If we were to go back in time 18 months, Dansby Swanson’s career to that point could be described as “insufficient” due to injuries and inconsistent play. However, since that time, incremental improvements in Swanson’s production have impressed and positioned him on the cusp of potential stardom.
For instance, over the past three years, Swanson has expanded either the duration or level of his effective offensive production each year. In April of 2018, Swanson produced a .766 OPS, providing a glimpse of what he could be offensively. But, he fell apart almost immediately afterward — and perhaps a wrist injury was to blame. In the first half of 2019, Swanson produced a .822 OPS, and had a legitimate case to earn his first All-Star selection (though that did not occur.) But, he was awful in the second half, again perhaps due to injury, this time with his heel.
In 2020, over sixty games, Swanson produced a 1.9 fWAR and 2.9 bWAR (sixth among position players in the majors) in a campaign that saw him finish 18th in the NL MVP voting. It was the first time he maintained an average or better batting line for three consecutive months (even though April was really more like a week). In fact, before 2020, Swanson hadn’t been average offensively in even two consecutive calendar months.
Swanson’s improvement as an offensive player has been a wonderful development for both him and the Braves. Simply put, over the past few years, it seems sensible to suggest that Swanson, when healthy, has been playing at an All-Star level in comparison to his fellow shortstops in the majors. His bat has improved while his glove has remained a positive asset in the field, if neutral at worst. His progression seems to have positioned him well to experience his long-awaited breakout as he enters 2021.
In fact, Swanson’s 2020 season could easily be described as his breakout campaign, though that could be debated given the shortened season and overall craziness in baseball. However, there were plenty of continued signs of improvement. Across the board, Swanson experienced significant upticks in nearly ever offensive metric, as he produced a .190 ISO, .809 OPS, .347 wOBA, and a 116 wRC+. By certain metrics, both offensively and defensively, Swanson was clearly a top ten shortstop in the game.
These numbers were supported by continued positive adjustments in Swanson’s approach at the plate. A 0.97 GB/FB ratio and 14.7-degree average launch angle, though just slight improvements from 2019, were both the highest marks of his career. The 11.4 soft hit percentage, lowest of his career, and the fact that Swanson hit the same percentage of balls to centerfield as he pulled last year indicated he continued to improve in making more solid contact to all fields. His sweet spot rate (reflecting batted balls with optimal launch angles) and his solid-plus-barreled contact rate were also career bests, again just slightly ahead of 2019.
There were a few areas of decline and indications of luck for Swanson in 2020, though nothing that is overly concerning. His strikeout rate increased from 22.8 percent in 2019 to 26.9% in 2020, while his walk rate slightly decreased. He also experienced minimal declines in his line drive and hard hit rates, and his average exit velocity dropped from 89.9 MPH in 2019 to 89.1 in 2020. Swanson also benefitted from a .350 BABIP in 2020, a significant increase from ranging between .292 and .300 from 2017-2019. In all, he outhit his xwOBA by .006 in 2020, though his .337 xwOBA was more than solid (a 70th percentile mark). This certainly suggests luck was a small but relevant factor in the equation of Swanson’s success last year, and that some regression could come in 2021.
Of course, another concerning factor in Swanson’s career before last season was injuries. Wrist and heel injuries hampered Swanson’s progression in both 2018 and 2019. Fortunately, he was able to remain healthy for all 60 games in 2020, as he led the National League in at-bats (but not plate appearances, where he was second behind teammate Marcell Ozuna). However, over his past three full seasons between 2017 and 2019, Swanson missed 18, 26, and 35 games, respectively. (He arguably should have missed more rather than playing through injury.) Though the reasons for his injuries may be isolated, the injury risk with Swanson certainly is relevant in terms of questioning whether or not he can play a full season.
Both the expectation for a bit of regression and his injury history seem to play a part in Swanson’s 2021 projections. Many of the projection sources at Fangraphs seem to indicate the idea that over a full season in 2021, Swanson’s expected production will normalize to what he did at the plate in 2019. That season, Swanson produced a .251/.325/.424 triple slash with a .317 wOBA and 92 wRC+. However, that stat line was impacted by a .569 OPS in the second half of 2019 due to a painful heel injury that kept Swanson out for nearly a month.
Furthermore, the underlying numbers so far in his career seem to make a full season of what Swanson did in the first half of 2019 or in 2020 a bit too optimistic. However, I also feel the projections above could be a bit too low. Swanson has continued to show steady progression offensively across the board each year in the majors. If he can get his strikeout rate back to around 22-23 percent, maintain an effective launch angle, and keep his focus of continuing to hit the ball to all fields, I feel a .775 OPS, .320 wOBA and 100 wRC+ are reasonable expectations for Swanson, and could contribute to a 3 WAR season if he can remain healthy. Note that Swanson substantially underperformed his xwOBA in 2019, and his career xwOBA is essentially league-average — so even if you factor in the full extent of his track record, including all those early struggles, a 100 wRC+ does not seem outlandish at all.
One significant aspect of Swanson’s game to watch is how he hits right-handed pitchers. Swanson’s production against righties over his career:
Obviously, there was a huge jump for Swanson in 2020 compared to what he did over the previous two seasons. A big source of that was nearly a 70-point jump in BABIP against righties, which was at a .367 mark in 2020. It seems logical that Swanson’s production against right-handers will be one of the major areas in his game hit by regression in 2021. However, even if Swanson, through improvements to his approach and health last year, can show incremental improvements against right-handers from his 2019 numbers, it will be a big boost to him taking the next step offensively.
Of course, another positive factor for Swanson is the added value from his glove in the field. Though numbers have certainly been mixed, Swanson has seemed to be an average to above average defender at times throughout his career. There certainly was an improvement between his performance in 2019 and 2020, though that could be health-related. Though he may not be an obvious and rightful contender for Gold Gloves moving forward, he is generally solid with his play. UZR and DRS are split on his aptitude at shorstop: DRS thinks he’s an above-average shortstop while UZR thinks he’s marginally below average. The Statcast OAA metric mostly leans in UZR’s direction, though it’s worth noting that his defensive value has swung strongly year-to-year across the metrics as well.
Overall, consistency and reliability are the keys when it comes to Swanson’s future. How reliable can he be, in terms of his health and offensive production, moving forward? At the very least, we seem to have an idea of what his floor and ceiling could be. Swanson seems to be a good bet to produce 1.5-1.8 fWAR with average to slightly below average offensive production and a reasonable infield glove. Ideally, if Swanson can put together a full season of offseason production that is 85-90% of what he did in the first half of 2019 and last season combined with his glovework last year, you have the profile of a player pushing 3 fWAR with a continued argument of being a top ten shortstop in the game.
Fortunately, regardless of how much his reliability overall can be questioned, one area where Swanson has been one of the more reliable offensive performers in high level situations in the majors. Over 70 plate appearances over the last two postseasons, Swanson has produced a .302/.357/.556 triple slash line and a .913 OPS along with three home runs, 11 RBIs, and nine runs. Nine of his 19 hits have been for extra bases. Along with his postseason heroics, Swanson has also routinely delivered in high leverage or late game situations throughout his career. Many of the most memorable highlights over the past three seasons have in some way involved Swanson, which shows that on the biggest of stages, Swanson is ready to deliver and on many occasions does exactly that. While not predictive and just a retrospective look at what he’s done, Swanson has been a top-15 performer in Fangraphs’ Clutch metric (which measures how well a player does in higher leverage compared to lower leverage) going back to the start of 2016, driven by high marks in 2017 and 2020, and to a lesser extent in 2018 (he had a negative Clutch in 2019).
It is certainly going to be hard for the Braves to replicate the offensive output they received in 2020. Fortunately, nearly the whole band, minus Adam Duvall, is back together. However, regression is likely to occur in some capacity. A full season of Ozzie Albies will certainly help. As a result, Swanson will likely be batting toward the bottom of the order, with Austin Riley and the Braves’ center fielder (hopefully Cristian Pache) following him. It is imperative that, giving the understandable questions surrounding Riley and Pache taking the next step offensively, Swanson continues being productive. If that means producing like an All-Star, then wonderful. However, simply being consistent with good plate discipline will be just fine even if all that is coupled with some regression on his batted balls.
If Swanson were to put together another year that shows he is continuing to improve, it will be a big benefit to the Braves. It will also be a huge benefit to Swanson, as financially, he will continue to put together a strong case for a big payday in a few years. However, it also could lead to extension talks with the Braves as well. Regardless of the what the future may hold, its clear in the present that Dansby Swanson has the potential to emerge as a star in 2021. With how much the Braves and their fans love him and he loves them, it will be a wonderful development for Atlanta this year and beyond.