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Why this version of Dansby Swanson is different

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Why what we have seen over the last two seasons is more signal than noise

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

Ever since his debut in 2016, you’d be hard pressed to find a more inconsistent player in baseball than Dansby Swanson.

The peaks and valleys of his production have become the stuff of legend among Braves fans. If you’ve never seen this incredible chart, here’s Swanson’s 15 game rolling wOBA for his career:

Dansby Swanson’s 15-game rolling wOBA
FanGraphs

This is Dansby Swanson. Crazy ups and downs, three weeks of elite performance followed by four weeks of replacement level play. This has been the story of his career. Or at least it was.

If you pay close attention to that chart, you’ll notice a slightly different trend the last 160 games or so. More peaks, less valleys. There are still ups and down, like with every player, but the slumps aren’t quite as pronounced and their duration no where near as long.

At 27 years old, and some 2500 PAs later, it looks like we’re finally seeing some real improvement from Swanson. So what’s changed?

Swanson’s problems have always originated from the fact that he has a mismatched offensive profile. Dansby has always struck out at the rate of an elite power hitter but without the elite power and walks that are suppose to come with it. Tons of strikeouts by themselves aren’t enough to kill your offensive production, as long as the rest of your game is set up to offset them. Aaron Judge, Joey Gallo, even Ronald Acuña Jr, strikeout at high rate. But Judge, Gallo, Acuña, and players like them, hit for mammoth power and take plenty of walks. That’s the formula when you strikeout so much. Because the number of at-bats where you can do damage goes down, the quality of that damage (power) has to go up. And the walks help maintain a plus on-base percentage. This is the part Swanson was always missing.

But over his last full season, we’ve seen a different player, specifically when it comes to power. From his debut in 2016 through the 2019 season, Swanson posted a .140 ISO, well below league average. Since the start of the 2020 season, his ISO has jumped to .210, a substantial increase. Over that time, that represents a higher power output than Xander Bogaerts, Trevor Story, Bo Bichette, Carlos Correra and Fransisco Lindor, just among shortstops.

And it’s not a fluke. He’s actually hitting the ball harder. When hitting a line drive or fly ball, Swanson’s average exit velocity since the start of 2020 is 94 mph, up 2 mph from his career number. Two miles per hour might not seem like much but that’s a significant jump when talking average exit velocity and it means more damage.

The easiest way to see these improvements is in the expected numbers. The first 3+ years of his career when hitting a line drive or fly ball, Swanson’s xwOBA was .506 and his xSLG was .789. Since 2020, on line drives or fly balls, his xwOBA is .610 and his xSLG is .993. Those are massive jumps. When he hits the ball in the air, Swanson is hitting the ball harder than he ever has and doing more damage because of it.

This is a critical point. His production this year is not a product of some absurdly high batting average on balls in play like previous years. It’s not luck. Swanson has actually improved some of his raw skills, which means this increase in offense is more sustainable than years past. When the reason for your production is an increase in skill instead of an increase in luck, it’s less likely to be subject to randomness and should lead to more consistency. And slowly, that’s what we’ve seen from Swanson, as the chart at the top shows.

When you strikeout as much as Dansby does, power is an incredibly important facet of the game. The gains we’ve seen from him over the last full season or so are arguably more important for him than other type of player. This had to happen. The strikeouts had to go down or the power go up.

The next step will be the walks. His on-base percentage currently sits at exactly .300, which is why someone who’s on pace for almost 30 home runs only has 100 wRC+. Walking more means a higher OBP, and when you add that to his new power game, it take his offensive profile to another level completely. But even if the walks never really come, this iteration of Swanson is perfectly fine. A decent defensive shortstop with good power can easily be 2.5 or 3 WAR player and the Braves will take that all day.

This is all is coming an opportune time for Swanson as well. As he’s now arbitration eligible, his yearly salary is going from cheap to much less cheap quickly. Another year without much improvement and this off-season could’ve gotten dicey for the Braves’ shortstop. With so many other areas to address, spending eight or nine million on Swanson would’ve been a real decision for the club. A non-tender would’ve certainly been in play. But this version of him makes it a relatively easy decision, and they may even look to do an extension.

Swanson, of course, still has to maintain this level of play. But the fact that there’s been real improvement in his baseline skills should mean what we’re seeing the last two seasons is more signal than noise. And if that’s the case, the Braves have one less position to worry about come this winter.