The Top 50 Mets of All Time: #45 Craig Swan

Craig Swan was drafted by the Mets in the third round of baseball's amateur draft in 1972. Swan went 16-1 in his final year at Arizona State, winning two games in the College World Series before his team was nipped 1-0 in the finals against USC. He signed within a couple of weeks and was sent to Double-A Memphis of the Texas League. Swan went 7-3 as a 21-year-old in his first taste of professional ball, sporting a terrific 2.25 ERA and a fine 81-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Year  Team         Lg   Age  Lvl   IP    ERA   H/9   BB/9  SO/9
---------------------------------------------------------------
1972  Memphis      Tex   21  AA   108.0  2.25  8.50  2.17  6.75 
1973  Tidewater    IL    22  AAA  100.0  2.34  7.92  2.25  7.11 
1974  Tidewater    IL    23  AAA   51.0  4.76  9.25  3.00  5.47 
1975  Tidewater    IL    24  AAA  165.0  2.40  7.42  2.07  6.05
In 1973 Swan was promoted to Triple-A Tidewater where he turned in another fine performance, pitching to a 2.34 ERA and maintaining terrific peripherals. His 79-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio was virtually identical to the line he posted a year earlier, only this time he was doing it against tougher competition. He was rewarded with a call-up to the Mets when rosters expanded in September, His first cup of coffee included a start -- a loss -- against the Phillies as well as two relief appearances. His brief taste of major league ball was inauspicious to say the least as Swan coughed up eight earned runs in 8.1 innings against the big boys.

Swan stayed with the Mets following spring training in 1974 and managed to stick with the club until June when he was placed on the 21-day (!) disabled list with an inflamed right elbow. When he returned he finished out the season back at Tidewater, but struggled with his hit and strikeout rates and wound up with an unimpressive 4.76 ERA and 5.47-to-3.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Following an elbow injury a certain degree of regression was reasonable to expect. Swan began 1975 with Tidewater and returned to the semi-dominant form he displayed in his first two minor league seasons. He also saw the most action of his young career, hurling 165 innings at Triple-A before pitching another 31 in August and September with the Mets. As in 1972 and 1973, Swan ran into some problems translating his minor league success into big league performance, as he allowed 22 runs in those 31 innings en route to a 6.39 ERA.

Year  Age    IP   ERA    H   HR  BB   SO  ERA+  WARP3  SNLVAR
-------------------------------------------------------------
1973   22    8.1  8.64   16   2   2    4   42   -0.4    -0.1
1974   23   30.1  4.45   28   1  21   10   81     .3     0.5
1975   24   31.0  6.39   38   4  13   19   54   -0.3     0.0
1976   25  132.1  3.54  129  11  44   89   93    1.4     1.8
1977   26  146.2  4.23  153  10  56   71   89    1.9     2.3
1978   27  207.1  2.43  164  12  58  125  144    5.7     6.6
1979   28  251.1  3.29  241  20  57  145  111    5.7     5.5
1980   29  128.1  3.58  117  20  30   79  100    2.2     2.1
1981   30   13.2  3.29   10   0   1    9  106    0.4     0.3
1982   31  166.1  3.35  165  13  37   67  109    4.3     2.2
1983   32   96.1  5.51  112  14  42   43   66   -0.5    -0.4
1984   33   18.2  8.20   18   5   7   10   43   -0.4     0.0
Swan hit the majors for good in 1976 and logged two so-so campaigns in 1976 and 1977, each time posting ERAs around 10% below the league average. Following the 1976 season Swan, who was disappointed with his 6-9 record, decided to do something about the weight problem he had battled for years. He began a weight-control program that offseason and lost 25 pounds, significantly altering his physical appearance (and undoubtedly his health). He had a bit of trouble working into his new body, but he figured things out enough to throw a three-hitter on July 25, 1977 in a game against the Dodgers. After the game, Swan remarked on his transformation and the subsequent adjustments he had to make.
"They just sent the muscles from Arizona. I weighed 235 last year, and before that I pitched in the minor leagues at 240. Now I'm down to 210, headed for an even 200 next season. It takes your body a while to adjust. In fact, I'm just catching up with myself."

-- New York Times (7/26/77)

Swan went 4-4 in the second half of '77, but turned things around in time for 1978, his best season -- by far -- in the big leagues. He threw over 200 innings for the first time as a pro and posted a league-leading ERA of 2.43. The Mets went 66-96 that season -- Swan went 9-6 -- and despite his terrific numbers Swan failed to garner even a single vote for Cy Young. That February he foretold the logic would follow years later:
"The number of games you win is controlled by other people, to some extent. The number of runs you allow is your own thing."

-- New York Times (2/28/79)

In 1979, Swan tossed more than 250 innings and posted an ERA that was 11% better than the league, finishing with his second straight fine season with 145 strikeouts and just 57 walks. He went 14-13 that year including a complete game victory over Tom Seaver and the Reds on June 4th and a ten-strikeout affair against the Phillies on July 5th. As his success continued, and in the wake of the Messersmith/McNally hearing that signaled the dawn of free agency, Swan recognized that he was a valuable commodity and thought he should be paid accordingly:
"I represent all the theories and possibilities in the book. I'm in the third year of a three year contract, but I belong to the Mets until the end of next season. If I don't sign for next year, they could cut me 20 percent. If they don't offer me enough money, I could go to arbitration. If they offer me a long-term contract, we conceivably could settle. If they don't, I can go free."

-- New York Times (8/23/79)

Swan and the Mets worked throughout the spring of 1980 to hammer out a deal that would keep the staff ace in flushing for years to come. Having traded away Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and John Matlack within the prior three seasons the Mets were eager to hang on to their one known commodity. After wrestling with some tax provisions (Swan wanted to incorporate himself to take advantage of corporate tax benefits), new owners Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon came to terms with Swan on a five-year, $3 million deal, the richest in franchise history to that point.

After signing the big deal, Swan missed considerable playing time in 1980 due to inflammation in his pitching (right) shoulder. He spent a month on the disabled list between July and August and returned to allow seven runs on ten hits in just 3.2 innings against the Phillies. He lasted only seven batters into his next start before leaving with shoulder soreness, an injury which was subsequently diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff. Swan would miss the remainder of the season, but he and the Mets elected to avoid surgery and instead opted for rest and relaxation over the winter.

Swan returned to the team for spring training in 1981 and reported that his shoulder was healthy and strong. His performance in spring games bore out those claims, and he headed into the regular season looking to regain the form that netted him such a large contract in the first place. In his second start of the season, Swan fractured his rib when Ron Hodges -- the Mets' catcher at the time -- nailed him in the back with a throw down to second base on an attempted steal. It was a freak play, but it landed Swan back on the disabled list. He made two short relief appearances upon his return at the beg ginning of June, but his season -- and everyone else's -- was put on hold on June 12th as the MLBPA voted unanimously to strike in response to the then-unresolved issue of free agent compensation. The strike ended on July 31st and play resumed on August 9th, but Swan had lost almost an entire year of his prime.

On August 12th, Swan went back on the disabled list with more shoulder soreness. Once again, Swan was lost for the season.

In 1982 and 1983, Swan split time between starting and relieving, pitching effectively in 1982 and not so much in 1983. He made ten relief appearances to poor results in 1984 before the Mets finally gave up and released him. He was picked up by the Angels two weeks alter, who allowed him two appearances before likewise releasing him.

And that was it for Craig Swan. Two very good years with the Mets, followed by one of the first -- if not *the* first -- five-year deals every given to a pitcher, followed by a smattering of injuries and an unmovable contract. To this day, a lesson that still hasn't been learned. If not for the strike and his body betraying him, Swan may have gone on to be a better pitcher than he was. Nonetheless, he was the Mets' best hurler for a few years in the mid-seventies, at a time when the Mets had very little going right.

Sources

Craig Swan at Baseball-Reference.com
Craig Swan at Baseball Prospectus
Craig Swan at The Baseball Cube

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