Dansby Swanson had the best year of his career in 2022, leading the Braves in fWAR at 6.4, posting a career best 116 wRC+, and grading out as one of the best overall defenders in all of baseball with a +20 Outs Above Average.
Swanson was acquired in one of the more infamous trades in recent baseball history. During the Winter Meetings immediately after the 2015 season, the Braves were still in the early stages of their rebuild and made Shelby Miller, one of the most valuable pitchers on the trade market, available for any team looking for an upgrade. Dave Stewart and the Arizona Diamondbacks came calling and agreed to a trade so shocking, it had the entire sport dumbfounded for months (years) afterwards. Arizona agreed to send their recent number one overall pick in the MLB draft, Dansby Swanson, top 50 prospect Aaron Blair, and perennial 3-win centerfielder Ender Inciarte to Atlanta in exchange for two years of Shelby Miller. It was considered a shocking overpay at the time, and honestly, more time hasn't made it look any better.
What were the expectations?
Trying to figure out what Dansby Swanson is going to do in a given season is one of the tougher tasks in modern baseball. Not only is he one of the streakiest players in the sport, those streaks live at the very extreme ends of the production spectrum, with his hot streaks being two or three weeks of Mike Trout-level play and his cold streaks being two or three weeks of high school-level play. The only consistent part of his game is his inconsistency. With that being said, most projections had him as a league average offensive player and an above league average defender at short, which adds up to an an above-average contributor overall, but not necessarily an All-Star or anything close.
Swanson bucked the trend and easily had the best season of his career in 2022. On offense, Swanson used a hot first half and a power surge to carry him to the best offensive season of his career, finishing the year with 25 home runs and a 116 wRC+. On defense, he was even better than that. Generally regarded as a strong defender, Swanson took it to another level in 2022, posting a +20 Outs Above Average at shortstop and grading out as one of the very best defensive players in baseball. Adding that level of offense to that level of defense, and combining it with the fact that Swanson is always a plus base-runner, it came as no surprise Swanson posted the highest fWAR on the team last year at 6.4, a mark that put him in the top 15 in all of baseball.
What went right? What went wrong?
What went right for Swanson was he was able to carry offensive production for more than a three-week stretch in 2022. After a rough first month. Swanson went on about a 3-month heater at the plate that set up his numbers for the rest of the season. He also played elite-level defense from start to finish and maintained his strong base-running.
Not a ton went wrong for the former number one overall pick, but he did fall off quite a bit offensively in the second half of the season, posting an 84 wRC+ after the All-Star Break. He also had rough NLDS against Philadelphia, going 2-17 with 7 strikeouts as the Braves World Series title defense came to an abrupt ending.
The offensive patterns were also made somewhat confusing by big month-to-month swings in how his inputs deviated from his outputs:
As indicated above, his April was bad, but he absolutely crushed it for two months. His July was mediocre, but outperforming his xwOBA obscured that, and while his September was pretty good, from an outputs perspective it looked like his slide from August bled over.
On a more granular level, Swanson’s great offensive season came as he posted career-highs in xwOBACON, average exit velocity, and average launch angle, the latter driven by the highest fly ball rate of his career. Pitchers did not do much to pitch around him all season, especially early in the count, and he responded by swinging at crushable pitches, and (when he was going good) crushing them.
On the flip side, this additional offensive oomph came at the expense of some contact, especially on non-strikes. While Swanson hasn’t chased much relative to league average since his offensive inputs breakout in 2019, his continued gearing of his swing to do maximum damage means that when he does chase, there’s a good chance he’s not going to swing anywhere near the ball. The result of this was his highest whiff rate in a full season, and when combined with his propensity to swing early in the count, his lowest walk rate of his career.
In terms of specific moments, Swanson had two huge three-run homers, which was otherwise marred by Braves meltdowns. His highest-WPA game of the season was the one against the Padres on May 13. He had an RBI single in the fifth of that game to bring the Braves within one, and then in the sixth, he turned that one-run deficit into a two run lead:
(Unfortunately, we all know how that game ended at this point, and it wasn’t with Swanson hailed as a hero. A few batters after Swanson’s game-changing shot, Will Smith gave up a three-run dinger to Ha-Seong Kim, and the Braves went on to lose 11-6.)
Another huge three-run homer, and his highest single-WPA play of the season, came on August 28, against a guy having an elite relief season, Ryan Helsley:
This game, the Braves lost 6-3 as A.J. Minter had a rare mega-meltdown and allowed two homers of his own right after Swanson’s homer.
Oh, and for good measure, here’s Swanson playing a huge part in the Braves’ season-defining sweep of the Mets, taking Max Scherzer deep to turn the game around. This game, of course, had a much happier ending. Swanson also homered in the next game to give the Braves a 1-0 lead.
Notably, before Swanson busted out with those two huge homers, the season’s home stretch was a bit of a slog for him. On September 28, he had one of the most miserable games of the season as the Braves lost to the Nationals. Swanson went 0-for-5 in the game, but the last two outs were brutal: a fielder’s choice with the tying run on second and one out in the eighth, and then a first-pitch groundout to third with the go-ahead run on third in the 10th:
The Braves were walked off on shortly after Swanson made this out for one of their most deflating losses of the year given the standings and the schedule.
Oh, and then there was just your usual baseball stuff. Here’s Swanson getting robbed and turning a promising situation into a near-dead rally. At least the Braves ended up winning this game.
Well, that's the big question this winter. Swanson is a free agent, by the far the biggest free agent for the Braves, and represents easily the Braves’ biggest question of the off-season. What the Braves do at shortstop sets up everything else they do this winter and Swanson is by far the biggest piece to that puzzle. Every prediction and projection published so far has him getting at least something in the $100 million range this winter, with most well north of a flat $100 million, and the question is, will the Braves let a star player and fan favorite walk out the door for a second straight off-season? We’ll find out.
Projections-wise, even the most miserly outlook has him as an above-average, 3-plus-win player. There’s a lot of room, and a lot of paths, to exceed that, as well — hence the price tag in the prior paragraph.