Being the number one overall pick in the MLB Draft comes with a lot of expectations and a lot of pressure. This narrative has undoubtedly been real with Dansby Swanson. Just six months after being selected first overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015, they shipped him to his childhood-favorite team, the Atlanta Braves. The trade that sent Shelby Miller to Arizona, while the Braves acquired Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte, and Aaron Blair, is one that the Diamondbacks still likely regret.
Swanson scorched through Atlanta’s farm system and debuted with the big league club in late 2016. It was an exciting start for the rookie, who produced a slash line of .302/ .361/ .442 in 145 plate appearances. Braves fans were ecstatic and saw Dansby Swanson as the cornerstone of a young franchise for many years to come.
Unfortunately, the next two seasons were disappointments for Swanson. Injuries and inconsistency plagued what felt like the start of an incredible career with Swanson. The hype surrounding Swanson faded as other Braves like Ronald Acuña, Ozzie Albies, and Mike Soroka took the spotlight. As the 2019 season loomed, many wondered if Swanson would be traded or even have a spot in the lineup. But he proved his doubters wrong by starting 2019 strong. What happened? Let’s take a look.
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Dansby Swanson’s Hitting Profile
While celebrating Independence Day, Dansby Swanson smacked two home runs and drove in five runs, helping the Braves beat the Phillies 12-6 in Atlanta. To that point, Swanson had performed like an All-Star. He was hitting the ball consistently and hard. Among all shortstops, Swanson had the third-highest hard-hit percent behind only Trevor Story and Javier Baez, according to Fangraphs. The rest of the season was derailed by injuries that left Swanson unable to perform to the caliber he had been. Check out the chart below to see the differences.
As you can see, Swanson was drastically different after the game on July 4. To that point, he was hitting the ball exceptionally well to all sides of the field. He had already set a new career-high in home runs in just 88 games. There were plenty of reasons to believe that Dansby Swanson was in the middle of a breakout.
If you extrapolate Swanson’s season from his first 88 games, its likely Fantasy owners would be drafting Swanson as a top 100 player. While players usually do not sustain a smaller sample over a full season, the chart below gives you an idea of how good he was through his first 88 games.
After the two home run game on July 4, Dansby Swanson sat out the next two games with a sore quad. He returned for one game before the All-Star break and then played every day after the break until July 23. While Swanson appeared to be healthy for those 12 games, the quad injury still lingered. It affected his approach at the plate, leading to just a .204 batting average with zero home runs and stolen bases in 56 plate appearances.
Swanson suffered another nagging injury, this time to his heel. During a game against Kansas City on July 23, Swanson stepped on a bag funky and tweaked his heel. It appeared to be a minor injury that would be day-to-day, but it, unfortunately, kept him out for over a month.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that Swanson’s numbers through July 4 were legit because of the tangible changes that he made at the plate. On the other hand, I think there is evidence to show that his two injuries plagued his season and affected his approach at the plate for the rest of the season. Let’s take deep dive into the numbers.
Batted Ball Profile
The first thing that stands out in Swanson’s profile is his improved line-drive rate in 2019. Swanson has transformed his game from being a ground ball hitter to now hitting more balls in the air. More line drives and fly balls have a direct correlation with more base hits and more home runs.
Swanson improved his yearly numbers, as stated in the first chart, despite a decline after his injuries. His ground ball percent was much higher after his injuries, and he saw a decrease in his line drive and fly ball rates. Swanson’s injuries played a big part in this, meaning his 2020 season should hopefully resemble more of his first-half of 2019 numbers.
Dansby Swanson also saw a considerable jump in his quality of contact in 2019. Weak batted ball data marred his first two full MLB seasons. But jumping forward to 2019, you can see tangible improvements in Swanson’s game that put him well above-average in many categories.
The 2019 version of Swanson looked like a completely different hitter, as you can see in the chart. These numbers are still significant improvements even though after his quad injury on July 4, Swanson only had an 87.3 mph exit velocity and a 5.2% barrel rate. The numbers once again show how strong he started the year up until his first injury.
Swanson’s launch angle has improved each season to a more optimal angle. With an increased exit velocity, it inevitably led to more home runs in 2019. You can see in the chart below where the majority of Swanson’s hits in 2019 fell among the launch angle chart.
While Swanson increased his exit velocity on all batted balls, he also increased his exit velocity on line drives fly balls from 91.9 miles-per-hour in 2018 to 93.1 in 2019. This shows that Swanson hit the ball much harder on balls that got in the air. His exit velocity on line drives and fly balls was higher than some studs like Nolan Arenado, Jose Altuve, and Gleybar Torres. Dansby Swanson made tangible changes to his plate approach in 2019 that should sustain into 2020.
Dansby Swanson struggled against left-handed pitching in 2018, having just a .204 batting average and a .281 on-base percentage in 114 plate appearances. His wRC+(weighted runs created plus) against lefties in 2018 was an abysmal 52. wRC+ is weighed on a scale where 100 is league average. This means Swanson was 50% worse than the league average.
Swanson worked with Chipper Jones in the offseason before the 2019 season and worked to make necessary adjustments. One of those adjustments was hitting left-handed pitching and being in a better position to hit the ball. This led to an exciting change in his splits, where Swanson was much better against lefties in 2019. He produced a .293 batting average and a .349 on-base percent versus lefties while hitting right-handers very similar. Swanson sustaining this success against left-handed pitching and improving against righties could go a long way in his 2020 success.
Dansby Swanson’s 2020 Outlook
It is easy to look at Dansby Swanson’s 2019 numbers and be discouraged; however, there are many positives to take away. His first-half performance was worthy of All-Star consideration. It seems as though injuries were a big reason for his poor second half.
Swanson did finish the season strong with nine hits in his final 24 at-bats. He was also one of the Braves’ best hitters in the postseason, posting a .389 batting average with an OPS of .977. This should have given Swanson some confidence going into the offseason.
There is some concern about Swanson’s lineup placement. Roster Resource currently projects Swanson to hit eight in the Braves lineup. If Swanson starts the season hot, he could move up in the Braves lineup. He could fit in the second spot, but it would take some rearranging of a solid top four of Acuña, Albies, Freeman, and Ozuna. Hitting fifth will be the most likely spot for Swanson if he does move up in the order.
Regardless of his lineup position, Swanson should provide a high return on investment for Fantasy owners. His current ADP on Fantrax is 250.86, meaning there is no risk in drafting Swanson at that price. He seems to be a forgotten player in Fantasy Baseball with the depth at the shortstop position. All signs point to Swanson carrying over his 2019 skills into 2020. There is plenty of reason to believe he can develop into an all-star caliber player. Some hitters take longer to develop, and Swanson is just one example. It is easy to forget that Swanson is only 26 years old, and his prime is still ahead of him. 2020 could be a breakout year for Swanson, even in a shortened season.
Be sure to check out Eric Cross’s article on “Rookie Hitters to Target for 2020.”
Media Credits: Baseball Savant
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