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What should the Braves expect from Dansby Swanson in 2018?

2017 didn’t go as planned for Dansby Swanson. What should we expect in 2018?

MLB: Washington Nationals at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Dansby Swanson’s first full season in the majors certainly didn’t go as planned. Swanson struggled throughout and found himself back in the minor leagues before a freak injury to Johan Camargo forced his return. When he returned, Swanson showed signs of progress, but questions surrounding his performance will likely be one of the major storylines for the Braves in 2018.

What were the expectations?

Swanson’s arrival in 2016 was a light at the end of the tunnel moment for many Braves fans, signaling that a long rebuild was finally nearing its end. Swanson certainly played the part hitting .302/.361/.442 over 38 games and 145 plate appearances. While that line (107 wRC+) was propped up by a too-high BABIP (.383) and an inside-the-park home run that constituted nine percent of his extra base hits, there was still reasonable optimism given that he didn’t look overmatched despite making the jump from AA after just 589 total PAs in his minor league career.

The Braves might not have been expecting Swanson to lead the team but they were certainly hoping he would play a major part. Many projection systems were lukewarm as to what kind of impact Swanson would have offensively, but they still expected him to perform at about a league average rate overall.

Dansby Swanson 2017 Projections/Stats

Dansby Swanson (ZiPs) 133 580 132 28 12 71 .253 .323 .403 .726 .312 2.4
Dansby Swanson (Steamer) 137 594 138 27 13 66 .259 .322 .395 .716 .307 89 1.7
Dansby Swanson (2017) 144 551 113 23 6 59 .232 .312 .324 .636 .276 66 0.1

2017 Results

Swanson got off to a criminally slow start hitting just .156 through 22 games in April. Some of his struggles could be attributed to just bad luck as his .188 BABIP for the month suggests, but there were myriad issues with his approach and results, even beyond the BABIP. He improved in May and put together a solid June; his BABIP climbed as well.

Unfortunately, Swanson cratered again in July and began losing playing time to Johan Camargo at shortstop as the Braves flirted with the .500 mark. Camargo’s emergence probably didn’t do Swanson any favors as he continued to press as his opportunities dwindled. Atlanta eventually sent him to Triple-A as an opportunity to both regroup and to play everyday.

Swanson didn’t set the world on fire at Gwinnett either, hitting .232/.312/.324 in 11 games. He would have likely remained there longer if not for a freak knee injury by Camargo that necessitated his return.

Swanson himself indicated that the demotion was a good thing for him ultimately as it allowed him to reset and to clear his mind. It appeared to work as he hit .309/.422/.426 in August after his return. However, the improvement in results was not all positive, as it seemed to come at a cost: his power all but vanished. His ISO of .104 in the first half was not head-turning, but dropped all the way to .074 in the second half. His walk rate jumped considerably and he was able to cut down on his strikeouts after his return thanks to a refined approach, but he still didn’t look quite normal, as his strategy appeared to be to hook a single over third or short every time out.

Another frustrating part of Swanson’s season was his defense at shortstop. He committed 20 errors in 2017 and per FanGraphs, was worth minus-7 defensive runs saved. His UZR rating actually improved over the small sample from 2016 and indicated he was just about average in total, but there seemed to be a lack of focus at times as many of Swanson’s miscues came on routine plays. (Though, notably, not at a rate that seems consequential -- per Inside Edge, shortstops successfully fielded 97.0 percent of routine balls; Swanson finished the year at a 96.7 percent conversion rate of those plays.) His fielding did seem to improve after his short stint in the minors and it isn’t uncommon for a player’s offensive struggles to carry over to defense. Still, Swanson’s overall defensive performance may leave something to be desired and that will be on area that he will have ample opportunity to clean up in 2018.

2018 Outlook

Even with what was basically a lost year in 2017, Swanson still figures heavily in the Braves’ plan going forward. He’s 23 and has played 182 games in three years as a professional. There may have been more bumps in the road than the Braves were expecting in 2017, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be managed. Still, his projections have taken a tumble after the poor season, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done for him to claw his way back to providing the kind of production the Braves will need if they hope to compete in the future.

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