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Examining the new and improved Dansby Swanson

Dansby Swanson has seemingly remade himself in 2019. What has changed?

MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a built-in danger in writing about baseball early in the season. A sport so driven by numbers can, in small sample sizes, lie to you about what you’re seeing. It’s easy to see great results from guys we aren’t used to seeing great results from and just conclude those players are now better. This is the new version of them.

But as we’ve gotten smarter in not only the stats we use, but how we use them, we’ve developed a better understanding of how to look at early season numbers and filter out the signal from the noise. Instead of just looking at the results of what a player has accomplished in the first month of the season, we now have the tools to look at the profile behind those results and use that to help us understand if what we’re seeing is real.

Dansby Swanson has a 121 wRC+ in 2019. The last 2 seasons, his wRC+ was 80 and 63, respectively. What’s unquestionable is Swanson is hitting better this year than he did in his previous 2 full seasons. He’s hitting significantly better. But these are results. And it’s May 2nd. And as we stated above, results this early in the season can be noise, signal, or a little of both.

So to talk about this responsibly this early, it can’t just be about better results. We have to ask is there something different in the profile behind these results to indicate these improvements aren’t just random variation in a small sample.

One knock on Swanson the last two years was he simply didn’t hit the ball hard enough to consistently do damage. In 2017, his average exit velocity was 86.9 mph. Basically league average. In 2018, his average exit velocity was 86.8 mph. Below league average.

His exit velocity in 2019: 91.6 mph.

Another one of my favorite stats to look at is exit velocity on LD/FB. Since line drives and fly balls are where hitters find their most significant production, how hard you’re hitting those specific batted ball types matters. Here’s Swanson’s LD/FB exit velocity the last 3 years:

2017: 91.5 mph

2018: 91.9 mph

2019: 94.7 mph

How hard you hit the ball is obviously a fundamental building block of your batting profile, so seeing that kind of improvement from Swanson shows us there’s at least something here.

Swanson has also struggled in the past with his chase rate. Swinging at pitches out of the zone.

Follow along with me here:

  • Last year, Swanson swung at 50% of the pitches he saw.
  • This year, he’s swung at 42.6%.
  • His swing% on pitches in the zone is exactly the same as last year, 68%.
  • His swing% on pitches out the zone has dropped from 35% last year to 23% this year.

If you followed along there, Swanson has significantly decreased the amount pitches out of the zone he’s swung at while not losing any of his aggressiveness on pitches in the zone. It sounds simple, but swinging at the same amount of strikes while reducing the number of balls you chase does wonders for your production. It’s more pitches per plate appearance, better counts, and a better chance of doing damage.

And Swanson has been all about more damage in 2019. Consider this graph:

Now that’s a power surge. As you can see, he spent the early part of his career with below average power output. Swanson had a .140 career ISO coming into this year. In 2019, it’s .283. That’s a higher ISO than Nolan Arenado, Matt Chapman, Khris Davis or Mike Trout. He also leads everyone on his own team, which is noteworthy when it includes names like Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson and Ronald Acuña Jr. But laying off bad pitches and hitting the ball significantly harder should lead to more power.

And that’s when better results feel a bit more real. When they’re backed by an improvement in the underlying skills. Dansby isn’t running some ridiculously high and unsustainable batting-average-on-balls-in-play, the first place people usually look when production increases unexpectedly. His BABIP is .278. If anything he’s been a bit unlucky. He’s used a better approach to improve his OBP and more power to his increase his damage.

Where this goes from here is obviously yet to be seen. Swanson isn’t going to hit a HR on 22% of his fly balls all year long, so some regression could still come. But that’s also where some of the excitement comes into the discussion. The amount of offense he has to provide to be a 3-4 WAR player is incredibly low. Such is the benefit of being a fantastic defensive shortstop and a plus base-runner. And if he does happen to run something around a 120 wRC+ for the whole year, he might get MVP votes.

It’s still May 2nd, and we want to measure everything we say this early in the season. But if you’re looking for Dansby Swanson to turn into a legitimate offensive weapon, there’s at least some numbers behind the production to suggest we’re watching the beginnings of a breakout. But as always, time will tell.