How Much Should We Believe In Dansby Swanson?
Even though Dansby Swanson checks in at number eight on our recently published top 50 free agent rankings, it feels like no one knows just how much to believe in him. Obviously, that’s not completely true. I’m sure Swanson strongly believes in himself. There’s a Re-sign Dansby Swanson petition on Change.org; I bet the 12 people who signed it believe in him quite a bit too. The rest of us, however, fall somewhere in the middle.
Swanson had a career year in 2022. His 6.4 WAR was 12th best in all of baseball, and 3.0 above his 2021 total. While the big jump is encouraging, it also makes him a regression candidate. Of the 83 position players with 500 plate appearances in both 2021 and ’22, only four improved their WAR total more. Aaron Judge improved by 5.9 WAR in 2022, and it’d be extremely unreasonable to expect him to put up anything like a repeat performance. The next three players, Eugenio Suárez, Nolen Arenado, and Manny Machado, were all bouncing back from a down year in 2021. Like Swanson, all three saw their BABIP improve by at least 40 points. Swanson was the only player of the group whose WAR in 2022 was three wins higher than in their best previous season.
As a reward for his fantastic season, Swanson gets to enter free agency as the budget option at his position, behind luxury models like Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, and Xander Bogaerts. With all this in mind, I dug a little deeper into Swanson’s breakout year, looking for reasons to believe or disbelieve the notion that he’s truly leveled up.
Dansby Swanson: Batting
At the plate, it sure looks like Swanson’s success in 2020 and ’22 was tied to some luck on balls in play. Much of his increased value came from keeping his production consistent in 2022’s tougher offensive environment. However, his contact profile provides some reason for optimism:
Dansby Swanson: Contact Profile
Despite a slightly lower barrel rate, Swanson’s career-best hard-hit rate and exit velocity make his BABIP seem a bit more sustainable. His fly balls aren’t suddenly going for home runs at an exaggerated rate. He’s largely done this by getting better at what he was already good at: crushing fastballs. Swanson has always punished four-seamers, but his hard-hit rate on them has climbed to 62.3%, just outside the top 10. The real area of concern is his plate discipline:
Dansby Swanson: Plate Discipline
Swanson has never run great strikeout or whiff rates, but over the last few years, he’s dropped toward the bottom of the league in both. His swing rates both inside and outside the zone have increased in each of the past four years, while his walk rate has decreased.
With so little room for error, it’s fair to worry about what happens when Swanson’s bat speed starts to decline. This year, he put up a wOBA of .390 on fastballs and .256 on everything else; over the course of his career, those numbers are .360 and .249. If he starts having trouble catching up to velocity, things could get ugly in a hurry.
With that in mind, it’s worth noting that Swanson’s improvement from 2021 to ’21 came almost entirely on pitches that broke away from him (cutters, curves, and sliders from righties, along with fastballs and changeups from lefties). His performance against pitches that broke in toward him declined:
Dansby Swanson Horizontal Break Breakdown
|Toward RHB||Toward LHB|
|2021 Exit Velocity||91.1||86.3|
|2022 Exit Velocity||91.3||88.6|
|Exit Velocity Change||+0.2||+2.3|
|2021 Run Value||14.5||-5.9|
|2022 Run Value||6.6||13.2|
|Run Value Change||-7.9||+19.1|
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
The lion’s share of the changes came against left-handed pitching. This tradeoff certainly seems to have been worth it, as Swanson’s improvement on pitches breaking away from him significantly outweighed his decline on pitches breaking in toward him. Unsurprisingly, this change coincided with a lower pull rate. There’s nothing wrong with Swanson being a better hitter when he’s going the other way and feasting on pitches that break toward the left-handed batter’s box. However, his short track record with this approach makes me more hesitant to believe in it. I’ll be curious to see if this trend continues and whether it affects how pitchers attack him.
Of course, Swanson didn’t just have a career year at the plate. Depending on your preferred defensive metric, he rated anywhere from good to superlative with the glove. The chart below shows how he stacks up compared to his fellow shortstops. The 2022 season is on the left, and to provide a larger sample, the last three seasons are on the right:
Free Agent Shortstop Defense: 2022 & 2020-22
Looking at this chart, I have two main takeaways. The first is that we should all try to find someone who loves us as much as UZR loves Xander Bogaerts. The second is that while Swanson’s 20 OAA in 2022 deserves some healthy skepticism (just like any one-year spike in a single defensive metric), there’s little reason to doubt that he’s a consistently good defender at short. He had a negative DRS in 2021, but aside from that, he rates highly in all three major defensive metrics year in and year out. He also excelled while playing in traditional shortstop positioning, which should bode well for the shift-free future.
I do have a little bit of concern about Swanson’s arm strength, which Statcast rates fourth-worst among all shortstops. However, DRS credited Swanson’s throwing for 9 runs saved in 2022, so it clearly hasn’t been holding him back so far.
Maybe you can already tell from the back and forth nature of this article, but I didn’t find anything that made me feel more confident Swanson turned a corner in 2022. I don’t have a great reason to believe his elevated hard-hit rate and less pull-heavy approach will last into 2023. However, as long as he’s crushing fastballs and opposing pitchers are happy to keep throwing them more than half the time, he’ll be fine.
Where does all this leave Swanson as he looks to sign a new deal? Below are the Steamer projections and Ben Clemens’ contract estimates for the top four shortstops:
Free Agent Contract Estimates
|Player||Age||Years||AAV||Total||2022 WAR||2023 Projected WAR|
Steamer is pretty harsh, projecting his WAR to drop right back to where it was in 2021. While Swanson is coming off his first season with more than four WAR, his fellow shortstops have had at least three such seasons each, and Steamer projects all of them to reach that threshold next year. All three have a career wRC+ of 118 or better, a mark Swanson has never reached.
Of course, Swanson isn’t the only shortstop on the market who has flaws. While Correa and Turner have struggled with injuries at times, Swanson has been extremely durable, having missed just two games in the last three years. Turner won’t maintain his elite speed forever, and Bogaerts doesn’t seem like he’ll be able to stay at short for more than another year or two.
It’s also possible that we’ve underestimated Swanson a bit because he’s done so much of his growing up at the major league level where everyone could see it — 2016 was his only season with 100 games as a minor leaguer. He has now recorded four years in a row with at least 2.0 WAR, and this year he demonstrated his upside. Digging into these numbers, I understand why Ben Clemens called him “a sometime All-Star” on the top 50. His breakout season may well have arisen from BABIP luck and noisy defensive metrics, but that doesn’t mean Swanson won’t experience similarly good fortune a couple more times over the course of his next contract.
If the Dansby Swanson experience entails solid defense at shortstop, a league-average bat, and the occasional great season mixed in whenever the BABIP gods decide to look favorably upon him, most teams would sign up for it in a heartbeat. And if he’s able to hold onto his 2022 gains either at the plate or in the field, he might make believers out of all of us.