Even Tanner Swanson had to admit the moment was at least somewhat uncanny.
When he entered the coveted Yankee Stadium for the first time since being hired as the New York Yankees catching and quality control coach last month, it wasn’t a mirage.
The visit was a reminder of how far Swanson has traveled with the time and work he devoted, coming from a little town called Roslyn west of Cle Elum — a place he still calls home.
“To think about the beginning to where I sit today, I still pinch myself a little bit,” Swanson said. “My first time walking into Yankee Stadium was a pretty surreal moment, but at the same time, I don’t feel out of place. I don’t necessarily feel like an outsider or don’t feel like I’m intimidated or can’t perform the job at a high level.
“For me, it’s been about trying to be really good wherever I was at and I never tried to look too far ahead.”
Swanson, a 2001 Cle Elum-Roslyn High School graduate, has become well-known for his expertise in catching, a position he had no experience with during his high school or college ball days.
After playing one season each for Green River Community College and Everett Community College, then two years at Central Washington University as an infielder, Swanson began his coaching career not long after with short stints at Sultan High School (2008), Everett CC (2009), CWU (2010), and Green River CC (2011).
But where he ascended, albeit, was with the University of Washington where he spent five seasons.
He started as a graduate manager for the 2011-12 season before moving into a coaching position in the fall of 2012. With a need for a catching coach, Swanson was handed the responsibility.
“It was the need at the time based on the dynamics of the staff,” Swanson said. “I was the new, young, inexperienced coach and that’s not uncommon for those types of coaches to assume the catching responsibilities for whatever reason.”
But he thrived in the role and produced four UW catchers who garnered All-Pac 12 conference selections and one All-America honor. Four catchers at UW under Swanson’s tutelage were drafted: Joey Morgan (95th overall in 2017), Austin Rei (81st overall in 2015), Nick Kahle (133rd overall in 2019), and Willie MacIver (276th overall in 2018).
Morgan, who’s currently with the Toledo Mud Hens (Triple-A) in the Detroit Tigers organization, says that’s a testament of Swanson’s fidelity to his catcher’s personal success.
“He really cares about the guys that he works with, and making sure that they’re going to be successful at the end of the day,” Morgan said. “And if his catchers are successful, then he’s happy. And if we’re not and we’re struggling in an area, then he’s not happy and he’s going to work with us in those areas to figure out how we can improve.”
Oddly enough, according to Swanson, having no prior experience at the position paid dividends. But also meeting different people and attending a litany of coaching clinics to consume as much information as he could.
“I just really tried to study it as best as I could,” Swanson said. “I think what honestly has really helped me is the fact that I didn’t catch and I didn’t have all these existing biases about this is how I used to do it, or this is how my dad taught me or this is what I learned from my ex-catching coaches. I really came in with none of that and got to look at it from a really fresh, unbiased perspective.
“I think honestly that’s the reason I have been able to ascend to where I’m at right now is because I brought a new perspective. And I’ve challenged conventional wisdom in a lot of ways about how we train the position.”
KEEN IN ALL THREE
His focus at UW was to create dynamic versatile catchers who were keen in receiving, blocking and throwing, which is very rare for a catcher to be excellent in all three (according to Baseball Prospectus runs saved by skill leaderboard, only two catchers this decade in the MLB have finished a season in the top five in all three categories — Roberto Perez in 2019 and Rene Rivera in 2014).
“That’s a noble pursuit that I think most catching coaches tell you, that’s the goal to get guys to be good at everything (receiving, blocking, and throwing),” Swanson said. “I think the reality is, when that’s the focus, guys end up being really average at a lot of things, and they can’t excel in any one area. Because I think the positions you get into be a good receiver are different than the positions you get into to be a good blocker or a good thrower. ... If you’re getting into really good positions to block, you’re compromising your receiving. And if you’re getting into really good positions to receive, you compromise your blocking.
“Those are the traditional stances that have been around forever.”
Swanson wanted to challenge those methods, and when he was hired with the Minnesota Twins as minor league catching coordinator in 2017, his philosophy and catching practices took a complete 180 because of how much more data and information is available at the professional level.
Swanson created the one knee down set-up, with different variations of it depending on the circumstances of the handiness of the hitter or runners on base.
The framing numbers skyrocketed, as it removed a reference point to the lower part of the strike zone as catchers and hitters knees are generally the same height and which umpires commonly use. With runners on, catchers could transition seamlessly from a right knee down position to getting up and throwing. The knee down set-up also put catchers into a great position to block because they’re already close to the dirt.
But of those three, Swanson wanted to center it around framing (receiving), meaning when a catcher can create an illusion on a pitch that’s a ball to be called a strike.
“Pitch framing is the only catcher skill positively correlated to run prevention,” he said. “The impact it has on the game is vast. Run production decreases with every additional strike on a hitter. More two strike counts leads to less damage and more strikeouts, which leads to fewer runs.”
And according to Swanson, standard teaching is to receive well from a traditional block-and-throw stance. He challenges that.
“Problem is that all catchers experience a regression in their framing ability in this stance,” he said. “Second problem is that only 10 percent of pitches thrown with runners on base result in a block or throw attempt. Why are we trying to optimize the 10 percent at the expense of the 90 percent? I think we’ve had the problem backwards.
“Our goal now from these alternative setups is instead to learn how to good blockers and throwers from our optimal receiving stance (one knee) since it happens 90 percent of the time and has the greatest impact on run prevention.”
PUTTING IT TO THE TEST
Everything began to click, and Swanson remembers when it all came together.
Swanson was working with 6-foot-6 Ben Rodriguez of the Cedar Rapids Kernels in Single-A who struggled to get into a traditional block and throw stance as he wasn’t getting down quick enough to be effective. But when Swanson put him in the one knee down set-up, Rodriguez was able to block and throw cleanly from that position.
Swanson encouraged him to experiment with it in the Kernels game that night.
“He caught the entire game from this position, 100 percent of the pitches,” Swanson said. “I was kind of nervous, like ‘Oh, man, I don’t know if this is going to work.’”
“Their veteran manager saw he was on a knee and I’m watching this unfold and he’s like ‘Look at this idiot’, and puts on the steal sign and then throws him out by three or four steps. One of the best throws I have ever seen (Rodriguez) make,” Swanson said. “And I remember the third-base coach got pissed. Like he thought that ‘Hey, what are these guys doing? You can’t do that.’
“A couple innings later, similar situation, he throws out another guy and their manager was pissed. He had never seen this before, like what is happening?”
Rodriguez blocked every pitch, threw those two aforementioned runners out and had one of his best receiving scores on the year.
“It started with one guy and then we saw the value in it and we started implementing it to everybody,” Swanson said. “Now if you ask any of the guys in Minnesota, they wouldn’t do it any other way. I’m confident even though I left, that will continue.”
Swanson’s methodology rose to prominence when Twins starting catcher Mitch Garver sought out help after he ranked 110th out of 117 qualifying catchers in fielding runs above average in 2018, according to Baseball Prospectus. He was a respectable hitter, but his defense behind the plate was problematic — especially pitch framing.
Garver heard of the impact Swanson was making in the minor leagues, so Garver invited Swanson to Albuquerque, New Mexico in the offseason.
“I knew I had to make a change,” Garver told the Athletic back in February. “I didn’t know if it was flexibility. I didn’t know if it was technique. I didn’t know if it was — maybe I just wasn’t built for this league. But I realized I had poor fundamentals. That’s all it was. I called up Tanner and told him, ‘I know I need to make a change or the door is going to be closing. I might not be in the league anymore.’ He understood and said here’s some things you can do.”
And Swanson’s method worked wonders for Garver. After the conclusion of the 2019 season, he ranked 22nd of 113 qualifying catchers and was worth 4.7 fielding runs above average compared to his -8.6 fielding runs above average in 2018.
“What I think Mitch did is he took the methods and he kind of presented it to the world to and proved, hey, this can work at the major league level, not just rookie ball,” Swanson said.
Swanson’s former catcher at UW, Kahle, also implemented the knee-down stance for his entire junior season at UW in 2019. He and Swanson only spent one season together before Swanson moved on to the Twins organization, but the two remained in touch for Kahle’s next two seasons at UW.
“He was telling me about the one knee down and how it really helped his guys because obviously, you can see with the numbers that pro ball gives you,” Kahle said. “I was all for it. And from then on, it was me figuring out what worked for me, what positioning was working best for me. Whenever he’s got advice for me, or think he’s got a better way of doing something I’m always open ears to it.”
Kahle, who was a fourth-round pick by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2019, tinkered with the method in fall ball before the 2019 season. After his junior season, he was a Buster Posey National Catcher of the Year Semifinalist; All-Pac 12 nominee; All-Pac 12 Defensive Team Honorable Mention; Golden Spikes Award Midseason Watch List; and Collegiate Baseball Preseason Third-Team All-America.
“It’s definitely different at first,” Kahle said. “But having fall ball to play around with it, not in a real game situation helps because that’s where you find out what things you can and can’t do or how to get better at things. And that’s what he always would preach to us about the fall is a chance to get better and go ahead and make mistakes because that’s how you’re going to learn and untimely get better.”
TO THE BRONX
The Yankees clearly liked what Swanson engineered in Minnesota, so they hired him on as catching and quality control coach early in November.
The hope is he can turnaround their two-time All-Star catcher Gary Sanchez who’s struggled behind the dish of late. In 2019, according to Baseball Prospectus, Sanchez ranked 97th in fielding runs above average. He posted a -5.1 mark in framing runs above average.
“I think the Yankees saw the transformation Garver went through, and I think they see a lot of similarities between him and Gary Sanchez. They’re both really similar players,” Swanson said. “Really good offensive profiles, but have been graded poorly with their pitch framing in the past. The approach won’t change, there’s a lot of similarities to the deficiencies between the two.”
Swanson has come a long way from Roslyn, a population under 1,000. He, his wife, Laura, and two kids still spend summers, holidays and occasionally weekends in the town.
With Swanson’s growth in the game of baseball, he doesn’t forget where the foundation was placed: CWU.
“I was a physical education and school health major. Many concepts prevalent in PE pedagogy have become very mainstream in baseball over the last five years or so. I think I gained an edge because I was an early adopter of blending methodology from other fields into baseball coaching,” he said.
“Concepts around motor learning and the use of constraints and variability to refine skill and aid in movement adaptation. Things like training economy and an understanding of how people learn and best acquire skill. These are skills that I have built upon throughout my career, but the foundation was laid at CWU. People like Kirk Mathias, Ken Briggs, and Steven Jeffries had a huge impact on my approach to coaching today.”
Luke Olson: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter: @lukeolsonb