The No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 MLB Draft. The center of the most lopsided trade in recent memory. A star-making performance in his first call-up to the majors last year. The presumptive 2017 National League Rookie of the Year.
Boy, those were fun times for Dansby Swanson, weren’t they?
The 23-year-old shortstop for the Atlanta Braves hit the regression wall like a Mack truck this season, so much so that GM John Coppolella felt compelled to send him back to Triple-A back in July. Before that happened, Swanson posted a microscopic 52 wRC+ in 362 plate appearances. Power was never the center of his game, but even so, a .099 isolated power percentage doesn’t cut the mustard when singles aren’t falling in.
What happened to Swanson? How could the bloom come off the rose so quickly? Now that he’s back after his two-week banishment, what does he need to do to get his bat thumping again?
The first thing to note is that Swanson ran into a bit of luck last season. A more than 46 percent ground ball rate helped to dampen some of his pop, while a healthy amount of squibbers darted past infielders. Swanson ran a .383 average on balls in play in 2016, and carried a below-average Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA). His raw wOBA was a full 41 points higher than his xwOBA.
That ground ball approach caught up to him this year. Swanson also lost about a mile per hour in average exit velocity. More grounders found gloves, and he gave those batted balls less of a chance.
While the ground ball issue needs to be addressed, Swanson’s approach might also need some tweaking, too. He managed to make a lot of contact on the outer half of the plate, specifically the border between middle and outer third. He turned those pitches into hits last year.
This year, Swanson is ice cold on the outer half. While he makes average contact in the zone as a whole, pitchers have been able to exploit his weakness on outside pitches. Ground balls in the zone have grown like weeds on all quadrants.
Swanson is exactly in line with last year’s non-contact numbers, walking at an above-average rate and striking out at a slightly worse-than-average one. He’s making the same amount of contact. It all comes down to the quality of that contact.
I’m ambivalent about Swanson’s two weeks in Gwinett. Was there anything left for him to learn down there? Having faced major league pitching 507 times, one would think that making adjustments in the big leagues would best serve him.
On the other hand, Swanson never played in Triple-A. He was hitting well enough at Double-A Mississippi that it seemed foolish to let his excellent defense languish any longer, especially since the Braves weren’t competing. But maybe he had a few offensive tricks left to learn. Maybe he learned them in these last two weeks.
Swanson has to get some loft on the ball. He probably doesn’t need to be shooting for 35 home runs a year, but if he can develop some more consistent line drive power, then he can cut down his margin for error.
Here’s another possible angle. His average estimated swing speed has been league average since he got to the big leagues. In the immortal words of Barry Larkin to Zack Cozart a couple spring trainings ago, maybe Swanson needs to start swinging harder.
No matter what, Swanson has a contact quality problem. If he can start covering the outer half and get some more balls above infielders’ heads, he can right the ship. Cody Bellinger is going to be the NL Rookie of the Year, but Swanson has his career to think about.