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Pay that Dan(sby) his money

Dansby Swanson is a free agent after the 2022 season. What should his next contract look like?

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Colorado Rockies Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

For Braves fans, it is hard to be feeling much better than they do right now. Not only is Atlanta the defending World Series champion (still amazing to type that out), but the team is currently on quite the heater, as they have a 12-game winning streak (and counting), and will face the struggling Cubs this weekend. One of the many reasons for that run of good fortune has been the play of shortstop Dansby Swanson, who is currently 10th in all of MLB in fWAR (seventh in June). However, we are big fans of getting ahead of ourselves when it’s warranted, and Swanson’s free agency looms at the conclusion of this season. That brings us to some uncomfortable, and complex, questions.

What will Dansby’s next contract look like? Should the Braves be the team to give it to him?

As is customary, I decided to enlist Ivan to help with this query and, as with most things, it is far from clear either way.

A quick disclaimer: the stats for the is article ran all the way up through 6/13 which is when this article was finalized. Dansby just keeps hitting which is why totals may not be completely up-to-date and, if anything, reinforces the general idea of the article that him racking up stats is increasing his value.

Discussion of a potential Swanson contract extension and his free agency case has been weirdly quiet so far this season which, in some respects, is welcome given the circus that was Freddie Freeman’s (non-)contract situation last year. Aside from the usual “of course they should if it’s a great deal” discourse that isn’t particularly instructive, Swanson is making a hell of a case this season that he is the guy the Braves should bank on as the shortstop of the future.

After a slow start to the season offensively (he didn’t clear 100 wRC+ until May 8, and hasn’t stayed above 100 consistently until May 24), Swanson has pulled his season line at the plate all the way up to .292/.356/.460 with a 128 wRC+. This is both quite good, but also, well above his career norms (91 wRC+). This output also isn’t the total result of an offensive mirage, as he has a career-high .363 xwOBA — he’s probably outperforming it more than you should expect given how much the league is underperforming it prior to the re-calibration of the xwOBA figure, but this isn’t quite small-sample ball-in-play shenanigans driving the bus here.

Swanson has also been exceptional on defense. His five Outs Above Average mark is tied for second amongst all shortstops league-wide, and the three runs saved associated with that is tied for top-five among shortstops. Altogether, Swanson already has 2.6 fWAR through 62 games. His prior career high, achieved last year, is 3.4 fWAR, and he should blow past that mark relatively soon unless he hits a mega-slump or gets hurt. His current pace is 6.2 fWAR per 600 PAs, or 6.8 fWAR per 162 games — no one suggests actually assuming he’ll end the season like he started it, but those gaudy numbers show just how productive he’s been so far in 2022 relative to his track record.

Over his career, and especially since the start of the 2019 season when he began showing the offensive growth that had eluded him in his early 20s, there has been a lot to like about Swanson in a Braves uniform.

  • He’s hit for decent power — a 107 ISO+ (i.e., ISO seven percent better than average) since the start of the 2019 season.
  • He’s fast, and has averaged around four runs of baserunning value per 600 PAs for his career. This helps him get hustle doubles and avoid double plays. He’s actually slowed substantially from his early 20s and is currently in danger of dropping out of the top quintile of sprint speed for the first time in his career... but being among the 100ish fastest guys in MLB is still pretty good.
  • If you look at OAA, which ignores anything having to do with positioning, his defense has been fine-to-good aside from a blip in 2017. That’s not an easy tool to find in someone that can also swing it reasonably well, and Swanson is 12th in shortstop OAA since his debut, ninth since the start of 2018, and seventh since the start of the 2020 season (though all of these ranks are somewhat a tribute to his relative health, since OAA is a counting stat).

Take these things together, and Swanson’s been a solid regular for the last several years — he had 2.0 fWAR with some giant xwOBA underperformance tanking his line in 2019, broke out with a career-best batting line in the short 2020 season, and was able to put together decent offense and shortstop defense together en route to a career-best 3.4 fWAR last year. There are other minor, ancillary benefits to having Swanson on the Braves, too — marketing opportunities given that he’s a hometown hero of sorts, clubhouse fit (which the Braves love to drum up, though the importance of this seems to be overstated), and continuity with the club that won the first championship since 1995, to the extent that helps drive ticket sales and fan engagement and whatever.

All that said, though, the situation with Swanson’s next contract is complicated. There are a lot of questions about what he’s going to do for the rest of 2022. Keeping up his pace seems incredibly unlikely, but he can regress a bit and still put up a career year with a gaudy WAR total that gets him some MVP votes. Given that he (like many hitters!) is prone to serious slumps and sizzling hot streaks, there are a lot of issues when it comes to contract negotiations for players who kill it in their walk year. (Side note: the “contract year phenomenon” in baseball is at least somewhat documented, though as with most things, it tends to only be visible on average. See here.)

One of the big challenges when it comes to forecasting Swanson, sitting in the middle of the 2022 season, is that honestly, his 2022 so far doesn’t even look that different from 2021, which was a good but not MVP-type year. Yes, his wOBA and xwOBA are up a ton (30 points of wRC+!), but his K/BB is the same, ISO is worse, barrel rate is the same, and average exit velocity and hard-hit rate are only slightly higher. He’s chasing more and making less contact, while taking more strikes — while the latter isn’t bad in a vacuum, it hasn’t increased his barrel rate so it’s not some kind of obvious improvement. He is pulverizing non-cutter fastballs at the expense of success on basically everything else.

The main difference, then — and this shows up in his xwOBA, too — is that he’s essentially turned a bunch of mediocre contact into liners. This is no way bad! Liners are great! But it’s unclear how sustainable it is, as liners, flares, and burners are the “luck dragon” catchalls for balls in play. Honestly, just look at the snip below and see if you think it suggests he’s found another gear, keeping in mind that his K/BB ratio is essentially the same as it was last year, too.

Wait, wasn’t this post supposed to be about contracts? We’ve gotten really off track...

There are a lot of ways to think about Swanson going forward. Fortunately, we have all sorts of projections to help that thinking.

Most conservatively, we can assume that 2022 is an illusion, and that Swanson is who he was projected to be preseason. i.e., a 2-3 WAR guy that’s basically average at hitting and shortstop defense, with some extra baserunning value and a decent health track record. (Yes, this makes little sense given that Swanson already has 2.6 fWAR. Shh.)

We can also assume that while what has already happened in 2022 has happened, he’ll play to his projections (influenced in small measure by his 2022 so far) going forward. That means he’ll compile another 1.5-2.5ish WAR for the rest of the year, totaling around 4.5-5 WAR for the year. This seems “safe” relative to the paragraphs above and below this one.

And, we can do another thing that probably makes relatively little sense, too, and assume that Swanson is going to keep his same pace for the rest of the season, and end up with 6.8 fWAR over 162 games. This pretty much sets up our bounds. Each of these lends itself to some really basic contracts analysis using boring ol’ rules-of-thumb. Let’s go to a table!

Fundamentally, there is a lot of room here, and the table is really just meant to bound some stuff. The most conservative and most aggressive rows aren’t really that useful, they’re just extreme bounds. The point of the table, perhaps, is to illustrate how big of an effect Swanson’s 2022 has already had on his potential earnings.

$156 million over six years may make your eyes bulge out of their sockets, but on the other hand, it’s not that out of line with what we’ve already seen recently. More on that in a bit. The point is, the market is the market, and if Swanson doesn’t forego hitting the market (given the above, why would he?!), he’s going to enter it with other strong, expensive shortstop options, including Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, and Xander Bogaerts. (Correa and Bogaerts may choose not to exercise their opt-outs; of course, any of these players could sign extensions before the offseason.) An informal poll of the masthead figured that Swanson was something like a lock for five years and nine figures; even the central row of the table above is more aggressive than that.

The 2021-2022 free agent market was rife with shortstops, a lot of whom got crazy money. Correa’s projections were mostly closely-aligned to the “most aggressive” scenario in the table above, and he hit FA at a younger age; Correa got a weird $105/3 deal where the extra years are essentially player options. Corey Seager (younger) and Marcus Semien (older) got mega-deals of $325M/10 and $175M/7 — these deals are hard to use as benchmarks because the Rangers kind of went crazy in signing them. Trevor Story (same age, somewhat worse projected production than central row) got $140M/6, as did Javier Baez (same age, much worse projected production). Given our most recent experience with the shortstop market summarized in this paragraph, it’s hard to look at $156M/6 and say “nahhh no way.” Again, look at what Baez and Story got, with Story coming off a down year and Baez having a 4 WAR one that Swanson seems like he’s gonna reach and clear this year. If those guys are getting $23M AAV through age 34, it seems like with another year of market inflation, Swanson shouldn’t have much trouble getting $26M AAV — unless, of course, he craters at some point this season and knocks his central projection notably downward.

When it comes to the Braves in this calculus, you can’t just think about things in a vacuum — it’s important to look at what the Braves’ payroll looks like after this season. The Braves hold club options on Charlie Morton ($20 million) and Will Smith ($13 million) for the 2023 season. Both guys could return to the club next year, but probably not at those totals. Kenley Jansen’s $16 million also expires. Max Fried and Austin Riley are team-controlled compatriots that will get arbitration raises and possibly extensions, though their extension calculus is complex as well. There are other small contractual raises elsewhere. Even so, the Braves have just under $100 million committed to 10 players for 2023, which gives them a fair bit of room even if all they do is replicate this year’s $177 million Opening Day payroll. Swanson could eat up some of that room if re-signed, or not. It’s very worth mentioning here, too, that the Braves continue to rake in the cash, and while they have no obligation to pump those revenues back into payroll, it doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t. They’re on pace to smash 3 million in home game attendance for the first time since 2000.

So, given all this, we come back to the central question for Braves fans. Knowing the above, should the Braves be the ones to give Swanson a contract for 2023 and beyond?

It is still hard to see the Braves not at least trying to bring Swanson back unless they have ironclad aspirations to go after one of the top free agent shortstops like Correa or Turner. But, unless he gives them a sweetheart, hometown discount type of deal, which seems unlikely, he becomes just another option in a market will have a few other good ones.

There are certainly some fans that will worry that signing Swanson could hurt the team’s ability to sign Max Fried or Austin Riley to long-term deals, but the Braves’ contractual commitments combined with increases in revenue likely mean that any “tradeoff” in dollars at this point would be artificially imposed by the team, rather than a forced financial reality.

The Braves are under no obligation to match a “stupid money” offer if Swanson gets one elsewhere in free agency. But, avoiding an egregious deal isn’t the same as saying that the Braves shouldn’t invest substantial resources into Swanson on his own merits, or because they lack the capacity to do so. As always, it’s just a matter of how his price point aligns to what they think he’s worth, and how they might go about solving the shortstop problem if he finds a new home after 2022.