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Every contending MLB team should have a swingman pitcher

Pitchers who provide long relief and can make the occasional spot start might not seem very valuable, but they occasionally give teams a way to improve their pitching staff in an extremely cost effective way.

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Being a "swingman" pitcher is a relatively thankless job. One could easily argue that most pitchers who fill these kinds of roles do not receive very much fanfare. Usually, pitchers who provide long relief are thought of as not having the stuff to be a starter and lacking the bulldog mentality of a closer. But considering how valuable they often are to contending teams, good swingman pitchers should get more of the spotlight.

Several swingmen have played crucial roles for successful MLB teams. In the late 90's, Panama native Ramiro Mendoza did a great job of eating innings out of the bullpen, while making the occasional spot start for the Yankees. Last year, Adam Warren played a similar role, boosting his value to the point where he was able to net Starlin Castro in a trade with the Cubs. Even the world champion Kansas City Royals had Chris Young, who provided three scoreless innings to win Game 1 of the World Series.

Swingmen are especially valuable in the postseason, as every game is significantly more important. If a team's starting pitcher is struggling early in the game, someone who can keep the team within striking distance and serve as a bridge to the set up man and/or closer is a tremendous asset. In Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, Mike Mussina did just that, coming on in relief of Roger Clemens to keep the Yankees in the game. One year later, Javier Vazquez failed to stop the Red Sox bats after they jumped on Kevin Brown in Game 7.

But what makes a good swingman? Ideally, MLB teams probably want someone who can put up middle to back of the rotation numbers as a starter, and can provide set up or closer numbers as a reliever. Last season, Adam Warren did just that. He made his first 14 appearances as a starter, then moved to the bullpen after Ivan Nova's return from Tommy John surgery. After that, Warren's next 25 appearances were as a reliever. When he relocated to the bullpen, he became a different pitcher:

Adam Warren - 2015 First 14 Starts Next 25 Relief Appearances
Avg. Fastball Velocity 93.19 mph 94.50 mph
Slider Usage (%) 26.3% 36.1%
K/9 5.88 9.46
ERA (FIP) 3.59 (4.17) 2.51 (2.76)

As a reliever, Warren experienced a predictable velocity spike. But knowing he didn't have to go six innings allowed him to use his slider more, which helped him increase his strikeout rate. As a starter, his repertoire was diverse enough to help him put up very respectable numbers. In addition to the fastball and slider, he used a solid curveball and changeup to keep hitters off balance.

When looking for swingmen, teams should follow the Adam Warren model and look for pitchers who have a full arsenal of pitches, even if only one or two of them are above average offerings. Looking at the 2015 Pitch F/X leaderboard at Baseball Prospectus, I tried to find pitchers who fit this kind of mold. Specifically, I looked for pitchers who had significant starting experience at the Triple-A level or higher and had at least one plus pitch, but would probably not require the same kind of trade pieces as an established starter or closer:

Name Organization Plus Pitch 2015 Whiff/Swing% of Plus Pitch
Trevor Bauer Indians Curveball 43.95%
Sean Gilmartin Mets Slider 36.70%
Jeff Locke Pirates Changeup 36.15%
Adam Morgan Phillies Slider 33.71%
Charlie Morton Phillies Curveball 44.56%
Erasmo Ramirez Rays Changeup 39.87%

Towards the trade deadline, there will surely be teams that are looking to shore up their bullpen and/or starting rotation. Instead of trading top prospects for a well-known starter or reliever, they might consider looking for a swingman and keeping tabs on pitchers like the ones listed above. It could be the difference between a playoff game remaining competitive and getting out of hand, and it also could be the difference between breaking the bank and maintaining the farm system.

Data is courtesy of Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus.