Tuesday, July 18, 2017

So Let's Talk About Dansby Swanson

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Baseball is hard. I flamed out around T-ball so I really can't imagine how hard major league baseball is. I know far more players fail at it than succeed so players struggling shouldn't ever really surprise us, especially young players. It should be obvious but Aaron Judge is an outlier. The problem is we've had guys like Judge and Bellinger and Correa and Seager come up recently and light the world on fire so our expectations have gotten skewed. Most guys aren't them.

I say all that to say Dansby Swanson is having a rough rookie year. To put it nicely, he's really struggled. To put it more directly, he's been the worst SS in the National League. You can parse up different endpoints and find patches where he's been decent or even good at times but overall he's just been bad.

Here's his full stat line so far in 2017: 


Now early on in the year, Swanson's poor offensive numbers could be heavily attributed to some bad luck. For first 6 weeks of the season or so he was running about a .150 BABIP and led the team in lineouts. He was doing his part, hitting the ball hard, he just wasn't seeing the results. And that happens. Baseball can be cruel. But as of today his BABIP sits at .272. Still a decent amount of poor luck but not enough to excuse the overall numbers. And the hard hit balls have been replaced with pop ups and rolled-over grounders to SS. 

So why has it been such a struggle for Swanson this year? For that we look a little deeper into the numbers. Looking at his peripherals one thing jumps out; his strikeout to power numbers are way off.

Follow along:

- Swanson's contact rate is 76%. For context, other players right around a 76% contact rate include George Springer, Adam Duvall, Paul Goldschmidt, Corey Seager, and Bryce Harper

- Swanson's strikeout rate is almost 23%. Other players right around a 23% strikeout rate include Giancarlo Stanton, Corey Seager, Edwin Encarnacion, Marcel Ozuna, and Jose Bautista

You should notice a theme. 

Now here's ISO. Swanson's ISO is .102 Guys around a .102 ISO include Byron Buxton, Jose Iglesias, Alex Gordon, Ender Inciarte and Nick Markakis. (Braves have a bit of a power problem)

Here's that same concept in graph form:

This is every qualified hitter in major league baseball by ISO/K Rate. Where you don't want to be on this graph is the bottom-third. Where you really don't want to be is bottom right. See the yellow dot in the bottom right - that's Swanson. Just for context the dot in the upper left with a .300 ISO and an 11% K rate is Joey Votto. The one in the upper right with a .360 ISO and 30% K rate is Judge.

Swanson is making contact and striking out at the rate of an elite power hitter but producing the power of a singles slap hitter. Power is how you make up for strikeouts. It's why striking out isn't as bad for a hitter as getting a strikeout is good for a pitcher. Because hitters can offset their strikeouts with plus power output. Aaron Judge has a 30% K rate but a 187 wRC+. How? He successfully trades off quantity of contact for quality of contact. Swanson doesn't. At least not yet.

The "why" can be a long answer. It's been well documented he struggles with off speed stuff, especially sliders so that obviously plays a big role. But his batted ball profile shows he's probably never going to be a big power hitter so it seems the quickest way to offensive improvement is focusing on making more contact. And then as he gets older, a little bigger, start trading off some of that contact for power.

With Sean Rodriguez coming back yesterday the question of whether to send him down started making the rounds again. I've gone on the record before saying I would send him down but I understand the argument the other way. I also don't see it as the dramatic event others do. 

For one, your contact rate is absolutely something you can work on in AAA. People say "you wont see big league sliders in AAA" but that's missing the forest for the trees. Dansby looks like a guy who went from seeing AA off-speed for a couple months straight to seeing the best breaking balls in the world. Maybe the step in between the two is exactly what he needs to feel more comfortable and make more contact. His profile never matched that of a guy who should've completely skipped AAA and it's very difficult to work on your game in the majors.

Two, people forget last year was Swanson's first full year in pro ball. He got hit in the face after being drafted in 2015 which basically washed that whole year. And even with 2016 being his first full year, he was in the majors by August. He's had an incredibly short amount of time to work on his game in the minors. It would be less a demotion and more giving him the time he never had. 

Whatever they decide to do, I hope in involves the option where he plays everyday. The idea that he's magically going to get better sitting on the bench seems silly to me. You also hope the PR variable isn't considered in this decision. Atlanta has obviously made Dansby a huge part of their 2017 marketing campaign with merchandise, commercials, promos, etc. and sending him down wouldn't make them look the best. But you make those calls around a young, unproven player knowing the risk and you can't compound one mistake with another. 

Dansby seems like a really good kid with a mature outlook on all this and my guess is that professional attitude is what makes this decision so difficult for the people around him everyday. You can tell how much his coaches and teammates think of him. But players get demoted. It happens. Ozzie Albies was demoted back to AA last year and it hasn't affected his career one bit. Sometimes a step back is required in order to move forward.

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