pitches to hit that ever came out of just joking around in the outfield. "I just started fiddling around with it," said Swindle. "I didn't throw it in college. I was just fooling around in the outfield with my throwing partner and I decided 'you know what, this might actually work' and I started flipping it around." The beauty of the pitch is that even with the drop in velocity, Swindle doesn't slow up his body or his arm action when he throws the pitch and if you were just watching his mechanics, you couldn't distinguish his curveball from his fastball. Even with the lack of velocity, Swindle has found that the pitch is like most others and only really works when he keeps it down in the zone. "If I keep it up, hitters will still hit it, even front-footed," said Swindle. Hitters aren't the only ones anxious to get at the pitch, catchers have to learn to be patient as well. "It's a tough pitch," joked IronPigs catcher Jason Jaramillo. "I have to stay back on it because it seems like it should be there long before it is because when he throws it, he looks like he's bringing heat and then the ball just sort of dies when it leaves his hand." Swindle still keeps his outfield throwing partners guessing by throwing the pitch to them before games. "I'll throw it in the outfield with them [his throwing partners] and they're just reaching for it, because it takes forever to get there," remarked Swindle.
Oh, and in case you're wondering, Swindle does throw a change-up, too. "I use it sparingly, but to big righties, I'll throw it down and away and it's usually pretty effective," explained Swindle. Another key part of Swindle's arsenal is that he'll change his arm slot, dropping down to the side from time-to-time just to keep hitters guessing even a little more. It all adds up to some interesting stats, such as: He has a walks per nine innings rate of 1.56 and a strikeouts per nine rate of 8.8, meaning you're going to have to hit your way on against him because he's not going to walk many, but he will strike out a bunch. In affiliated ball, his WHIP is 0.85, which is an awesome rate. And, to top it all off, a number that's very intriguing considering the Phillies love for pitchers that can keep the ball in the park; Swindle allows 0.2 home runs per nine innings in affiliated ball, giving up just three home runs - they all came at Clearwater - in 163.2 innings of affiliated ball.
"He's a young kid with a lot of talent," said manager Dave Huppert about Swindle. "He's a smart pitcher and he's still got a couple of rough spots, but he's going to be okay." Huppert believes that Swindle still has some learning to do and that was demonstrated on the mound lately when Swindle blew a ground ball back to him because he was too worried about watching the runner on third and preventing him from scoring. Swindle fielded the ball and did the right thing in freezing the runner, but then failed to react quickly enough to make the throw to first to get an out in a key spot, giving Norfolk a bases loaded opportunity. "He just panicked," said Huppert after that game. "He did the right thing in freezing the runner, but then you've got to get the out and he just wasted too much time."
Now that he's healthy and is secure in his spot with an affiliated club, Swindle figures to continue to get better and better. The Phillies have been relatively optimistic in advancing him and it appears that he could be on their radar either for a late season call-up or a spring training audition in 2009. For now though, Swindle is part of a revamped pitching staff at Triple-A Lehigh Valley that has helped the IronPigs win six of their last seven games as they fight for respectability in the International League.
R.J. Swindle; remember the name.
R.J. Swindle's career stats
|2008 Lehigh Valley||0||0||1.59||0||4||0||5.2||4||1||1||0||0||8||0.71||.190|
Stat lines shown in gray are from independent leagues. Want more on R.J. Swindle? Hear our interview with him:
What are your thoughts on R.J. Swindle? If you've seen him pitch, what do you think his chances are of becoming a legitimate Major League pitcher? Let's talk about it here.