The Paradox of Dansby Swanson

Oct 10, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson (7) during batting practice at a team workout for the NLDS at Truist Park. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 10, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson (7) during batting practice at a team workout for the NLDS at Truist Park. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports /

The Atlanta Braves have lost their best player from 2022, Dansby Swanson, to the Chicago Cubs in free agency. This leaves a massive hole at SS, and yet, somehow, it looks like GM Alex Anthopoulos is making the right decision.

The hole at short still needs to be filled, but whether the team decides to stay internal with Orlando Arcia or Vaughn Grissom, or find someone like Elvis Andrus, Amed Rosario, or Willy Adames, the fact remains: the team is likely not much worse in 2023 than they were in 2022.

This almost paradoxical statement is something that can rarely be said about teams losing their best player without an immediate fill. Yet, somehow, this is very fitting as Dansby Swanson departs, because Swanson himself is a paradox.

Dansby Swanson is an offensive paradox

When free agent spending is so often predicated on offensive ability, Swanson stands out. Unlike the three other star shortstops on the free agent market, who have combined for a total of 17 full seasons of above-average hitting (and numerous seasons with wRC+s above 120), Swanson has produced just one with a wRC+ above 100. This was last season.

His 116 wRC+ was 17% better than any prior season besides the shortened 2020 season when he hit 15% better than the league average. Even in 2021, when he hit 27 homers, Swanson managed to have a 99 wRC+.

It’s easy to look at Swanson’s past offensive production and understand why AA decided not to match the Chicago Cubs’ seven-year, $177 million offer. After all, when compared to the rest of his career, 2022 looks like more of a mirage than an actual track record of success.

Additionally, it’s not like the now-former Brave was getting super unlucky either. Only 2019 saw a significant gap in wOBA/xwOBA, where he underperformed expectations by .033 (.317 wOBA vs. .350 xwOBA).

However, it would do the Vandy alumni a disservice to dismiss his offensive production this past season (or the past few seasons for that matter). Despite his swing-and-miss tendencies (15th percentile in Whiff% in 2022), Swanson has continuously hit the ball hard.

It’s hard to dismiss a player, even one who has only one full season as an above-average hitter when they have been in the upper percentile in barrel rate for four straight seasons.

Additionally, it might not be fair to outright dismiss 2020, either, which I’ve done so far. While it was only 60 games, Swanson played in every single one, and he underperformed by xwOBA. It’s hard to look at a 115 wRC+, even if it is only 264 PAs, and believe that it doesn’t belong alongside the player’s catalog of success.

Of course, Dansby Swanson’s offensive paradox doesn’t end at full-season production. His 2022 success wasn’t a continuous wave of success just like his 2019 wasn’t a wave of mediocracy. The SS is consistently inconsistent.

If you were to look at his rolling xwOBA, you’d see spikes and dips representative of the most thrilling roller coaster at your favorite amusement park. Even this past season, Swanson had a poor start to the season, having an 80 wRC+ at the end of April.

Dansby’s inconsistency primarily stems from his ability to hit the ball. In his worst months, he strikes out 36% of the time. In his best months, he strikes out 23% of the time.

The Cubs looked at his past season of above-average hitting and his history of hitting the ball hard and were willing to pay him $177 for seven years. The Braves looked at the four seasons of below-average hitting and his whiffing tendencies and felt it was too risky for that price.

The defensive paradox

Of course, Dansby’s $177 million dollar contract isn’t solely due to his offensive contributions. Had it been, he likely wouldn’t have received a contract anywhere near the length and value that he did.

Swanson is an elite defender, finishing this year in the 100th percentile in OAA. His 20 OAA (or 21, depending on which source you look) were seven higher than any other SS in baseball last year. This level of run prevention is not something you come across easily. He was deservedly the Gold Glove winner this year.

While this year was an outlier in pure quantity, the former first-overall pick has been above-average every year since 2018 and hasn’t fallen below the 77th percentile in that time span.

So what’s the paradox? It’s his arm strength. Of course, throwing the ball hard isn’t a necessity for great defense, but since Baseball Savant began tracking arm strength in 2020, Dansby hasn’t ranked higher than the 15th percentile.

Swanson has maintained an elite level of defense because he’s excellent at coming in on the ball and still has great speed. However, once his speed begins to decline (and it will decline), Dansby has one less tool to make the tough plays.

Again, arm strength is not an end-all. Elvis Andrus is just one player who has been a solid defensive player with sub-optimal arm strength, but it’s something front offices were no doubt looking at when evaluating the SS.

The speed paradox

I’ll make this paradox a bit shorter because it’s not a critical part of baseball (although it might be with bigger bases).

Dansby Swanson is fast. He’s been fast ever since entering the league in 2016. This was his slowest season yet at 28.4 ft/sec, and this still happens to be in the 79th percentile. Additionally, if you’re concerned the decline has already begun, it was exactly the same in 2021 and only .1 ft/sec slower than his 2020.

This paradox isn’t that Swanson’s speed is declining at a concerning rate, it’s that he hasn’t used it to steal bases, at least prior to 2022. Prior to this season, his career-high was 10 SBs. This year he stole 18.

Again, this is not vital to his success. Swanson has never had a negative BsR, a cumulative stat that judges baserunning decisions. He has consistently made the right decisions on the basepaths. Yet, for a player with his level of speed, it’s a little surprising he steals less frequently on a career basis than a player like Paul Goldschmidt, who hasn’t posted an above-average sprint speed since 2016 (of course, Goldy is a bit of an outlier in his own right).

Does Dansby Swanson need to steal to make his speed useful? No, but it’s interesting that up until this season, he hardly did.

The Braves paradox

The Braves are almost certainly worse off next year without Swanson. They also likely made the right decision in not signing him to the deal he ended up getting from Chicago.

When you consider the variables to Swanson’s game, from his inconsistent offense to questions of how long he can be an elite defender, it’s not surprising that Anthopoulos wasn’t willing to take the seven-year risk.

Could Swanson have season after season where he puts up 6.0 fWAR in Chicago? Of course, and I won’t be rooting against him. But projections aren’t in his favor. Steamer projects him to take a significant step back next season, pinning him at 3.3 fWAR.

When you consider Swanson’s track record, it’s not surprising that he was able to secure a long-term deal. It’s also not surprising that, considering the same track record, Anthopoulos and the Braves front office weren’t willing to meet the 28-year-old’s demands. With Swanson having so many inconsistent variables, it’s hard to say that the front office didn’t make the right move, even if it was the tough one.