Dansby Swanson, figuring stuff out

By now, I’d imagine most readers are, at least to some extent, familiar with the young career of Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson. After being drafted first overall by the Diamondbacks in 2015, Swanson was dealt to Atlanta in the infamous Shelby Miller trade, and virtually immediately became more relevant than the player for whom he was traded. After a short stint in the minor leagues, where he quickly rose from A-ball to Double-A Mississippi, Swanson first reached the majors in August 2016 – just fifteen months after being drafted.

Albeit in a sample size of just 145 plate appearances, Swanson’s 2016 performance was impressive. The rookie slashed .302/.361/.442 while playing a solid, if unspectacular, shortstop, and accumulated nearly a win above replacement in a relatively short time span (which, on a pro rata basis, would project to over 3.3 WAR across 600 plate appearances). Before the 2017 season, the hype surrounding Swanson was palpable. The young shortstop was a popular pick for NL Rookie of the Year, with half of FanGraphs‘ 54 staff members and 28 of 35 ESPN experts predicting a Swanson victory.

For the most part, however, Swanson’s 2017 hasn’t gone as expected. He struggled mightily at the plate over the first four months of the season, hitting just .213/.287/.312 with a 52 wRC+, and his struggles eventually culminated in a late-July demotion to Triple-A. To his credit, Swanson’s attitude was quite positive at the time, stating that the experience was helping him to “slow everything down a bit better,” and that getting more consistent at-bats – Swanson had been sharing time at shortstop with hot-hitting rookie Johan Camargo – was helping him “develop and learn.”

It didn’t take long for Swanson to find his way back to the majors, though. With the help of a freak injury to Camargo, Swanson was recalled to Atlanta during the second week of August, and since then, he’s been far closer to the player Braves fans were expecting to see this season than the player he’d been. In his first twenty games since returning to the majors (through August 30), Swanson’s slashed .328/.443/.453, good for a .387 wOBA and 138 wRC+, and his expected wOBA of .359 indicates that he’s only been marginally more successful than his exit velocity and launch angle suggest. Further, this statistic is far higher than his pre-demotion expected wOBA of .285, so although Swanson’s post-callup sample size is small, there’s reason to believe that these numbers are more than just noise.

So what’s Swanson been doing differently since his call-up? Well, just compare the following two stills, one from early May and one from late August:


Swanson’s back foot has shifted about a foot closer towards home plate, and in an interview with AJC, he’s described this change as a factor in his improvement: “I feel that [moving closer] has created the best margin for error, which is what hitting is ... whether you’re late, early, up, down.”

And his recent results appear to accurately reflect this assessment, as moving closer to the plate has all but eliminated the gaping hole in Swanson’s swing on pitches that scrape the outside corner. Compare heatmaps of Swanson’s 2017 whiffs from before and after his demotion – while he’s had some recent trouble with low pitches, Swanson’s been able to dramatically improve his contact on pitches that scrape the outside corner:


Additionally, Swanson’s seen significant improvement in his plate discipline since returning from Triple-A. His O-Swing% has dropped about four percentage points, and his contact rates on strikes and balls have increased by about six and seven points, respectively. As a result, he’s been walking more and striking out less, illustrated as follows:


He’s only been back in the big leagues for a few weeks, of course, but there’s a lot of reason for optimism here. Over the last two weeks, Swanson’s wRC+ is the fifth-highest among all starting shortstops in the league, and his 22.6% walk rate is fifth-highest across all batters. It’s also only a few ticks behind that of Joey Votto (he of oh-for-oh with five walks fame), and these walks haven’t all come against bad teams either. Since being called up, Swanson’s faced the Phillies (whose pitchers had the fifteenth-highest BB%), the Cardinals (24th), Reds (2nd), Mariners, (20th), and Rockies (12th).

Of course, we probably haven’t seen enough of the “new” Dansby Swanson to know whether these improvements will stick over the long term – and it’s a virtual guarantee that his post-call-up BB% and .389 BABIP are due for regression – but it’s encouraging to see a young player make the necessary adjustments after what could have been a highly demoralizing demotion. Ever since he was acquired from the Diamondbacks, Swanson’s been touted as a key piece of the Braves’ ongoing rebuild, and Atlanta has to be salivating at the prospect of a long-term Dansby Swanson-Ozzie Albies middle-infield duo.


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