[JULY 2 UPDATE: Bumped back to the front page in light of RJ's call up today. Originally posted June 4, 2008.]
Since Baseball Prospectus highlighted Phils' farmhand RJ Swindle, he's become a big interest of mine. Currently a Lehigh Valley IronPig, he barely hits the mid-80s on the radar gun, and has a curve ball in the low 50s. (Yes, you read that right.) Yet, he's been wildly successful in the minors so far, even though he's now in his third organization.
Through the miracles of Web 2.0, I tracked down RJ. He is a very friendly, easy-going guy who was gracious enough to participate in an interview for TGP. I think you'll enjoy reading the interview below.
(Please note: all but the last question and answer (obvious when you get to it) took place before he had his first rough outing for the IronPigs Monday night (letting up 2 earned runs, 3 walks, 2 hits, in 1 inning).)
TGP: Let’s first talk a little bit about your pitching. What pitches do you throw?
RJ: I throw 5 pitches - fastball, curveball, slider, cutter, changeup. My fastball is about 81-84, my curveball that everyone knows me by is about 51-55, all the other pitches come somewhere in between.
TGP: This may be an ignorant fan question, but for your pitches that you throw, can you throw the same pitch at varying speeds? For instance, can you throw a 55mph curve and a 70mph curve? (Same with the other pitches.) Or is your curve one speed, your slider another, etc.?
RJ: I throw the pitches at different speeds, but say my curveball ranges from 51-55, slider, 64-68, and so on. I dont really throw my curveball 2 different speeds. I just throw the other pitches for the different speeds.
TGP: Everything I read about you focuses on this velocity issue. I can throw in the 60s and have once or twice in my life hit 70+ on a radar gun, and I’m sure many of our readers can do the same. But we wouldn’t have any success against professional hitters. What gives you your success pitching at mere mortal speeds?
RJ: I wouldn't say mortal speed is 84, but in baseball you are correct. It is on the low spectrum of professional baseball for sure. My command is what enables me to still be successful, throwing all my pitches where i want them in any count.
TGP: I haven’t seen you pitch unfortunately, and I’m sure many of our readers haven’t either. Does any of your success come from any type of unorthodox delivery?
RJ: My delivery is a little unorthodox. I start almost off the rubber on the far left side and throw a low three-quarters arm motion so it is tough to pick up and makes my fastball look a bit harder and gets on people quicker.
TGP: Does your success as a reliever depend on coming into a game after someone throwing at much faster speeds?
RJ: No, it doesnt really matter who throws in front of me, hard or fast. I am just a lot different from anything anyone else before me will throw.
TGP: Similarly, do guys who face you more than once figure you out? Or have you had success against them too?
RJ: I never really had a problem with people facing me more than once. I was always a starter my whole career till about a year and a half ago, so I am used to having to face guys multiple times. With 5 pitches, I am able to throw a lot of variety against the hitters.
TGP: Is there a big-league pitcher, past or present, who you think you’re most like?
RJ: I really enjoy watching Jamie Moyer pitch, always have. I took an interest in Mike Myers too, although I don't think he is up right now anymore.
TGP: Jamie Moyer and Mike Myers seem like natural comparisons, but even they don't throw as slow as you're saying you throw (right?). If you made it to the big leagues, do you think you'd be a first of your kind?
RJ: Actually I throw harder than Moyer and Myers, but they got to the big leagues throwing harder and then got older and adpated to their loss in velocity from older age. I am just trying to get there with about what they throw now, which ovbiously as they both have shown, works, but it is harder to get there with it because they are few and far between. I am different than both of them too so I would say I might be one of the most unorthodox pitchers who would be up there at the time.
TGP: You were largely a starter in college, but are now a reliever in professional ball. How was the transition from starter to reliever?
RJ: Starting to relieving wasn't too bad of a change. I love starting, but relieving has enabled me to be even more successful now because it is tough for hitters to get a read on me just facing me 1x in tough spots. I would love to maybe start again one day as well, but realistically I think my role in the big leagues will be to come and get lefties out.
TGP: You’re a lefty reliever, which is a position in high demand in the big leagues because lefty pitchers can sometimes (though not always) be more reliable in getting lefty hitters out in key spots. Do you know if you have better success against lefties than righties?
RJ: I am definately made to get lefties out. I have excelled in my career against lefties, and I pride myself on it. I don't think I have given up a hit in triple A yet this year to them, and only 2 hits in double A and that was a bunt and a check swing to third. Righties I can still get out, but not quite as successfully as lefties.
TGP: From the numbers I see on Baseball Cube, you were good in college, but not anywhere near what you've done so far in the minors. What changed?
RJ: Well as a starter you will never has as good of numbers as being out of the pen. I put up really good numbers as a starter in college, but I have really taken to the pen since i got moved over by the Yankees in 2006. It is just a lot easier I feel to go out there and be successful over 1-2 innings with my stuff then it is over 7-8 innings, which is what organizations think as well.
TGP: Let’s move on to your career as a professional. You were drafted in the fourteenth round by the Red Sox in 2004. You had a 1.94 ERA in 51 innings for their low-A ball team, which seems pretty good to me. But then you were released. What happened?
RJ: The Red Sox released me because I had a herniated disc in my back the next spring and they didnt think I could perform anymore with the problem, so they decided to let me go rather than get the problem fixed. It was definately a blow I was not expecting.
TGP: You were then signed by the Yankees after a stint in the independent leagues, and again you excelled. By my calculations, you had a 0.58 ERA in a combined 46+ innings in A and AAA ball. Just 3 earned runs. While striking out 46. And allowing only 41 baserunners (36 hits, 5 walks). That’s pretty incredible, yet you were released again. What happened with the Yankees?
RJ: With the Yankees, I just don't think I fit the mold of their pitchers. They are all about power and velocity and I think some of their people higher up on the chain believed that I couldn't excel at the higher levels. It came down to numbers at the end of spring training and they deemed me to be expendable.
TGP: After being released by the Red Sox and also by the Yankees, you've bounced in and out of the independent leagues. What are the independent leagues like compared to the minors?
RJ: Theres nothing like being in organized baseball, but independent leagues are fun too. They are very competitive. People don't realize it, but I would compare the Atlantic league I was in last year very closely to triple A level. On every team you have guys that have been in the big leagues but for whatever reason just can't find a job at that point in time. They are a little more laid back but fun and competitive.
TGP: Now you’re up to the same tricks with the Phillies. You’ve had sub-1.00 ERAs in A, AA, and now AAA ball for the Phils. Your only stumble was a 4.80 ERA in 15 innings for high-A ball last year. What was the difference in that stint in Clearwater?
RJ: In Clearwater I just had to make little adjustments you do at every level, but I got stuck in the rut in an outing or two of throwing the same pitches a couple times in a row and some guys jumped on the pitches. I gave up my only 3 professional homeruns so far there. I had a rough 4-run inning against all my Yankee buddies early in my second outing, and that skewed my numbers a little bit. Other than that I threw the ball pretty well.
TGP: This year your combined stats for the Reading Phils and the Lehigh Valley IronPigs look like videogame numbers. Your ERA this year is 0.62 [1.20 now after Monday night]. You’ve struck out 29 in 29 innings, while walking just 2. And you’ve given up only 14 hits. Truly amazing stats. How are you feeling about the season you’re having?
RJ: So far this season has been amazing, alot of fun. I am just trying to enjoy it. In my previous years this is about the time I am getting picked up from independent teams, so i am just having a lot of fun starting from the beginning of the season this year. Realistically, I know I probably can't keep the videogame numbers going for another 3 months, but I am sure going to try.
TGP: Here you are some guy throwing at speeds your teammates must think are ridiculously slow, and you’re having success that is almost unheard of in professional ball. Do your teammates take notice?
RJ: I have alot of fun with all my teammates on my speeds. The guys always think the curveball is an awesome pitch, and everyone wants to know how to throw it, but it is not really a pitch I can teach though cause I don't know how to teach it.
TGP: Have you talked with anyone in the Phillies organization about your future with the team? Are the powers that be in Philadelphia taking notice?
RJ: I certainly hope the powers that be are taking notice. I think they are. The Phillies have been great to me, and Steve Nowyrita and Gorm Heimuller have been great to me as well. There are alot of people on the chain that like numbers guys like me rather than velocity for everything so that is good for me. We will see what happens the rest of the year.
TGP: In most years, the Phillies would have called up many minor league pitchers by now. Last year, the Phillies used 25 different pitchers by the All-Star Break! However, just your (and your teammates’) luck - this year, they’ve used the same 12 pitchers all year and we’re already into June. Does that wear on you in the minors since you’ve all been waiting for the call, but nothing is happening in Philadelphia?
RJ: It is great to see the Phillies playing so well. I guess it is kind of a catch-22 about getting called up because we are all here waiting for the chance to help the Phillies at the big league level, but right now obviously they don't need the help so everyone hopes they just keep rolling along and winning. When they do need that help, you just gotta keep pitching well and hope your number is called to be that person to help.
TGP: In any of your stints, do you recall facing any major leaguers who were coming through the minors on rehab assignments? If so, how’d those matchups go?
RJ: I don't think I have faced any big league rehab guys yet. At this level now in triple A, most of the hitters you face have big league time, so i would say those are the closest guys level wise to the bigs I have faced.
TGP: What do you think explains why the Phillies are seemingly giving you a chance whereas the Yankees and Red Sox didn’t?
RJ: I had some bad luck at the wrong times with the Yankees and Red Sox. I think both organizations liked me, but it just didn't work out. The Phillies have been great and have given me the bump I have been working for with allowing me to show my stuff and compete at the highest levels. I can't really say if there is much difference with the chance I am getting. Just the right people in the right places pulling for me in the organization.
TGP: Are there institutional differences worth noting between the Phillies minor league organization and the Yankees and Red Sox?
RJ: I wouldn't say there are any real big differences between the 3 teams i have been on of note. Phillies spring training is a lot harder conditioning wise.
TGP: Is it harder for scouts and management to assess a player who doesn't fit the mold? Does it get frustrating that they seemingly can't figure you out even though your results are great?
RJ: That is the question of the day. I think it has been really hard for scouts and management to figure me out and where to put me and where to rate me. I am just different that anything else you will see, and I think it has taken time for any of them to figure out why and how I keep getting results. But I think I am starting to make some believers finally, but I also know realistically that I will always have to keep up my good numbers because the day my numbers are just average is the day they will all say that my stuff doesn't work anymore. So I just work hard and try to be the best pitcher I can on every team.
TGP: I you threw a 95mph fastball and an 85mph curve and put up the same exact numbers you have, do you think you'd have been drafted higher, made it to the big leagues already, etc.?
RJ: Yes, you are right on with that. I have always felt the pressure to perform above everyone else to have a job, and I think that will be the way it always is. I dont mind it because I love competing and it is one of the reasons I love this game so much. But you are right. If I even had another 8 miles an hour on my fastball, I would have been a top-3 rounder with my stuff and numbers in college and would be in the big leagues by now and never released by the Red Sox and so on. There is definitely a bias against the fact that I only top out at 84. I have had scouts and coordinators tell me that for a fact, but it is ok. It makes the road there that much more special.
TGP: What kind of instructional support from the Phillies do/can you get for your style of pitching?
RJ: I just talk philosophy with the pitching coaches and Gorm, the coordinator. Other than that they just always tell me to keep doing what I am doing.
TGP: Have any of the organizations you’ve been a part of tried to change your pitching?
RJ: No one has ever tried to change me. I am always told I am unique and never to change a thing and just to keep it up.
TGP: What, if anything, do you think you need to work on to improve (if that’s even possible given how you’ve performed already)?
RJ: There is always room for improvement and adjustment and you have to do a little bit of both at every level I believe. But the main thing is to just stick to your strong point and keep doing them because the same pitches that worked at A ball will work in the big leagues. It is just the margin for error is a lot less at every level you move up.
TGP: [After Monday night's rough outing] What happened tonight?
RJ: I was just off. We all go through it and I have gone 2 months being on. It is baseball, and a game designed for failure and that is what I did tonight. I never walk people, let alone 3 guys in an inning. I was just missing with my pitches and a lefty shattered his bat with 2 outs and got a duck fart to fall which scored a run. It was just a bad inning. I can usually get over it quickly, although I am not really used to having many of these, so I just have to get back on the horse and go continue what I've been doing this year.
TGP: Thanks RJ. We really appreciate your taking the time to participate in this. Best of luck with the rest of this year. We hope to see you in Philadelphia soon!