AnalysisNL East

Dansby Swanson, Tough Luck, and Self-Evaluation

Most baseball fans are well aware that Dansby Swanson, haver of excellent hair, hasn’t lived up to the brouhaha of a no. 1 overall draft pick, at least not yet. That’s not to say that Swanson has been a complete disappointment, considering that roughly 25% of all first round picks never even reach the majors, but he certainly hasn’t been the star you’d hope for when acquiring a first overall draft pick. Overall, Swanson has been a slightly below average player, amassing just 4.6 fWAR through Monday’s walkoff tater (roughly 1.6 fWAR per 162 games). But, as we’re going to discuss, Swanson’s career production does not do justice to the player he is today.

Outside of a scorching-hot cameo at the end of the 2016 season, Swanson has been downright bad at the plate for the majority of his time in the majors, posting a 64 wRC+ in 551 plate appearances in 2017 and an 80 wRC+ in 2018 over 533 PAs. In 2019, though, Swanson was different. Sure, he improved his results considerably, posting an improved-but-still-below-average .273/.324/.424 slash line that was good for a 92 wRC+. But this version of 2019 was very, very different. For starters, Swanson finally started laying off of the low-and-away breaking pitches that had absolutely destroyed him in previous seasons, and it (unsurprisingly) resulted in a major improvement against those pitches, as you can see in the charts below of his strikeout rates against said breaking balls (2018 is the top chart and 2019 is the bottom chart):

Source: Baseball Savant
Source: Baseball Savant

Swinging less at bad breaking pitches is never a bad strategy, and it clearly paid off for Swanson, who increased his wOBA against breaking balls by 50 points in 2019 despite terrible batted ball luck (more on that in a moment). Overall, he improved his chase rate by more than six percentage points in 2019, per Baseball Savant. This improved selectiveness at the plate allowed Swanson to increase his hitting metrics across the board. If you looked at a blind resumé of Swanson’s batted ball metrics from 2018 and compared it to his 2019 numbers, you would probably surmise that you’re looking at two different players and, in a sense, you are.

Barrel %4.1%10.1%6.3%
Hard Hit %34.0%41.6%34.7%
Chase %30.8%24.7%28.2%
Note: MLB average stats are for the 2020 season through 8/18/20. Expect a bit more stabilization to occur, but it’s pretty close to what we normally see.

Swanson improved his quality of contact in 2019, and by a lot. That’s obviously a victory in and of itself, but poor Dansby didn’t have a ton to show for it, or at least not nearly as much as he should have. In fact, Swanson was above average in just about any quality-of-contact-based metric you’d like to use, and yet he still only posted a wOBA of .317, or exactly league-average. Swanson posted a .365 xwOBA, good for 49th in baseball and higher than that of Alex Bregman, Kris Bryant, and a host of other notable hitters.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Swanson is a better hitter than Bryant or Bregman, but it does mean that he hit the ball much better in 2019 than his .317 wOBA would lead you to believe. It also means that he made huge strides as a hitter in 2019. How did he do it? Well, we already know that he swung at less bad pitches, but he also started destroying the good ones. xwOBA is simply derived from launch angle and exit velocity, and let me tell you, he made some serious changes in both of those departments. Looking at average exit velocity is (usually) fine, but it can be easily skewed by bunts and very softly hit balls. We’ll learn more about Swanson by looking at a distribution of his exit velocities, which Baseball Savant has readily available for us (Keep in mind the y-axis is not the same in these auto-generated graphs).

Source: Baseball Savant
Source: Baseball Savant

Swanson hit the ball much harder in 2019, increasing his Hard Hit rate (percentage of balls hit at least 95mph) by more than seven percentage points, from 34.0 to 41.6%. That’s a huge difference. Still, as Eric Hosmer has so painfully taught us for years now, good exit velocity alone does not mean you are a good hitter. Swanson continued to hit the ball in the air, which allowed him to post a sweet spot percentage of 39.0% (percentage of balls hit with a launch angle between 8 and 32 degrees.) When you’re hitting the ball hard and keeping the ball in the air, good things are going to happen – unless you’re Swanson and you run into horrific luck all year long. It can’t be much fun to experience that kind of verifiably-was bad luck over the course of a full MLB season, but rest assured that Dansby is fully aware (as are the Braves) that he was a much better hitter in 2019 than he has been in previous seasons.

Obviously, young players want to have good traditional stats since those numbers are (inexplicably) still used for arbitration, but for non-artibtration purposes, how much stock do they put into their traditional batting lines versus better measures of their performance? There are undoubtedly still players who ignore advanced metrics entirely, but that crowd seems to be shrinking.

Swanson actually gave us an idea of how he evaluates himself on the Podcast that he cohosts, The Express, during an interview with pitcher Max Fried. Rather than solely focusing on the outcome of each plate appearance, Swanson said the Braves’ analytical team uses a system that allows him to evaluate himself at a much more granular level. According to Dansby, after each game the Braves analytical team puts together a report for him scoring each of his at bats, giving him +1/-1 “points” based on the pitches he’s swinging at, or he receives a 0 if it’s “neutral,” presumably referring to borderline pitches. Swanson said this helps him to focus on his decision-making rather than simply looking at his results, which seems like the exact kind of thing that could help lead to the improved plate discipline which was the foundation of his success in 2019. Swanson mentioned that after an 0-4 day, he was in the neighborhood of +20 using this system, and he said that was something that makes it much easier for him to trust his process rather than getting too wrapped up in the results.

Interestingly, Swanson said Justin Turner uses a similar system, though it’s unclear if this is something that came with Alex Anthopolous when he was hired away from L.A., or if it’s a fairly common method for players to review their performances. Regardless, it’s pretty clear that Swanson has made a real effort to improve his approach, and his offense as a whole has improved as a direct result. Swanson is crushing the ball, playing great defense, and if he stays healthy, the best is still to come.

Featured Photo: @Braves on Twitter

Holden Phillips

Holden writes about weird stats and the Atlanta Braves. Find him on Twitter @Holden_BSBL.

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