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Braves Season in Review: Shortstop

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It was expected to be okay, it got really bad, but then Dansby Swanson appeared and made it all better.

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Coming into 2016, there were a lot of questions for the Braves as far as position players went. You knew Freddie Freeman would be a rock, and you hoped that Ender Inciarte could put up another value-laden season filled with average hitting and great defense. Beyond that, though, things got kind of dicey.

One area expected to be considerably less intriguing was shortstop: the Braves acquired Erick Aybar in the Andrelton Simmons trade with the Angels to serve as a bridge to Ozhaino Albies or the eventually-acquired Dansby Swanson. Aybar was coming off of a pretty poor (0.9 fWAR) season with the Angels, but was just one season removed from a 4+ fWAR performance and was still averaging over 2 fWAR over his last three seasons. The projection systems also didn’t figure Aybar was going to be a major problem: both ZiPS and Steamer pegged him for between one and two wins above replacement (and I figured he’d be right around two, whoops).

Since you’re presumably a fan and follower of this team, you know that as far as shorstop went, things did not exactly go accordingly as planned. Aybar’s tenure as a Brave was nothing short of a disaster. His wRC+ in April was an amazing -2. Yes, that’s a negative sign in front of that single digit number. In May, it was 26. Aybar hit reasonably well in June thanks to an inflated BABIP, but then sunk back down to abysmal, albeit not record-threateningly-bad in July.

On top of that, Aybar struggled mightily on defense. While having shown some inconsistent defensive tendencies in years past (his two subpar seasons in his past three featured some pretty poor defending, but sandwiched a great defensive season in 2014), his glovework and throwing cratered in a Braves uniform. He managed his second-worst DRS mark and his worst UZR/150 mark since he became a series regular, and it was so bad that the Braves began contemplating, and then occasionally started playing him at second base to ameliorate his effect on the team’s young pitching. Yikes.

There was also the incident where he missed a game due to a hospitalization for getting a chicken bone stuck in his throat. You know, to add insult to injury and poor performance, I guess.

To try to ease the sting of Aybar’s failures, the Braves gave Daniel Castro, Chase d’Arnaud, and Gordon Beckam some 30-odd starts over the course of the season. (Aybar also had a DL stint due to a bruised foot, and missed some time with bruised ribs as well.) All of those guys were gnarly at hitting, fielding, or both, while playing shortstop. The highest wRC+ among that group (while in the lineup as a shortstop) was 34, which was actually worse than Aybar’s mark of 59. In addition, Gordon Beckham looked a little overmatched at short, while Daniel Castro hit ridiculously poorly in his 2016 cups of coffee with the team. Somehow, someway, those three fill-ins actually did even worse than Aybar.

If all of this seems like it painted a grim, near-insufferable picture for the Braves out of the shortstop position, then the scene changed to something akin to clouds parting to reveal a beautiful ray of sunshine when the Braves managed to find a taker for Aybar in mid-August. The next day, they called up wunderkind Dansby Swanson, helping to electrify the team over its last six weeks.

Swanson, of course, played somewhere between as advertised and as well as could be expected, depending on what your expectations were. He finished the season with a wRC+ around 112 (it’ll update a bit once yesterday’s game is incorporated), with three homers, including a thrilling inside-the-parker for his first career round-tripper. While his line is no doubt inflated by a .391 BABIP, he did not look overmatched at all at the big league level while making the jump after starting the season in High-A and after just 84 games in AA. His line drive percentage and quality of contact were all fairly reasonable, his spray chart was very balanced (more balls hit the other way than pulled), and his plate discipline seemed reasonable. (Note: As of the season end, Swanson finishes with a 107 wRC+ and a .383 BABIP, enough of a swing to push his fWAR/600 to 3.3 from 3.8 That’s one of the reasons you don’t really want to use fWAR/600 to judge talent level for guys with only a smattering of career PAs. The tables below are not updated to reflect this.)

On the fielding side of things, Swanson showed good instincts and good range, and made some very slick double play starts and turns, but struggled a bit with errors, both fielding- and throwing-wise. He also ran the bases quite well in his six-week stint. All in all, it was a breath of fresh air, and he should (hopefully) only improve as the Braves move into SunTrust Park and wage their 2017 campaign. Also, his hair. Just sayin’.

Below are some stats and ranks for the Braves 2016 shortstop corps, both collectively and individually. You’ve been warned, the non-Swanson numbers are gross.

Also, as a fitting coda, it’s worth noting that Erick Aybar was a bottom-10 player in baseball this season, even after his second half hitting improvement and eventual trade to the Tigers. Both Daniel Castro and Gordon Beckham were bottom-30 players in baseball in terms of total value, which is fairly impressive given that they got very few PAs between them. Of the 121 players that made an appearance at shortstop this season, the foursome of Aybar, Castro, Beckham, and d’Arnaud were all within the bottom 16 for total value accumulated (Aybar was second-worst). Meanwhile, Dansby Swanson was 26th despite getting under 150 PAs.