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A key Dansby Swanson difference, so far

Doing damage at the dish when he should be.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Chicago Cubs Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Note: All statistics here are through Saturday’s games.

In 2017, Dansby Swanson was bad. He started bad: 11 wRC+ by the time April finished. He ended bad: a 64 wRC+ in the season’s last month. His final line: .232/.312/.324, with a 66 wRC+ and -0.1 fWAR over 551 plate appearances. He was bad.

In 2018, all two-and-a-half-weeks of it so far, Dansby Swanson has been good. Very good. He has a 164 wRC+. He’s already been worth 0.8 fWAR in 59 plate appearances. Not only that, but it’s been a consistent effort. Aside from the season’s first game, and its fourth game, his cumulative wRC+ has always been above 100. Take out the season’s fifth game as well, and it’s been at or above 139.

In 2017, only two hitters with as many or more PAs as Swanson were worse (Alcides Escobar, Rougned Odor). In 2018, only 11 hitters with as many or more PAs as Swanson so far have been better. (Two of those are his teammates Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies, so that’s fun.)

Cano has been a monster, but we already knew he could swing it. The Athletics and their fans are probably really excited about Matt Chapman. And then there’s Swanson.

The turnaround has been dramatic, no matter how you slice it, unless you start slicing with the very specific scalpel of “go away, it’s April 15, nothing matters.” If you are that guy, your scalpel is mostly right. But it’s also not very insightful. We’re not being that guy right now, we’re looking for something else.

Last year, after Swanson’s horribad April (which wasn’t even his worst calendar month...), I put this together. It had a lot of partial answers, but as noted, there was no silver bullet. In it, I noted a few things that really carried through the year:

  • Sliders: Swanson started bad on sliders, and that didn’t really change much by the end. His wOBA (and xwOBA) on sliders were both essentially .200 last year.
  • General ball-in-play-variation/luck stuff: by the end of the year, Swanson was only underperforming his xwOBA by about .013. His BABIP was .292 for the year. It was not only a case of luck, but no one watching him thought it was, not after his serious struggles over the summer.

But, I also noted one other thing that fascinated me. Swanson wasn’t doing any damage on meatballs. Not only was he not doing any damage, he was whiffing on a bunch of them. Even when he wasn’t whiffing, the contact was bad. You should just look back at last year’s article, there are a lot of depressing (and one horrifying) figures therein.

So, let’s talk about 2018 now. The thing is, Swanson is still suffering against sliders. His wOBA (and xwOBA) on them is even worse so far this season, at a paltry .170ish. In fact, it’s not just sliders: he’s been creaming fastballs, but nearly everything else but curveballs has been a monumental struggle for him so far this season.

Source: Fangraphs

His plate discipline stats are either unchanged or somehow worse. (The exception is o-swing, which is actually potentially a huge deal, as making more contact on bad pitches can help him prolong PAs and get better pitches. But essentially everything else is sort of a problem.)

You never want to see o-swing% go up and z-swing% go down. Yet, here’s Dansby Swanson, doing just that, and prospering (so far). That actually requires more analysis in and of itself, but I’m focused on something else. I’m focused on that third thing: what he’s doing with pitches he should be crushing.

Spoiler alert: he’s crushing them. There’s your key Dansby Swanson difference. It’s not very complicated, but it’s made a huge difference so far. Exactly how much of a key difference? Well... consider:

Source: Baseball Savant

There’s a Russian word, разгром (rahz-grohm). Nominally, it means “massive defeat” — something like “rout” or “walloping.” Colloquially, it’s also used in another context: when something is so obvious or relevant that it explains almost everything. In 2017, an inability to do anything with pitches down the middle was part and parcel of Swanson’s разгром at the plate. His sudden reversal in obliterating those pitches so far in 2018 is the разгром for explaining his turnaround.

I know that sometimes, giving pure xwOBA values isn’t helpful, because it’s hard to know how good or bad a .384 or a .537 xwOBA is when ahead in the count. This is mostly why I prefer to use wRC+. (What we really need is an xwRC+ that’s based on xwOBA or similar, so that the comparisons can be more obvious... and park-adjusted!) So, to suss this out, consider:

Source: Baseball Savant

These are xwOBAs, so even though Swanson has been murdering the ball as far as outcomes so far in 2018, some of that is based on balls dropping. Still, that 69th-percentile xwOBA is nice, and a far cry from being a bottom-fifth offensive producer (or non-producer, as it were). The dramatic turnarounds are visible on the specific other splits we’ve been discussing. In 2017, Swanson was around 300th (of 400ish players) in all of these splits. In 2018, he’s been around the top 75 in these “batter-advantaged” situations, and that’s with some very small sample guys sometimes appearing on the lists ahead of him.

So, there you have it. The key Dansby Swanson difference so far: whatever other issues he’s had so far (and they are there), he’s been punishing the meatballs. That’s done the trick. One wonders how much agita could have been avoided had he simply done that same thing last year.

I do want to note a few other things here, to answer a few questions that might come up when looking over this. You may have had these already as you’ve ingested the above. Or, if you have others, we can discuss those too. In other words, you can stop reading here if all you care about is the explanation of why Swanson’s been better so far. The stuff below just constitute addenda.

Okay, but is this explainable by pitchers giving him more grapefruits to hit?

This is a tempting explanation that would potentially foretell doom for Swanson. If he was getting by because pitchers were suddenly not tormenting him with his weaknesses, then a return to disaster would only be an adjustment away. However, that does not appear to be the case. Pitchers aren’t really adjusting to make life easier for Swanson: if anything, they’re doubling down on what worked successfully last year.

Source: Fangraphs

If anything, pitchers are further doubling down on that low-and-away junk that bedeviled him last year. They’re still feeding him a Steady Diet of Nothing. The difference is that when they miss, or when they have to throw something else, it’s gotten whacked. They used to get away with it. He’s tough-on-crime Swanson now.

So it’s not a change in location, but it’s not a lack of sliders, either. His slider percentage has either stayed steady or gone up, depending on which pitch tracking source you use.

Source: Fangraphs

You can peruse the above — it’s just not all too different from before. Pitching approaches to Swanson haven’t changed much, but he has.

Fine - so how exactly is he doing it?

Well, this is a harder question to answer. I’m sure there are some specific stance/load/swing/etc. changes to be identified here, but I always have a hard time parsing those because it’s hard to know what there represents a meaningful difference, and what’s just a change with no concrete results. Hitters change their mechanics all the time; hitters don’t go from “really bad hitter” to “really quite good at the whole hitting thing” quite so often, all sample size caveats in tow.

But, here are some of my thoughts on that. I’m going to paste some heatmaps, showing a difference between 2017 and 2018. The 2017 ones will be hard to read, because there are so many dots that the shading isn’t as helpful. But look at the individual dots, especially the ones past the infield. And do the same for 2018, though the shading there is more obvious.

This first set of heatmaps is for all pitches.

Source: Baseball Savant

Again, there’s a lot of dots so it’s kind of hard to get useful information from the shading, but you can see, perhaps: 1) more grounders up the middle as opposed to pulled grounders; 2) more overall stuff hit over the infield rather than at the infield; 3) a definite power alley of sorts developing in the left-center gap; 4) more of an emphasis on all of right field.

Source: Baseball Savant

Now that’s interesting. There was definitely a 2017 difference between Swanson’s overall spray chart and his “hey I got a pitch I can hit” spray chart. It just wasn’t an awesome difference. You had weak pulled grounders versus weak grounders up the middle. Now, the drivable pitches are not only mostly going over the infield, but they’re either being shot to right field or pulled down the line. (I’m not including a spray chart for this, but the stuff down the left-field line, plus that one homer to left-center, is the result of grooved pitches right down the middle, which he didn’t miss.)

This is the one I find most interesting. First off, when I started looking into this, I saw Swanson’s opposite-field rate had spiked this year. (This is plainly evident from just watching him hit, too.) So, I figured, perhaps he was taking pitches in poor counts to right field, and seeking to pull and drive things when he knows a meaty pitch is coming. But, that’s not really the case. Nor was it really even the case in 2017. Sure, Swanson might jump on a pitch or two, especially early. But later in the count, even when he’s up, he’s aiming for right field. That’s interesting and I’m not sure exactly what it explains, but he’s definitely changed his approach.

If nothing else, what these spray charts really do is just confirm the vast difference across different scenarios. Swanson’s mode outcome in 2017 was an uninspiring grounder. It didn’t matter whether he was up in the count, or whether the pitch was grooved. His spray chart is now a lot more diversified, and he’s been able to execute the “serve it to right field” gameplan.

Thanks for reading. As with any such article written in April, I just want to add the usual caveats. All of the above has been descriptive, not predictive. Pitchers could adjust to his newfound approach, and they probably will. Then, it’ll be up to Swanson to adjust yet again. While a lot of what Swanson has done to date in 2018 is reminiscent of a sunny day with thunderheads on the horizon, he should be able to keep the good times rolling if he can keep mauling mistakes and get-me-over stuff the way he has. Whether or not he can remains to be seen, and the hope is that if pitchers cut those pitches out of their arsenals and just throw him sliders off the plate, his walk rate will spike. If he goes fishing for those more often, it could be another long season — but he’s made it work to great effect so far.

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