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Dansby Swanson’s just deserts

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Or, is Dansby Swanson just dessert?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Do you remember May 18, 2021? There’s no real reason why you should. The Braves had just dropped their second in a row to the Mets, dropping them to 19-23, four games back in the division. Dansby Swanson went 0-for-4 with the ol’ strikeout hat trick, and a team-low -.163 WPA in the game, including making the first out of the ninth in a one-run game. It was a pretty crappy moment for the Braves, who were now in a three-game skid, but also for Swanson, whose latest o-fer gave him a .100/.121/.200 line resulting from reaching base safely just four times in eight games. Postgame discussion, where it touched on Swanson rather than the team’s overall disappointing start, ranged from “Swanson is useless” to “hey Swanson’s gonna fall under the Mendoza Line again” to “get Orlando Arcia up here.”

That level of opprobrium was hardly misaligned with Swanson’s results. After all, through that game, Swanson had the ignominious mark of a 61 wRC+ and -0.1 fWAR. A fourth of the way through the season, and below replacement after setting a career high in fWAR despite a 60-game sprint in 2020? Yeah, that’s a special kind of deflating. But, here’s the thing. That criticism, well... it was really hyper-focused on results. To be sure, Swanson wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire, but he wasn’t 61 wRC+-level bad, either:

Focusing on May 18, 2021 wasn’t meant to be comprehensive. There’s no huge gotcha there. Dansby Swanson was horribly underperforming his contact quality, sure, but even if that underperformance wasn’t happening, he still wasn’t good at that point. He was... not too far off from the full corpus of Dansby Swanson, across his whole career to date.

The better illustration is really the reason for this post. It’s all about this one image. Behold. (To be clear, this is Swanson’s cumulative wOBA and xwOBA on the season, adjusting after each game. Due to various issues with doubleheaders, this isn’t exact to Fangraphs or Baseball Savant game logs, but the deviations are very small.)

In brief, Dansby Swanson had a large, persistent, unfavorable gap between his xwOBA and his wOBA. It’s only closed recently. His success over the last 30 days or so is far less a new gear than him getting his just deserts. Honestly, that chart kind of makes it hard to see, because of the y-axis. Let’s compress it.

That’s much better. Very simple story here: Swanson spent most of his season, in wOBA terms, in the “bad” range and then in the “average” range. In xwOBA terms, Swanson spent most of his season in the “good” range, with a few dalliances into average. May 18? Yeah, that’s that big dip of the red line into the gray box. He quickly recovered.

That’s it. That’s the whole story. This isn’t about how or anything, though Devan Fink has a nice piece on Swanson’s recent surge here. This is just a little marker placed down about how Swanson’s “struggles” for most of the season weren’t his fault, and now that his results on contact better match his quality of contact, it’s a party.

But man, were those “struggles” persistent, at least through his first 300 PAs or so. Seriously. Look at this.

Getting even more granular just makes it wilder. If you break each month into two halves, Swanson underperformed his xwOBA in five of the six half-months through June.

Still more! Through June, Swanson had 24 barreled balls. Of those 24, nine went for outs, including something like this, which somehow got caught (not even a double?) by Kyle Schwarber (?!).

Nine of 24 is 37.5 percent; the league-average rate of barrels becoming outs in 2021 is 24 percent. Since June, Swanson has 18 barrels, only two of which have gone for outs (both caught by Victor Robles on the same day). The worm has turned.

After May 18, Swanson went on a little mini-roll, collecting eight hits (and two homers) in three games, the start of a 12-game hitting streak in which he hit five homers total. That streak dragged his overal line close to league-average territory (91 wRC+) despite still underperforming his xwOBA by around .020, but then June happened and the results line plunged back down while the xwOBA barely budged.

The Braves are 13-2 since August 3. Swanson has 1.0 fWAR in those 15 games, leading the team and almost everyone (he’s tied for third in MLB) in that span. There’s no denying that he’s kicked it up a notch, with a .390 xwOBA in that span. But the results there are driven by an xwOBA gap of .051 that’s very much in his favor. Given his first three months, it’s a well-deserved treat. It’s been a long time coming.

(Side note: “It’s been a long time coming” is a really bizarre phrase that I feel like shouldn’t exist in the English language. It makes no sense, yet we use it all the time.”)

(Weird random fact: Dansby Swanson’s second-cheapest, i.e., lowest-xwOBA, hit of the season was the grand slam he hit off John Curtiss on July 31. I didn’t find a way to work it into the body of this post, but man, if that isn’t a metaphor for the whole just deserts thing...)