Last Tuesday, June 21, 2016, Erik Swanson took the mound at the South Atlantic League All-Star Game, which was held at Lexington, KY. It was exactly one year to the day that Swanson made his debut with the Hickory Crawdads.
The plan was to begin his stint out of the bullpen and then work into the rotation. However, after seven relief outings, a forearm flexor strain ended his season, save for a brief rehab stint in the Arizona Summer League near the end of its season.
A lot has changed for Swanson in the course of the season, especially a renewed attention to his training. That training has paid off in velocity – his fastball sits in the 94-96 mph range and has been clocked up to 98 – and in the ability to take the ball every six games as part of the Crawdads rotation. After throwing 38 innings total over his first two pro seasons, Swanson is already at 57.2 innings following his last start at Greensboro.
In the interview below, Swanson talks about the benefits of his training, the adjustments to his repertoire, and coming to the pros from Iowa Western Community College.
First off all, considering where you were this time last year, you’ve got to be especially pleased with how things have gone for you.
Swanson: Yeah, I am. Last year, coming up here at the all-star break and pitching for about a month and then getting hurt and missing the rest of the year, my main focus this year was to stay healthy. Making the all-star team was another goal of mine coming in here and playing for Hickory. It was a pretty good accomplishment that I was able to do.
What do you think has been the key to your success this year versus where you were last year? Obviously getting healthy is a big part of that, but a lot of guys are hurt one year and come back the next and don’t do what you have put together in the first half.
Swanson: Obviously, like you said, health has been the biggest key for me. Being in a little different role this year – last year I was out of the pen when I was here – this year coming in as a starter, I feel that that’s a big key for me. I think it’s what I do best. I’m able to prepare myself a lot better – getting that routine. Being on a six-man (rotation) here, I’m able to get into the six-day routine, which has been really big for me this year.
One of the things that Mike Daly (Texas Rangers senior director of minor league operations) mentioned when he was here, he said one of the things that he was pleased with was that you’ve owned the strength and conditioning and the training and the arm care. What was the turning point for you in that area?
Swanson: Obviously health was my biggest. Last year, missing as much time as I did, I knew that year was going to be a big year for me. This offseason, I got after it as much as I could. I felt like I prepared myself going into spring training and put myself into a situation to succeed. Then, being able to carry that from spring training to Hickory this year was been huge for me. Working with Dustin (Crawdads trainer Dustin Vissering) on some different arm care routines that I’ve been doing that have been working. I’m just trying to do that and continue that to stay healthy.
Did you take the training less serious before you got hurt?
Swanson: No, it’s not something that I took as serious as I am now, which is one of my bigger downfalls. I was a little overweight last year. The big key focus for this year was if I could come in spring training at a healthy weight – a good weight – physically strong. I feel like I did and I think that most everybody thinks that I did that as well. Now, the focus for me is being able to maintain that and show them that I can do that.
Having thrown so few innings, in the last year, so you think that has helped you to stay strong, at least in the first half, with the idea that you’re going to add some innings to that total this year?
Swanson Yeah, that’s a big part of it. I don’t know off the top of my head how many innings I threw last year, but I think I’m close to double the innings I’ve thrown my entire professional career. A big part of that is me staying healthy and me getting in the shape that I needed to be in to come in this year as a starter and bring able to maintain that throughout the rest of the year. Staying healthy is going to be huge for me. It’s going to be a challenge and that’s my main goal this year.
Was there a moment in the training that you flipped the switch, or did somebody say something to you, or was there a combination that said to you that this has to be different?
Swanson: Obviously, this is only my second full year. Me being a college guy, I’m 22 years old and in Low-A, which is fine with me. But, I just kind of sat down and thought to myself, “How long are they going to keep me around if I’m not doing what I need to be doing?” I think that’s kind of the point in the offseason was when I started to really flip that switch.
I came into spring training and I felt great and still feel great. I still have lot more room for improvement on all those aspects of everything – physical shape, mentally strong – and all that comes down to what I do on the field and off the field. So yeah, I think there definitely was a point where I decided to flip the switch on my own, along with other people telling me that it’s time.
What’s been the difference as far as your stuff goes. I remember you had a good fastball last year and a change – but we didn’t see you enough to get a grasp. What are some different things you’ve done as far as your stuff goes?
Swanson: I had a decent fastball last year and it’s definitely improved this year. The changeup has been a big one for me. It’s a pitch that I’ve been constantly working on, changing grips – and I’ll probably continue to do that until I find a grip that I feel comfortable throwing. That’s something that’s definitely improved from my first start here until my last start. I’m working on slider grips a little bit. Now, I’m working on a little bit of a curveball that hopefully the next start I’ll be throwing it in some games. I feel comfortable throwing it in my bullpens.
How does someone pitching at Iowa Western get noticed by pro scouts?
Swanson: Going from my first Juco (Wabash Valley CC , IL) to Iowa Western, that was my biggest thing. I needed to go somewhere where I’m going to get recognized, where I can go on and continue my college career and possibly have the opportunity to play professional baseball. It just seemed like they go back to the (NJCAA) World Series every year in Grand Junction (CO).
My head coach Marc Rardin was phenomenal. He taught me so much stuff and improved my game on the mound and off the field. That’s kind of his motto; he teaches us to become men before baseball players – to prepare us for life after. Going there, he helped me with that. It’s a winning program, so they’re going to get scouts around there and I just happened to go there. He gave me all the tools I needed and I put them together and had a successful season and got noticed by the right people.
When you were drafted by the Rangers, was the expectation that you would start or they would throw you from the bullpen?
Swanson: When I went to Spokane, I was a little bit on an innings limit because in my freshman year in college I threw only 17 innings, and then I threw close to 90 innings in my sophomore year. So, they wanted me out of the pen in Spokane. But in the future, the plan was to become a starter. I think that was the direction I was headed last year when I first got here, but then obviously injuries put that on hold a little bit.
I want to go back to your college coach and you saying that he treated you like men. What was a big life lesson you got out of that experience with your coach at Iowa Western?
Swanson: When I went there, it was a big program with team. You focus on the guys around you. He’s big in the classroom. If you’re not doing your stuff in the classroom, then I’m not going to say you didn’t deserve to play, but you’ve got to earn it.
The reason I said that, that he wants us to become men first and prepare us for life after baseball, because that’s something he always told us. What I do here, whether it’d be on the baseball field or off the baseball field with classrooms, study halls and stuff like that, my first goal is to help my ballplayers to become men and prepare them for life after baseball. At some point it’s going to end. You can go online and I can guarantee you that you can find that quote in a few different articles. I heard it all the time when I was there and even in articles that I read now, I still read it.
What are the goals for the rest of the year?
Swanson: I had a few goals coming in. Obviously, staying healthy is my main goal. Reaching my inning limit is another one. At some point, one of my goals is to get out of here. Obviously, that’s out of my hands. I just need to do what I’m doing here. I need to keep up what I’m doing. If they decide that I need to move somewhere, then obviously that’s decision. I just need to keep doing what I’m doing and trying to get to the point to where they have no choice but to move me up. Notching a playoff spot while we’re here.
You get a call to the major leagues, what does that look like for you? What do you think your reaction will be?
Swanson: It’s kind of a dream come true. That’s something you dream about since you were a little kid, getting a call. I think the coolest thing for me, once I realize what is happening, will be making that call to all my family and letting them know that I’m going up.
I don’t know, that’s a really good question. I’ve never really thought about how I would react or anything. I think that’d be definitely the coolest part is to be able to call my mom and dad and friends, brother and sister-in-law and telling them that.
You guys put up with some much crap. What’s the biggest part of the crap that you might look back on and say, “That was worth it”?
Swanson: There’s a lot of little things that, I wouldn’t say that it’s crap, they might just get boring. You get that same routine every day and stuff seems like it’s tough. You come to the field every day at the same time. Obviously, that’s your time you get your work done, but sometimes you wake up and you might not want to come in, but you know you have to and you know that your ultimate going that you’re trying to get to, going in that day is going to help you get there.
You’ve got instructionals at the end of the year. The regular season is over with and it’s another month that you’ve got to add on, that can be a little frustrating at times. I’ve been twice, once because of injuries last year. I had to get some more innings in. It’s tough doing that, but at the same time, you know it’s worth it. The things that you do there is going to prepare you for the next year and get you better. You’re constantly learning, no matter where you are, so that’s the way that I look at it. No matter what you’re doing, no matter how bad it sucks, you’re going to learn something – whether it’s something really small, or something that may impact your game for the rest of your life. It’s all worth it.