Nick Swisher is
good. He is home-run-beltin', sideburn-wearin', nonstop-talkin',
bear-hug-dispensin', self-proclaimin' good. His coaches know it, his teammates
know it, and most of all Swisher knows it.
"He truly believes he is the best player on the planet," says A's third
baseman Eric Chavez. "It's his greatest asset."
"He acts like a perennial All-Star who's been in the league 10 years,"
says Dan Johnson, Oakland's first baseman.
Says Swisher, in his high-volume, West Virginia twang, "It's just my
personality, bro!"--a point he emphasizes by enthusiastically slapping a
reporter on the knee--"I just love playing this game."
He has the kind of self-assurance one develops as the son of a major leaguer
(his father, Steve, was a catcher who played nine seasons with three clubs), a
first-round draft pick (in 2002) and the golden child of an organization,
anointed in this case by the prospect prophet himself, general manager Billy
Beane. Perhaps you've heard of a little book called Moneyball? Then you'll
remember Swisher's role as the can't-miss slugger from Ohio State about whom
both the old-school scouts and new-school sabermetricians agreed; the kid so
good Beane couldn't bring himself to see him play, lest another team notice
Now, four years
after he was drafted, Swisher, 25, is in his second full season with the big
club and has been a major reason why the A's have made their traditional June
sprint up the AL West standings. Despite a frightening list of injuries--nine
players have missed a combined 260 games-- Oakland had won 10 games in a row at
week's end and moved into first place. Swisher has been a big reason why.
"He basically carried us the first month," says catcher Jason Kendall.
"And he's done it playing all over the place."
versatile, switch-hitting Swisher, who toggles between first base and
leftfield, was leading the team in average (.286), home runs (17) and runs
scored (51) through Sunday and was tied with Chavez for tops in RBIs (46). For
those inclined toward the sabermetric measures Beane favors, Swisher's on-base
percentage is .389 and his VORP--value over replacement player--is the highest
of any AL leftfielder. (Just don't expect Swisher, who cheerfully admits that
he hasn't read Moneyball, to be aware of it. "VORP?" he says when the
topic is raised. "Not a clue what that is. But if it's good, I'll take
Still, ask manager
Ken Macha about Swisher, and he tries to lower expectations, saying, "We
don't need people writing about him, telling him how good he is." To which
we say, good luck with that, Ken. Swisher is so friendly, so available--he's
usually the first to the clubhouse, normally at 1 p.m. for night games, part of
a work ethic that dates back to high school--and so talkative that reporters
would have to make an effort not to write about him.
Here he is, before
last Friday's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, strutting around the
clubhouse. Though 6 feet and 214 pounds, Swisher has a certain bobblehead-doll
look about him--a large, constantly moving cranium on a stocky body--accented
by scruffy brown hair, sideburns and a goatee. As he roams, Swisher talks smack
to third base coach Ron Washington ("You're so full of crap, it's seeping
out your ears!"), ribs centerfielder Mark Kotsay and then yells, "Come
get one!" splaying his arms open in the general vicinity of, well, it's
unclear exactly whom, but it may be rightfielder Milton Bradley. Says Swisher,
"This is the best hug in the major leagues right here!"
His ebullience is
not restricted to fellow players. Swisher distributes shoulder hugs, butt slaps
and how-the-hell-you-doings to batboys, clubhouse assistants and janitors. In
college two of his teammates offered him $50 if he could stay quiet for a long
bus ride back to Columbus. "It was the hardest thing for me to do. I wanted
to just shoot myself," he says. "But"--and here he brightens
up--"I got my 50 bucks, boy!"
will listen. In spring training he lockered next to Frank Thomas and
immediately began pumping the 17-year veteran for information. The brawny DH
warmed to Swisher, of whom Thomas says, "He's quirky but in a consistent
way. His heart's in the right place." Now the two get coffee together
before games, Thomas dispensing hitting tips ("Mostly about focus,"
says Thomas) and Swisher soaking them up. It's all part of Swisher's continuing
maturation as a hitter. Last season he had good power numbers (21 homers and 74
RBIs in 131 games) but batted only .236, so this spring he switched to a
lighter bat, going from a 34-ounce model to one that's 30 ounces, which he says
allows him to wait better on off-speed pitches.
While Thomas and
hitting coach Gerald Perry help Swisher with his batting, the 31-year-old
Kendall serves as his tough-love older brother--"He keeps me in line when I
get too hyper," says Swisher--and Kotsay tutors him on outfield defense.
( Macha, who said Swisher was "below subpar" as a fielder last season,
rates him as "definitely improved.") For his part Swisher is willing to
learn but not to change. "It took me 25 years to get where I am," he
says. "I'm not going to try to be somebody else." So what you see is
what you get: a big, joyful hitter who grew up sleeping on bat racks when his
dad was a minor league manager, was recruited as a strong safety by Notre Dame,
plays beer pong at the house he shares with righthanders Rich Harden, Joe
Blanton and Huston Street, and has Oakland poised for yet another second-half
In fact, there he
goes now, out to take early batting practice. As he heads down the tunnel to
the field, Swisher can be heard for far longer than he can be seen, a booming
voice greeting all those he encounters with a "Hey, there he is" and a
"What is goin' on, my man!" If you haven't yet heard of him--or from
him--don't worry. Swisher will make sure you do soon enough.
Tom Verducci on baseball every Tuesday and Wednesday at SI.com/baseball.