In 2016 – the year the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, if you forgot – the Cubs didn’t have a draft pick in the top 100. This was a calculated strategy, of course, the result of hitting the free agent market in hopes of winning the World Series.
The consequence of this free agent activity, the Cubs knew, would be a draft unlikely to produce an elite prospect. The Cubs would have to be creative. They also knew their draft strategies in the years prior had meant the farm system had a huge tilt in quality between the offensive side and the pitching side.
So the Cubs put out a notice to their scouts to turn over every rock to find interesting pitchers, particularly in non-traditional places. Their lack of bonus pool meant they’d have to move toward college pitchers with low bonus demands, but nonetheless, it might be their way to hit an unexpected home run in a draft designed for strikeouts.
In that draft’s first dozen rounds, the Cubs selected pitchers from places like California Baptist, Haverford College, Dartmouth, Michigan State, and BYU. Ultimately, that draft did not produce a home run, instead just fed into that narrative that the Cubs couldn’t develop pitching. Still, I might mention, four of those first eight pitchers did reach the Majors. That’s not nothing, especially given the Cubs’ pick and pool constraints.
The fifth of that group to reach the Majors is Matt Swarmer, called up today to help a depleted Cubs pitching staff on a doubleheader day. Swarmer hails from Kutztown University — part of that scouting deep dive — and like those before him, he won’t be the Cubs home run to make their 2016 Draft salvage Jason McLeod’s Scouting Director legacy. But he is big league depth, on a day the Cubs need depth, and that is a reflection of at least some success in their strategy.
Swarmer has been asked to be depth pretty much since he was drafted. In 2017, the Iowa Cubs were out of pitchers in a late August team when all their guys were hurt, tired, or helping Chicago. The Cubs had Swarmer head from South Bend (then the Low-A level), where his ERA was an ugly 5.51, and give Iowa as many innings as he could.
He pitched seven scoreless that day, shutting down a Nashville Sounds lineup with six big league bats in their lineup. And then he went to finish the season at Double-A Tennessee, just because they were out of arms too (that didn’t go as well). Every team has “org guys,” players who help bounce around the system solely as depth, even as the higher-ups know the odds of big league contributions are essentially zero.
David Bote was an org guy. Matt Swarmer was an org guy. Both beat the odds, and like we celebrated Bote upon his call-up (which led to some of the most fun fireworks since 2016), we should celebrate Swarmer today.
Congratulations to Matt Swarmer for getting the call to Chicago!
— Dylan Heuer (@dylan_heuer) May 29, 2022
Although, I should point out, Swarmer’s ascent from “org guy” actually did happen in 2018. He won the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year that season, jumping on the radar with his strike-throwing and his deception. Swarmer has a huge leg kick and hides the ball forever with a pronounced hand wrap, before they eventually see it way up high from his completely over-the-top release point. Those “wait, could this be a dude?” conversations were definitely happening back then.
Then, they juiced the Triple-A baseball. Like, they really juiced it. Remember that? And in 2019, in that important age-25 season, Swarmer gave up 36 home runs in 151.1 innings. The bloom was off the rose, and he was kind of back to being an org guy. That’s how quick it happens when you don’t light up radar guns like Swarmer doesn’t (he’ll likely top maybe 91-92 today). When the 2021 minor league season opened and the Cubs had plenty of Triple-A depth, it was Swarmer they asked to go spend a few weeks down in Tennessee.
Swarmer would return to Iowa, struggle for five outings, and then a switch flipped. Since July 9 of last year, Swarmer’s Triple-A numbers are some of the best at the level: 109.1 IP, 78 H, 2.80 ERA, 33 BB, 114 K, 14 HR-A. The specifics of what changed, I can only speculate. I think the Cubs helped Swarmer realize that his slider was his lone plus pitch, and the answer to his then-AAA problems might simply be to throw the pitch a whole lot more.
I’m excited to see the Statcast metrics on that pitch today. It’s about 79-83 mph, and what I call a “straight downer” offering, meaning it doesn’t move horizontally much, but has a chance to be one of the highest vertically dropping sliders in MLB. He’ll tighten some up with just one plane break, but the truly plus ones are those that look like a curveball and drop from hip to dirt before a hitter can realize it.
Today is a tough ask for Swarmer, eight days rest and a thin bullpen behind him, and the expectations should be set appropriately. He’ll mostly be fastballs and sliders, and so he must be careful not to fall behind and allow hitters to sit on an in-zone fastball. He must be careful with any lefty in the lineup, period. Home runs are the fear, without question.
Perhaps Swarmer can, against all odds, rise to the occasion, just like he did with Iowa in August 2017. More likely, he comes up and does a job, then maybe does it again in the doubleheader on Saturday. What the Cubs will then ask of him, we can’t know, but nothing can surprise. This Major League thing might just be a week-long cup of coffee. But for today, he’s not an org guy. He’s a big leaguer who earned a chance. And that’s a beautiful thing.
How far has Matt Swarmer come? Two years ago, he was pitching in a men’s wood bat league full of college kids and retired players.
He’ll be a big league pitcher tomorrow.https://t.co/Rpnp3fiQha
— Tommy Birch (@TommyBirch) May 29, 2022