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.

Regardless, the .490 slugging percentage he currently has in tow is a steep step up from 2018’s pre-injury month-and-change .435 mark, an indication that his previous pop has returned and then some. The evolution of his batted ball profile makes it clear that this version of Swanson is hitting the ball harder than ever:

A sharp uptick in hard contact rate (+7.4%) corresponds with a drastic drop in soft contact rate (-6.9%) and then some, each easily representing career-bests and surpassing league averages (which are 17.2% and 37.6% respectively for soft and hard contact). His average exit velocity has acted accordingly, rising from 86.8 mph in each of the last two seasons to 90.0, according to Baseball Savant.

Changes to his swing path are likely at least in part responsible for this improvement. His average launch angle was 5.5 degrees in 2017 before bumping up to 12.9 degrees in 2018 and then 14.7 degrees in 2019. Those changes are borne out in chart form below, with the 2017 data followed by the 2019 data as of June 9:

Provided by Baseball Savant

Provided by Baseball Savant

The sample is smaller for the ongoing season, but the surefire ground balls that usually accompany negative launch angle contact have been drastically reduced. His ground-ball rate continues to trend downward, and though his fly-ball rate mirrors his mark from 2018, his line-drive rate has spiked to a career-high:

Swanson’s spray chart may demonstrate the true fruits of his labor better than any individual number, as those fly balls he continues to hit aren’t what they used to be. Here is a side-by-side look at the plots from his 2017 and 2018 campaigns:

A right-handed swinger, Swanson has never struggled to shoot singles to all fields. A more pull-heavy approach in 2018 is definitely apparent, with a handful of singles to the right side being traded for more fly balls over the left-field fence. After hitting just six home runs and producing a .092 ISO in 2017, he leaped to much more palatable marks in 2018 with 14 dingers and a .157 ISO. Even so, just one long ball, hit off of Miami’s Jarlin Garcia, cleared the fence somewhere other than left field, suggesting that Swanson’s power may have reached its peak.

But it has not! Here is a look at his spray chart so far in 2019 (as of June 9):

Swanson, with 13 home runs already, could surpass his career-high of 14 any day now. His dingers have still been pulled a majority of the time, but they have some company in center and right field. A boost in power to the gaps via a few more extra-base hits would be welcome, but Brian Snitker and company likely won’t mind if the ball keeps clearing the field of play altogether.

Enough baseball has been played for sample sizes to shoulder a bit more weight, and while 261 plate appearances cannot predict production for years to come, they can signal legitimate improvement. If anything, Swanson may be underperforming; his above-average .338 wOBA is 28 points lower than his .367 xwOBA. A glut of hot-hitting shortstops may keep him out of the All-Star Game this year, and the Braves, who are in a tough division race, are no shoo-in for the postseason (though their recent signing of Dallas Keuchel proves they are going for it), but a full-on breakout to finish the season seems to be in play. Swanson’s current production doesn’t make him a star, but continued improvements of this nature very well could. At the very least, he appears to have acclimated to the majors and earned a spot on a team playing to win.

This article originally ran on June 9 at Mike’s blog, “Words by Delayo.”

Mike is a contributor to The Hardball Times, FanGraphs Community Research, and SB Nation's The Bird Writes.

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3 years ago

If you look at his batting stance from 2018 to 2019, you’ll notice a more open stance and lower hands in the 2019 stance. Definitely supports the idea that the bat path is being more optimal for the higher launch angle. The open stance also might be helping him with sliders as well, a pitch that was giving him nightmares at the plate last year. xwOBA for Dansby on sliders is sitting at .372 compared to an absolutely miserable .197 in 2018. If you’re looking at overall plate discipline, he’s dropped his O-Swing% from 36.5 to 26.4 as well.

He’s always been an a solid fastball hitter, and while he’s not murdering breaking balls, he’s getting more meaningful contact on them. Enough to where you can’t get away with him throwing sliders down and away on him anymore.