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Benching Dansby Swanson is a mistake

Say it isn’t so, Braves.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

You’d never have guessed that a team projected to finish the season with a mid-70s win total could manufacture so much drama, am I right? After the Braves reached the .500 mark with a sweep of the Diamondbacks, the next bombshell was that Dansby Swanson has apparently lost his grip on the starting shortstop role in Atlanta.

As I sat down to write this, I realized that the reasons occurring to me for why this is a bad idea are almost too numerous to list, so I’m not going to attempt that here. Instead, I think the reverse is more instructive: what are some good reasons for benching Dansby Swanson, or cutting his playing time? (If these seem like stretches, some of them may be. I’m not great at playing devil’s advocate.)

  • Showcasing the other infielders for a trade before the Trade Deadline in a couple of weeks.
  • Putting the best current team on the field for the Braves to make a push for the playoffs.
  • Giving Swanson more frequent breathers to acclimatize him to major league life.

Honestly, that’s about all I got. Like I said, I’m not great at this sort of thing. Perhaps, if you have a better understanding of why the Braves might be doing this, you could share it in the comments? That could prove enlightening.

As I said, I don’t think I can list all the reasons I dislike this move here. But here are the ones that seem more salient to me.

His struggles won’t improve by riding the bench

Dansby Swanson’s season, to date, has been somewhat of a disaster. I’m not going to argue that. I wrote a post about it in late April, and while his specific struggles have changed, his overall paltry batting production has not. Swanson currently has a 58 wRC+, which is better than the 11 he rocked by the end of April, but is still among the worst in MLB. He’s exchanged his April issues for a new set, mainly composed of pulling groundballs. He really needs a launch angle improvement at this point, and if I were the Braves and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, I would be trying to orient him to line everything up the middle rather than anything else, in the hopes that such an approach would even out his current pull-happy, swing-over-the-top-of-the-ball tendencies. But, this is really fodder for another post.

The main point here is that a major league player is not going to improve or amend whatever mechanical bugbears plague him by riding the bench. To make adjustments and implement a new approach, you need reps. And you need those reps against guys that are trying to get you out, in order to know what works and what doesn’t. And you need a lot of those reps, because as Swanson and the Braves should already know, bad luck can absolutely ruin even the best approach in small samples, so you need to get as many “trials” (call them experiments, if you want) as possible in order to really understand what does and doesn’t work.

In short, if you’re unhappy with where Swanson currently is (and you should be), benching him doesn’t help him get better.

The sink-or-swim mentality seems overly vindictive

I’m just going to throw out some stats.

  • A.J. Pierzynski, 2016: 259 PAs, 41 wRC+
  • Erick Aybar, 2016 as a Brave: 368 PAs, 59 wRC+
  • Matt Kemp, 2017 since June 17: 42 wRC+ in 88 PAs
  • Nick Markakis, 2017 against lefties: 66 wRC+
  • Sean Rodriguez, career against righties: 78 wRC+

Yes, these are cherry-picked. No, I don’t think Matt Kemp is a true-talent level 42 wRC+ hitter. The point is, the Braves are perfectly willing to tolerate all sorts of not-that-great stuff from a variety of players.

So, what makes Swanson different? I guess it’s that he’s struggled for a really long time, since his collective wRC+ is below 60 in about 350 PAs this season. But 350 PAs isn’t (or, well, shouldn’t be, since apparently it is?) enough to make a judgment on a player’s long-term potential, or even enough to definitively inform what he will do tomorrow, or for the rest of the season. Combine this with Swanson’s very clear issues at the plate (clear as in, identifiable) and the fact that his plate discipline is quite good, and his struggles don’t seem particularly concerning as far as long-term outlook.

If the Braves want to play sink-or-swim after half-seasons with everyone, that is certainly their right. But, it would be good to at least apply that consistently. After all, Freddie Freeman had only a 94 wRC+ last May, which rendered him a pretty poor performer for a first baseman. Gracefully, the Brave stuck with him (tune your sarcasm detectors, folks), and he rewarded them by going on a complete rampage ever since. Is Dansby Swanson about to turn a corner? Well, maybe, but probably not. Baseball is hard, as has been a common refrain these days. But getting benched for it, right now? I don’t get it.

Also, I’ll just leave this here.

Above the line: the hitter has been unlucky — they should have a better wOBA than they do. Below the line: the hitter has been lucky — they should have a worse wOBA than they do. You can see that at this point in the season, wOBA and xwOBA are pretty stable for guys with a decent assortment of PAs. It’s not that Swanson has hit well — both his wOBA and xwOBA are kinda bad. But... do you really want to bench Ender Inciarte, on the basis of his quality of contact? I’m kidding, of course you don’t. But the vertical distance between Johan Camargo and Dansby Swanson is not very big, and as you can see from the chart, the more PAs you get, the closer you get to being on that black line (regression in action). If Camargo moves horizontally to the left, his dot is going to be very close to Swanson’s. Who would warrant the starting shortstop job then?

It was the Braves’ decision to bring up Swanson after just 569 minor league PAs

I don’t know much about prospects, and that includes whether it’s good, bad, or irrelevant to rush them. But, Swanson was definitely rushed — he got fewer PAs in the minor leagues than full-time players get in a single season. That’s not to say that he was rushed, as in he was hurried, or harried. He was just rushed. He got to Atlanta quickly. That’s all I mean by that statement.

The Braves presumably rushed him because they thought he could hack it at the major league level. Otherwise, why bring him up? (If you have answers to this, think about how kindly those answers reflect on the Atlanta Front Office. Then consider if you still want to have the answer you did to this question.) Now, the Braves are signaling that he can’t hack it at the major league level, and needs to take a backseat role for the good of the team? Well, which is it? And what did 343 major league plate appearances in 2017 show them that caused them to change their minds from about 11 months ago?

In the end, it’s baseball, and it might not matter. Perhaps this is just an epic-tier smokescreen that paves the way for some Trade Deadline shenanigans, and Swanson reclaims his place in the infield after just a few more undeserved days off. Or, perhaps this is just the vote of confidence Johan Camargo needs to show the world what he can really do: become the next out-of-nowhere, Giants/Cardinals-level position player star in Major League Baseball. Maybe the Braves go on a crazy run and make the playoffs, and we’re all laughing about why we were even concerned about this on a hot summer afternoon in July.

But, right now, from where I’m sitting, this seems like a terrible idea, for the reasons enumerated above, and more. Please change your mind, Braves. It’s not too late.

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