Swenson ready to shake up Pickles pitching this summer
Even before one of the worst weekends of his career, Gregg Swenson had pondered transitioning out of college coaching.
During 15 years as an assistant and pitching coach, he was away from his children (now 14 and 12) for long stretches. While serving as University of Portland pitching coach (2015-17), Swenson realized he was watching other people's kids play more than his own.
In May 2017, the Pilots surrendered 50 runs to BYU in a three-game Cougars sweep. After a 23-19 loss, 11-3 and 16-3 drubbings followed. UP finished the season 10-41-1.
"I was like, 'Man, this isn't any fun right now,'" Swenson says. "And I hate that word 'fun' because we use it a lot in trying to justify what we do, and it's not always about fun."
The low point of his season and his thoughts about leaving the college ranks coincided with a phone call that weekend from Scott Barchus, owner of the summer baseball Gresham GreyWolves. Barchus asked Swenson if he would have any interest in a front-office role.
"I met with him," Swenson says, "and we kept going back and forth, and then it looked like a really good opportunity to stay in baseball but at the same time get to do one of my goals, which was to be around my kids and my family more."
One thing led to another, and Swenson was hired as the GreyWolves' general manager in June 2017. The West Coast League season was underway, so Swenson began building Gresham's roster for 2018 as his family settled down in Camas, Washington.
This fall, Barchus joined Rose City Baseball LLC, which owns the Portland Pickles, and the two teams' front offices merged. Swenson now oversees both Gresham and Portland, the newest member of the wood-bat WCL (Gresham has become an independent team).
Swenson says managing two clubs is a challenge, but his experience coaching at the community-college level and in the Pac-12 is invaluable. He was head coach at Tacoma CC (1997-2001) before working as an assistant and pitching coach at Washington (2002-04). Prior to his time at UP, he spent 10 seasons as pitching coach at Washington State under former WCL Commissioner Donnie Marbut.
Swenson says he had connections with about 75 college assistant or head coaches when he moved to the front office.
"We flooded the roster pretty quick with players from the Pac-12, the West Coast Conference and a few of the eastern schools with friends of mine, like Tulane and Northwestern," Swenson says.
By the time he was officially recruiting players to both Gresham and Portland, the Pickles' 2018 roster was essentially filled out.
The roster for this season — which starts June 1 at Walker Stadium against the Port Angeles Lefties — includes players from eight Pac-12 schools and various West Coast colleges. Swenson sees the recruiting base growing.
College players have the responsibility to develop and improve with their summer teams, and front offices must facilitate that, Swenson says.
"The Division I coaches, the Pac-12 coaches, are earning a quarter-of-a-million dollars a year," he says. "If they don't win, they don't have jobs."
As such, Swenson sat down with Pickles manager Justin Barchus, son of the co-owner, and set goals for how many players they wanted at each position this year.
Swenson's approach is to give the Pickles players as many at-bats as possible. Rather than recruit 25-plus everyday players, he worked to keep the offensive roster at 18-20. His ideal model is four outfielders, six infielders, three catchers and five utility players.
The Pickles currently have six outfielders, eight infielders, and four catchers on their roster.
Swenson put particular focus on building Portland's pitching staff. College coaches routinely complain to summer managers if their pitchers are racking up high pitch counts and inning totals.
In conversations with Oregon State pitching coach Nate Yeskie and Oregon associate head coach Jay Uhlman, the Pickles developed what Swenson calls the "piggyback starter system."
Swenson intends to have 25 pitchers on the roster, with starters throwing a maximum of three innings or 60 pitches once a week.
If the Pickles start the summer with 20 pitchers — depending on who is still playing in the NCAA tournament — starters will throw four innings or 70 pitches.
The starting pitchers will be on a six-game rotation.
"It will allow the players to have a week to build up through strength training, to eat properly, to throw properly, to do all the stuff they need in between" Swenson says. "Basically, 12 to 18 arms are going to be on a weeklong schedule. That's a gold mine for most college coaches. They know their guys aren't going to get abused."
If the system operates without a hiccup, each Pickles pitcher will throw no more than 44 innings over the 11-week season.
Swenson says the Pickles will have at least six designated relievers, including a closer, setup man and inning eaters. If a starter reaches 60 pitches before his three innings are complete, a reliever will finish the inning before another starter takes over.
"It has been a huge success" in recruiting, Swenson says. "I was telling Coach Barchus that we probably have about 10 arms on hold with coaches telling us, 'Let us know when something opens up.' It will separate Portland from the rest of the league."
UW right-hander Stevie Emanuels, the top-rated recruit in the state of Washington in 2017, signed with the Pickles in January. He recently informed Swenson he will not be able to play for Portland this summer. UW's coaching staff immediately promised to send two other pitchers.
Swenson realizes some fans and league owners won't agree with his thoughts on pitching rotation. Owners and coaches did not take to Swenson's methodology when he lobbied the idea to the WCL three years ago.
But Swenson maintains Portland can compete for WCL championships with a condensed offensive roster and his pitching system.
"I feel strongly that if we have guys who know they only have to go three innings, they can empty the tank for three innings and have a full week's rest to build up," Swenson says, "and they're going to get stronger throughout the summer.
"So when postseason comes into play, our guys are going to be fresh and strong, where the other guys who are going 6-7-8 innings on a five-day rotation, they're going to be gassed.
"Ultimately, it's our job is to develop these players so they're better when they go back to their schools. The programs that don't follow that model just don't get what summer baseball is about."