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Dansby Swanson’s Latest Breakout

The 2017 and 2018 seasons were not particularly kind to Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson. The former No. 1 overall draft pick struggled to stick his landing at the plate after a solid 38-game debut in 2016 (107 wRC+), finishing with wRC+ marks of 64 and 80 respectively. This offensive stagnation was exacerbated by Alex Bregman, the man chosen immediately after Swanson as the second pick in the 2015 draft, who had followed up a similarly impressive 2016 start (114 wRC+ in 49 games) with back-to-back breakout seasons that include wRC+ marks of 123 and 157, a World Series victory in 2017, an All-Star appearance, a signature playoff performance (223 wRC+ in 38 plate appearances), and a top-five finish in Most Valuable Player voting in 2018. Swanson may never become as good a player as Bregman, who has become one of baseball’s signature stars. That’s a tough thing to do! However, his 2019 campaign thus far is a step in the right direction, one that could lead him towards the celebrated career he seemed destined for not too long ago.

Through 64 games, Swanson looks like a new hitter. His wRC+ sits at a 104, and each aspect of his .264/.314/.490 slash line represents marked improvements (and career-highs) from the full seasons prior. What has changed?

For starters, Swanson has put a wrist injury that pestered him throughout 2018 in the past. Lance Brozdowski identified some mechanical changes Swanson appeared to have made before last season to the position of his hands and the timing of his front foot placement. His .766 OPS across March and April provided some evidence that these changes may be making a difference for the better before his fateful swing against the New York Mets, which tweaked his wrist and prevented a true sample size from taking a reliable shape. Injuries of any kind are not conducive to peak performance, but given the wrist’s role in the act of swinging a bat, this particular one was likely even less so. Read the rest of this entry »

A Minor Investigation

It feels somewhat disingenuous to focus a second straight post on a member of the Texas Rangers because I have admittedly not spent much time watching them play baseball in recent years, and by recent years I mean my entire 23-year life. With that said, what little I have watched I can mostly attribute to my enjoyment of two of their current players: Rougned Odor and Mike Minor.

Drafted seventh overall in 2009 by the Atlanta Braves, Minor was a starting pitcher for parts of five seasons with the big league club, four of which were unremarkable but one (2013) which was actually quite good. In that 2013 campaign, he logged 204.2 innings, 181 strikeouts, a 3.21 ERA, and a 3.64 xFIP en route to a solid 3.3 fWAR. Soon afterwards, career-threatening shoulder issues emerged and caused him to miss the entirety of 2015 and most of 2016 before the Kansas City Royals signed him to a minor league deal. In 2017, he pitched 77.2 quality innings out of the bullpen at the major league level, quality enough that the Rangers decided to make him a member of their starting rotation in the following season, which some who were unaware of his pre-Kansas City history probably considered a bit puzzling.

The early returns on what was a somewhat risky and potentially costly investment yielded strong results, especially for a man who had not started a major league game in close to four years. He ranked 37th in fWAR among starters with at least 150 innings pitched, which put him in pretty decent company:

Stats provided by FanGraphs

When accounting for the fact that Minor’s career-best 2013 slotted him just four spots higher despite pitching 47.2 more innings, the case can be made that even his micromanaged 2018 workload may have been even more impressive. The risk of the contract has almost evaporated entirely as well. After signing a three-year deal for $28 million, he has already delivered $24 million of value with just a season and change under his belt. A combination of his encouraging 2018 and the Rangers’ relative lack of pitching depth helped the 31-year-old Minor earn the starting nod for 2019’s Opening Day, which, no matter how extreme the dearth of talent may be, is quite meaningful. To be able to say that you had been the ace of a Major League Baseball team when all is said and done (which, barring an injury to a teammate, is usually implied by that honor) puts you in the company of very few people, and it is probably a pretty neat thing to have on a resume. Read the rest of this entry »

Rougned Odor Has Changed, but Can He Improve?

As far as breakout years are concerned, Rougned Odor did a bang-up job in 2016. His 33 home runs as a 22-year-old regular gave his baseball card a hefty amount of pop, but not as much as he gave Jose Bautista during their infamous run-in at second base.

I am not generally a fan of fisticuffs on the field, but this incident was and remains a touchstone for the 2016 season. However, in becoming so it may have, to the casual fan at least, reduced what was a solid season for one of the league’s youngest players to no more than a single moment. But Odor has, in fact, done more baseball things since that fateful afternoon, and the past couple of seasons paint a fascinating picture of a player who may not have improved overall, but one who has changed a whole lot and could very well have his best years ahead of him.
Over the past five years, he’s become a fixture at second base for the Texas Rangers, never appearing in less than 114 games during that span and accumulating a total of 7.2 fWAR. Save for his abominable 2017 campaign, which resulted in -1.2 fWAR, his career, despite no shortage of deep slumps and hot streaks, has been shockingly consistent: he’s totaled exactly 2.5 fWAR in three of the past four seasons. His career has played out much more interestingly than those identical numbers suggest, however, namely in that each campaign has played out quite differently (part of the fun of WAR!). The most pronounced changes, however, have occurred since that breakout 2016.

Though he posted identical fWAR totals in 2015 and 2016, the latter year was his first with at least 600 plate appearances, which helped him make quick work of his career-highs in the fan-favorite counting stats, namely home runs (33), RBIs (88), and stolen bases (14). A healthy-yet-not-unsustainable .297 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) anchored a solid .271 batting average, and 70 extra-base hits made for an impressive .502 slugging percentage. A paltry 3% walk rate kept his on-base percentage below .300 (.296), which limited his overall offensive production and kept his wRC+ at 103 (the league average is set at 100.) The 6.1 offensive runs above average remain a career high, but despite being 2.5 runs better than average on defense in the year prior, his -3.5 mark in 2016 remain a career low. Read the rest of this entry »