The Curious Case of Dansby Swanson

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On August 17, 2016, the first big step into the future of the Braves organization was made when Brian Snitker wrote Dansby Swanson’s name into the 8th spot in the lineup. At the time, Swanson was the crown jewel in a loaded Braves system that had put eight prospects into the 2016 Baseball America Top 100 list. A wave of excitement ran through Braves Nation.

Swanson delivered. Over the last six weeks of 2016, Swanson would put up a 107 wRC+ and be worth 0.8 fWAR in 38 games. None of us could have expected or wanted any better from the 22-year-old.

But since then, it’s been a little more than slightly underwhelming.

Ok, last season was a total disaster.

By the All-Star Break, Swanson was one of the worst qualified hitters in baseball, posting a 58 wRC+ through 335 PA. Two weeks later he was demoted to AAA. After two weeks at Gwinnett, he was back with a better approach and his numbers down the stretch would reflect it — he would bump back up to a 91 wRC+ over his final 189 PA on the season. Finally, there was a bright spot after a long season of anguish.

Coming off an encouraging final two months of 2017, there was reason to think 2018 was going to be a return to form for Swanson. And the first four weeks of the season was exactly that. Through the first twenty games, Dansby was on fire, slashing .342/.381./.544 (152 wRC+) in his first 84 PA. Around that time, however, Swanson sustained a wrist injury that would require a stint on the DL and caused his numbers to take a nosedive. In 38 PA between when the injury was sustained and when he was finally disabled, Dansby’s season went off the rails. Everything that worked over the previous month disappeared. After admitting to playing through the injury, he headed to the DL and then a short rehab stint. Since then he’s shown flashes, including a game-winner in his second game back against the Marlins and a great stretch in two crucial series on the road against the Phillies and Red Sox.

What has happened?

As you can see from the above rolling ten-game breakdowns over the past three seasons, it’s been a roller coaster for Dansby since day one.

The problem lies in trying to figure out what is working and what is holding him back, because honestly, his profile is all over the place at this point. And since we have yet to see a long enough span we still don’t know what the real Dansby is. Here’s how his profile has broken down over the course of his career so far, based on some key milestones:

YEARPABAOBPSLGBB %K %BABIPISOwRC+
MINORS569.277.367.43511.217.2.326.158130
2016145.302.361.4429.023.4.383.140107
2017

(4/3 – 7/26)

362.213.287.3129.723.2.266.09952
2017

(8/9 – 10/1)

189.268.360.34812.719.0.341.07991
2018 (3/29 – 4/21)84.342.381.5446.023.8.439.203150
2018 (4/23 – 5/2)38.171.237.1715.331.6.261.00015
2018 (5/19 – 5/30)46.200.289.35010.932.6.292.15063

 

If you’re having Jason Heyward flashbacks, don’t worry, you aren’t the only one. Between struggles and injuries, none of us know what there is to expect.

Sure, it could all just be fun with sample size and arbitrary endpoints, but there is no predicting what is next. Even during stretches where you see a lot to like, there are downsides. Like during the stretch at the end of last year – there’s a lot to like with the high walk rate and low strikeout rate, but the ISO bottomed out. Or at the start of this season, when his ISO jumps up and his line looks great – except for his walk rate suffering a huge drop.

Let’s dig a little deeper. His peripherals are all over the place after a couple years, but is there anything we can learn from his batted ball profile?

Well, the highs weren’t so high and the lows weren’t so low. The good news is his start to last season wasn’t nearly as bad as it looks in hindsight and he actually had an average exit velocity and launch angle in line with the success he had earlier this season before the wrist injury. The main difference between the two stretches appears to be there was zero luck involved last year and a lot this season. It may go without saying, but when you have above-average speed like Dansby and are hitting the ball hard, good things happen.

Another thing that isn’t necessarily shown above is to go along with the 89 exit velocity, Dansby had a ridiculously low .385 BABIP on line drives. Factor in his normal BABIP on line drives is usually double that, and April/May of last season may have looked a lot better if luck had fallen on his side a little more.

Other than that, really the only consistency is inconsistency.

What needs to be fixed here?

He has to expand his zone. Take a look at where pitchers are pounding him and where he’s struggled in covering the plate.

The biggest problem this season is the fact he isn’t making any contact at all low and away. His whiff rate in that part of the zone is three times what his career numbers are. That explains a great deal about why his K% this season has ballooned so much. A lot of that count be based on his wrist injury, but unfortunately, that black hole in the zone has existed for him all season. It doesn’t matter how well things are going, if Dansby can’t make the adjustment and pitchers realize there is a huge hole in his swing, it’s over.

One of my biggest concerns with Swanson is the fact Snitker has been hitting him eighth for the majority of this month, regardless of his production. Considering his ability to work the count and take advantage of a pitcher’s mistake, he needs to be in a spot in the order where a pitcher is forced to pitch to him. If he’s stuck hitting ahead of the pitcher and behind someone like Charlie Culberson, there is no pressure on a pitcher to do anything over than work him where his weakness lies and either wait for Dansby to strikeout or roll over a garbage pitch. Hitting 8th with runners on, Swanson has a 9.5% strikeout rate and his wRC+ is 104 in 21 PA; with the bases empty he has a 46.2% strikeout rate and a -45 wRC+ in 13 PA.

It’s one thing when you’re in your own way and have to make adjustments. It’s another thing when your manager is setting you up to fail.

Dansby Swanson still has all the tools to be a star. He’s one of those rare players who may not do one single thing great, however, he can do everything very well. There are still edges that need to be smoothed, but not everything that has gone wrong — especially recently — is all his fault.

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