Monday, February 24, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Craig Swan

Hard-luck pitchers.  The majors have seen many of them in recent years.  Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners led all of baseball in 2010 with a 2.27 ERA.  He also paced the American League in innings pitched and allowed the fewest hits per nine innings.  His won-loss record for the year was a rather mediocre 13-12.  Similarly, in Matt Harvey's final 22 starts in 2013, he pitched to a 2.53 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and had an astounding 159 strikeouts to only 22 walks.  Harvey won just five of those 22 starts and the Mets' record in those appearances was 9-13.

Matt Harvey has only been in the big leagues for a year and a half, so he should have plenty of opportunities to become a big winner.  Meanwhile, at age 27, Felix Hernandez has already won 110 games and is 24 games over .500 for his career.

Decades before Harvey and Hernandez had their hard-luck seasons, there was a pitcher who spent a dozen seasons in Flushing making a career out of getting tough losses and no-decisions despite pitching better than most of his fellow moundsmen.  In fact, he may just be the most unfortunate pitcher in Mets history.

Craig Swan was one of the unluckiest pitchers in Mets history.

Craig Steven Swan was selected by the Mets in the third round of the 1972 June amateur draft - the same round that produced future Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley and Gary Carter.  Swan pitched for four years at Arizona State University, winning the national championship in his freshman year in 1969 and allowing just one run in 18 innings as a senior for the Sun Devils in the 1972 College World Series.  With all his college experience, Swan needed very little minor league seasoning before making his debut with the Mets in 1973.  But the Mets of the mid-1970s had Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack making 100-plus starts per season, leaving very few starts for a young pitcher like Swan, even though he dominated minor league hitters in 1972 and 1973 (14-8, 2.29 ERA in 28 starts).  Because of the Mets' strong rotation, Swan was only afforded 12 starts at the big league level between 1973 and 1975, winning just twice and posting a 5.81 ERA and 1.69 WHIP.  Finally, in 1976, as the country was celebrating its bicentennial, Craig Swan had a different reason to celebrate.  He had finally earned his first extended stay in the big leagues.

The 1976 Mets finished the year with an 86-76 record, which at the time represented the second-highest win total in franchise history.  The big three of Seaver, Koosman and Matlack combined to win 52 games for the Mets.  Meanwhile, Craig Swan made 22 starts in his first full season with New York.  He got off to a quick start, notching his first-ever complete game shutout against the Atlanta Braves on April 28, adding a career-high 11 strikeouts to his masterpiece.  Swan won his next start as well, allowing just two runs to the defending World Series champion Cincinnati Reds.  But Swan's next four starts were not nearly as graceful, and by early June, his ERA had risen to 5.44.  That's when Swan turned his season around and perhaps saved his career.

In a seven-start stretch from June 7 to July 9, Swan was practically untouchable, posting a 1.59 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and holding opposing hitters to a .193 batting average.  But an elbow injury kept Swan out of action for the entire month of August, putting a damper on the 25-year-old's first full season.  Swan returned in early September and allowed two runs or less in four of his last five starts.  However, despite the strong September efforts, Swan was only able to win one of those five starts.  It was a trend that haunted him for the rest of his career.

After not pitching well in limited action from 1973 to 1975, Swan broke through in 1976, finishing the year with a 3.54 ERA and 1.31 WHIP.  But not even a solid season in those departments could prevent Swan from posting a low victory total.  Swan won just six games in 1976, as the Mets managed to score three runs or less in half of his 22 starts.

It wasn't much better for Swan or the team in 1977.  Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman were traded as part of the infamous "Midnight Massacre" on June 15, leaving the team without its best pitcher and greatest power threat.  Swan made 24 starts in 1977, making him one of seven pitchers on the Mets to start at least ten games.  Although the right-hander finished the year just one win off the club lead (Nino Espinosa led the team with ten victories), he saw his ERA and WHIP rise to 4.23 and 1.43, respectively.  After five seasons in the major leagues, Swan was no longer part of a contending team, as the Mets ended the 1977 campaign in last place with a 64-98 record.  His team may have waved goodbye to its best days, but Swan was about to say hello to a tremendous five-year stretch, a period in which he became one of the most unlikely dependable pitchers in the National League. 

The 1978 season began with Tom Seaver in Cincinnati and Jon Matlack in Texas.  Jerry Koosman was still a Met, but he was coming off an 8-20 season (the first 20-loss campaign for a Mets pitcher since 1965) and was quite unhappy about the direction of the team.  After another terrible year on the mound, one in which he lost 15 of 18 decisions, Koosman was traded to the Minnesota Twins for Jesse Orosco.  The pitching staff of Seaver, Koosman and Matlack - the rotation that kept Swan out of a regular spot until 1976 - was no more.  And Swan took full advantage of being the new go-to guy on the staff.

Despite nagging injuries that kept him out of action for two-week spells in June and September, Swan managed to make 28 starts for the Mets in 1978.  Swan was brilliant in the first half of the season.  He won his first start of the season by pitching a complete-game shutout against the Cubs (although hardly anyone can claim to have witnessed Swan's gem in person, as the announced attendance at Shea Stadium that day was only 3,751).  Swan continued to pitch beautifully throughout the first half of the season.  Through games of July 15, Swan had a 2.59 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and had limited opposing batters to a .221 batting average and .281 on-base percentage.  In addition, Swan allowed two runs or less in 11 of his first 16 starts.  Unfortunately, by July 15, Swan was still searching for his second victory of the season.  As incredible as it may seem, despite allowing just 32 earned runs in 15 starts following his shutout in his first start, Swan did not win any of those 15 games, as he was saddled with five losses and ten no-decisions.

Part of the reason why Swan appeared to be allergic to victories was his bullpen.  During a six-start stretch from April 15 to May 12, Swan left three games with the Mets in front.  The bullpen coughed up the lead all three times.  Then on July 15, Swan was removed the game with Mets holding a three-run lead.  But the relief corps of Paul Siebert, Dale Murray and Skip Lockwood combined to allow six runs over the next two innings in a game the Mets lost the Reds, 7-5.

The bullpen wasn't the only reason for Swan's low win total.  The offense also failed to show up when Swan was on the mound.    The Mets were shut out three times in Swan's first 16 starts and scored three runs or less in eight others.  As a result, half of Swan's first 16 starts resulted in one-run games.  And of course, with an offense that couldn't extend leads and a bullpen that couldn't hold them, the Mets were unable to give Swan the "W" in the 15 starts following his first-start shutout.  But after July 15, things finally started going right for the Mets whenever Swan took the hill.

From July 19 to August 30, Swan was a perfect 7-0 with just two no-decisions.  The offense clicked for Swan, scoring eight runs or more in four of those nine starts, and the bullpen was more efficient, holding opponents scoreless in six of the nine contests.  Swan continued to keep opposing batters off the bases (.287 OBP) and actually had a lower ERA during the nine-start stretch (2.33) than he had during his 15-start winless streak.  Swan bookended his season-opening victory with a win in his final start, a 3-1 gem over the St. Louis Cardinals in which he allowed one run on just three hits in seven innings.  It was the sixth time Swan allowed three hits or less in 1978 and the 12th time he gave up no more than one earned run.

Swan finished the year with a league-leading 2.43 ERA, making him just the second Met ever to lead the league in that category (Tom Seaver won ERA titles in 1970, 1971 and 1973).  Swan also finished second in the league with a 1.07 WHIP and surpassed 200 innings pitched for the first time in his career.  But of course, his inability to secure a win for three months kept his record at 9-6, one of the lowest win totals for an ERA champion in major league history.  Swan's unluckiness was a team-wide problem, as the Mets finished in last place in the NL East for a second straight season in 1978 with a 66-96 record.

As good as Swan's 1978 season was, his 1979 campaign may have been his best.  It certainly was the weirdest season for a Mets pitcher when compared to his fellow starters.

 In 1979, if you didn't see Craig Swan pitch at Shea Stadium, you probably didn't go home with a win.

The 1979 Mets were a team in complete disarray.  They bumbled, fumbled and stumbled their way to a league-worst 63-99 record, winning their last six games to avoid their first 100-loss season since 1967.  It was also the first time since 1967 that the team was outscored by 100 or more runs, as the '79 squad allowed 706 runs while scoring just 593 times.  The Mets used 15 different starting pitchers in 1979, which was the highest number of starters used by the squad since they needed 20 in - you guessed it - 1967.  But despite being on the team that was the laughingstock of the league, Craig Swan continued to be one of the NL's most consistent pitchers, even when his teammates were not.

Swan finished the 1979 season by setting new career highs in just about every pitching category.  Among his new highs were starts (35), innings pitched (251), complete games (10), shutouts (3) and strikeouts (145).  Those career-high numbers placed Swan in the league's top ten in all five categories.  In addition, Swan's first full season of good health saw him finish in the league's top ten in WHIP (1.19; 8th in the NL) and K/BB ratio (2.54; 4th), as well as completing the year with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage (no errors in 46 chances).  And on a team level, Swan's 251⅓ innings made him just the fifth Mets pitcher to surpass 250 innings pitched in a single season, joining Jack Fisher (1965), Tom Seaver (1967-73, 1975-76), Jerry Koosman (1968, 1973-74) and Jon Matlack (1974, 1976).

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Swan's 1979 campaign was not what he did on the mound, but what he did compared to what his fellow moundsmen did.  Swan won 14 games in 1979.  No other Mets pitcher won more than six.  Swan pitched ten complete games.  No one else had more than one.  Swan pitched three shutouts in '79.  The rest of the team combined to pitch two.  As much as the 1979 Mets stunk, they couldn't even draw flies to Shea Stadium, let alone fans, as only 788,905 fans came to Flushing to watch the team play.  Those die-hards didn't see many wins that year, but at least they knew they had their best chance to leave Shea Stadium in a victorious mood whenever Craig Swan was on the mound.

As the Mets entered a new decade in 1980, the team embarked on a new philosophy.  Gone was the "Grant's Tomb" version of the Mets, as new owners Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday vowed to do whatever it took to make the Mets competitive again.  The new owners also brought in general manager Frank Cashen, who promised that the team would be turned around within five years.  One of Cashen's first moves as the Mets' new GM was to sign Craig Swan for five years and $3 million, which at the time was the most lucrative deal for a pitcher in franchise history.

Swan thanked the team by remaining one of the toughest pitchers to score against.  In his first 12 starts in 1980, Swan recorded a 2.21 ERA and 0.91 WHIP, limiting opposing hitters to a .203 batting average and an almost unheard-of .244 on-base percentage.  During the last seven starts of his two-month streak of excellence, Swan authored four complete-game victories, including a ten-inning gem won on a walk-off grand slam by Mike Jorgensen on June 11.

But Swan struggled over his next nine starts, going 0-5 with a 6.28 ERA.  A sore right shoulder was the original reason given for Swan's struggles, which landed him on the disabled list for a month after a loss to the Braves on July 16.  When Swan returned to the team on August 16, he continued to pitch in pain and was forced to end his season prematurely two starts later as the result of a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.  The Mets were flirting with the .500 mark and the division lead when Swan first went on the disabled list in mid-July.  They were an NL-worst 24-52 after July 17, never recovering from the loss of their ace pitcher, who finished the year winning just five of his 21 starts.

The injury bug afflicted Swan once again in 1981, as a rib fracture (caused on a throw by his own catcher, Ron Hodges) and shoulder discomfort caused him to miss most of the season.  Swan made only three starts and two relief appearances in the strike-shortened '81 campaign and did not pick up a win.  However, when Swan was able to pitch, he was vintage Swan, allowing only 11 base runners in 13⅔ innings and posting a 3.29 ERA.  Through the first two years of his team-record contract, Swan had given the team just five victories, making it seem like the deal was a bust.  But a return to form in 1982 brought relief to Swan and the front office.  The only problem was that the team's new manager insisted on using all of his starters in relief.

After nearly five seasons at the helm of a struggling Mets team, Joe Torre was replaced by new manager George Bamberger prior to the start of the 1982 season.  Bamberger already had a strong relationship with the Mets' general manager, as he was the pitching coach in Baltimore during Cashen's tenure as the Orioles' general manager in the 1960s and 1970s.  Naturally, Bamberger's strength would help mold the Mets' staff into a rotation full of solid starters, which included the injury-prone Craig Swan.  At least, that's what was supposed to happen.

The team started the year well under Bamberger.  As late as June 20, the Mets were just three games out of first place with a 34-30 record.  But Bamberger was using all of his starters in relief, sometimes because of injuries and at other times because of poor performances as starting pitchers.  As a result, no pitcher made more than 24 starts for the Mets in 1982 and seven pitchers made at least ten starts.  All seven of those starters made at least eight relief appearances for the team and all but one of them (Randy Jones) recorded at least one save.  But despite the disarray in the rotation and bullpen, Craig Swan managed to keep it together - at least while he was on the mound.

Swan began the season by making two starts before he was moved to the bullpen for 15 consecutive relief appearances.  Swan was brilliant out of the pen, going 3-0 with a 1.47 ERA and holding batters to an incredible .180/.209/.288 slash line.  As a result of his dominance out of the pen, Swan was moved back into the starting rotation in early June.  But Swan struggled in his return to the starting rotation.  Not helping his case, Swan got into an altercation with his manager in late June that stemmed from the team's travel arrangements - the team refused to switch from commercial flights to chartered flights, even after a long flight delay.  Swan and Bamberger had to separated during the shoving match, causing an upset Bamberger to say: "In my mind, he was out of line.  There were 30 or 40 people on that plane who didn't complain.  If he wants a charter, let him charter it himself."

Clearly, the altercation left Swan shaken, as he lost his next two starts after the scuffle, allowing a total of 12 runs in 9⅓ innings.  But in his first start in July, Swan was back to his usual self, and almost accomplished something that no Mets pitcher had ever done before.

On July 2, Swan took the mound against the Phillies, a team that had shelled him for seven runs and nine hits in just 2⅓ innings in his previous start.  But Swan was not going to allow Philadelphia's veteran hitters repeat the feat a second time.  Swan mowed down the potent Phillies lineup, retiring 17 batters without allowing a hit.  But Pete Rose broke up the no-hitter with two out in the sixth inning on a clean single to right.

Swan was cognizant of what was going on throughout his entire effort, which he admitted after the game.  But he was not too disappointed that he didn't notch the team's first no-hitter.  Rather, he was encouraged because his effort indicated that he was back to his usual form after years of pitching through injuries and spending extended periods of time on the disabled list.

"I was aware of it.  The scoreboard was there telling me every time I turned around.  But I was not pitching any differently because of it. ... They told me it would be midseason before I would reach my form.  That's been true.  I wanted to throw a little harder each time out.  Now, the rehabilitation is over."


Beginning with his near no-hitter, Swan finished the year by winning six of his last ten decisions, earning his first major league save along the way.  But Swan was the only pitcher who won regularly during the season's final three months, as the Mets went 27-58 after Swan's victory over the Phillies on July 2.

For the second time in four seasons, Swan was the only pitcher on the Mets to reach double digits in victories.  Swan led the team's main core of starters in ERA (3.35) and WHIP (1.21), while issuing the fewest walks (37).  His return to prominence almost earned him the Comeback Player of the Year Award, as he finished second to Joe Morgan of the San Francisco Giants.  But that was the last good season Swan would have for New York, as Swan would once again flip-flop between the starting rotation and the bullpen in 1983.  This time, however, he faltered in both roles, finishing the year with a 2-8 record and an un-Swan-like 5.51 ERA.  The Mets then protected Swan in the free-agent compensation pool during the '83-'84 off-season instead of Tom Seaver, who had returned to the team in 1983.  Seaver became a member of the Chicago White Sox in 1984 and won his 300th game in the majors a year later.  By that time, Swan was already out of baseball, as he made just ten relief appearances (no starts) for the Mets in 1984 before he was released in early May.  Swan then signed with the California Angels but only pitched five innings for the Halos.  His last game in the majors came just six days after he signed with the Angels.

The oft-injured Swan is now helping others from getting hurt, as he is currently a practicing physical therapist specializing in rolfing, a technique named after its creator, Dr. Ida Rolf.  Rolfing attempts to  rid the body of pain through alignment and lengthening the tissues that cover the body's muscles.

Craig Swan pitched twelve seasons in the majors, with all but two of big league appearances coming as a member of the New York Mets.  His final record with the Mets (59-71, 3.72 ERA, 1.27 WHIP) suggests that he was just average at best, but he was much better than average for a five-year stretch from 1978 to 1982.  He just didn't have the wins to show for it.  Then again, neither did the team.

From '78 to '82, Swan was the owner of a 3.12 ERA and 1.147 WHIP.  He also held opposing hitters to a .288 on-base percentage.  Swan was one of only seven National League pitchers to post an ERA under 3.15 during those five seasons (minimum 700 innings pitched).  He was also one of just three NL hurlers to have a sub-1.15 WHIP from 1978 to 1982, as well as one of three to keep opposing hitters below a .290 on-base percentage.  The other two pitchers in both categories were Hall of Famers Steve Carlton and Don Sutton.  Of the seven pitchers who kept their earned run averages under 3.15, all but Swan won at least 56 games during the five seasons.  Similarly, the other two pitchers who had a WHIP under 1.15 and OBP under .290 both won at least 64 games from 1978 to 1982.  Swan could only manage a 39-37 record.

It's true that Craig Swan didn't win many games.  But he did have a winning record during his best five seasons, a time in which the Mets had a combined record of 302-449.  Felix Hernandez has been a great pitcher for the Mariners since making his major league debut in 2005.  But his greatness has produced just one season of more than 14 victories.  Similarly, Matt Harvey has only won 12 games in 36 big league starts despite a stellar 2.39 ERA, a sub-1.00 WHIP and more than one strikeout per inning.

If Hernandez and Harvey ever get frustrated with their lack of wins, they have a former Met they can contact who can relate to their pain.  After all, Craig Swan knows what it's like to be the best pitcher on some of the worst Mets teams.  

Craig Swan couldn't help himself to more wins, but now he's helping others feel like winners.

(Photo by Richard Harbus/NY Daily News)

Note:  The Best On The Worst is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting the greatest Mets players who just happened to play on some not-so-great Mets teams.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 6, 2014: Todd Hundley 
January 13, 2014: Al Jackson
January 20, 2014: Lee Mazzilli
January 27, 2014: Steve Trachsel
February 3, 2014: Rico Brogna
February 10, 2014: Skip Lockwood 
February 17, 2014: Ron Hunt

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