First base has generally been known as the easiest defensive position on the field. You don’t need to be fast, like in the outfield, or agile, like at third base. It is the home of the 275 pound Prince Fielder and was the home of his 230 pound father, Cecil. It is a place the Tigers can house their two weak kneed, big slugging starters, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. It has extended the career of Joe Mauer, who can’t even bend over after years behind the plate. Essentially, first base is the place to store your crippled, obese and otherwise incapable defenders and Nick Swisher can no longer cut it.
Mauer, the guy who can’t bend over, hasn’t made an error in 30 games in 2014. Cabrera, who can barely move, has committed one in 32. The fit (6′, 200 lb), relatively young (33) Nick Swisher, however has already committed six errors, the most in the Majors at first, in 41 games and also holds a league worst .983 fielding percent. There are seven short stop and 15 second basemen in the Majors who have a better fielding percentages than Swisher at much more difficult positions. Of course, fielding percent isn’t everything and it may be unfair to compare Swisher to players like Miguel Cabrera, who has always been a better surprisingly solid defender. In the interest of fairness, Swisher needs to be compared to Swisher.
Swisher is not a new convert to first base. He has been playing the position since 2004 with the Athletics, totaling 419 games at the position prior to this season. In those games, he committed just 22 errors with a fielding percent above .992. Looking past simple errors and fielding percent, Swisher has always been an above average first baseman defensively. Based on Total Zone Rating, last season Swisher saved seven runs more than the average first baseman and was +12 during his four seasons with the Yankees. Compared to Cabrera, who has been better than Swisher this season, Cabrera has allowed 12 more runs than the average first baseman since joining the Tigers in 2008. This year, with the pressures and pains of playing third gone, Cabrera has saved five more runs at first than the average first baseman.
Back to Swisher, he has allowed six more runs than the average first baseman already, a number that projects to 22 on the season. It is hard to say where Swisher’s problems are coming from as plays like this make it obvious he still has the reaction time and the range necessary to play the position. In addition, Swisher is not having arm problems, something that can bother first basemen as they rarely have to make throws to second. Swisher has not made a single throwing error on the year, but has made five fielding errors and had one dropped catch. While the latter is easily forgivable as it will happen to anyone from time to time, the fielding errors the biggest problem.
Too many of these errors have been of the Bill Buckner type, not getting the glove down low enough to make a routine play. This has been the style of his last two errors, one in each of his last two games played against the Athletics. Unless Swisher has an unknown back injury, he should be completely capable of fielding these balls, so the assumption is that it has to be mental. A simple lack of concentration in the field is enough to lift your glove too early or not get it down far enough. It is easy enough to see his reason for not concentrating on defense. After nine seasons of at least 22 home runs, 63 RBI and a slugging percent of at least .410, Swisher has fallen off the 33 year old cliff. Through 43 games, he has slugged just three home runs and is batting .196 with 41 strike outs (19th in the AL). This culminated in his drop from second to sixth in the lineup in the Indians’ last game, but he remains at first defensively, despite having Carlos Santana and Jesus Aguilar on the roster.
There is never a perfect answer for a situation as difficult as this. Swisher is still owed more than half of his $48M deal, so he needs to remain on the roster and seems like a waste on the bench. One of the better solutions would actually fix a couple problems at once. If Swisher were to become the regular DH, it would allow one of the Indians top hitters, Lonnie Chisenhall, to play third base on a regular basis. First base could then be manned by a combination of Santana and Aguilar while Swisher gets back into mental shape. If it really is his offensive struggles that are affecting his defense, he shouldn’t be allowed to play first when there are other options available. As long as the problem isn’t injury based, Swisher will have a much easier time fixing one problem at a time.