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Starting Nine: Say it out loud, Dansby Swanson has become elite

The Braves shortstop is having a career year, putting himself near the top of a potentially start-studded shortstop class

MLB: San Diego Padres at Atlanta Braves
Dansby Swanson is third among all shortstops in fWAR (2.8) and ranks second in the National League.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Life is all about timing. So, too, is free agency, and there are few players who are combining the two like Dansby Swanson.

The Braves shortstop is tied for 10th in fWAR (2.8) and among the nine players ahead of him, two — Aaron Judge and his league-leading 3.8 and Xander Bogaerts at 2.9 — are also scheduled to be unattached as of this fall.

Swanson is fifth overall in Defensive Runs Above Average (6.4) and third at his position, where Swanson ranks also third in fWAR to the Cardinals’ Tommy Edman (3.2) and Bogaerts and is tied for fourth in wRC+ (132). It’s a major increase in production considering is already closing on last season’s fWAR (3.4), has never been better than 98 wRC+ in a 162-game season or higher than seventh in Def.

It’s all coming together for the 28-year-old, former No. 1 overall pick, and it could prove prohibitively more expensive to lock him up than it was heading into the 2022 season. Making $10 million after winning his arbitration case — which amounts to a $4 million increase over 2021 — Spotrac gives Swanson a market value of $22.1 million on a six-year deal ($132 million in total).

That figure is third among shortstops in the class behind Trea Turner ($30.4 million) and Carlos Correa ($28.7), though Correa has a player option that could keep him in Minnesota, Bogaerts holds an option as well for 2023 with the Red Sox and the White Sox have a team option over Tim Anderson. So, Swanson could be part of a deep class at the position or one of the few hot commodities if he and the Braves can’t work something out before the winter.

Is Swanson really going to get a contract similar to what Boston gave Trevor Story and the Tigers handed to Javier Baez, with both at $140 million over six years? This great breakdown from Eric Cole and Ivan the Great dives further into the finances.

It’s all in the timing, and right now, Swanson is showing himself to be — yes, cue the AEW graphic — elite. Let’s count the ways the shortstop is performing at or trending toward career levels.

1. Increased rates on rates on rates

Swanson’s Statcast page is what every investor wishes the stock market looked like right now: an endless run of upward trending rates.

His year over year rates show an increase exit velocity, launch angle, barrel rate, hard-hit rate, sweet spot percentage, his expected stats and on and on. Yes, that includes a strikeout rate that’s up to 26.8, the highest of any full season.

The biggest jumps have been in his hard-hit rate — up 2.1 to 45 percent — where he’s now 74th percentile after being 63rd percentile in 2021, 58th percentile in 2020 and 65th percentile in 2019. He’s also seeing more his first-pitch strikes — an increase of 3.4 percent to 65 — which has led to a .988 OPS on those pitches. Swanson’s OPS drops to .743 in at-bats when he takes the first pitch.

2. Doing damage against fastballs

While he’s hitting a mere .195 on breaking balls, Swanson is finding plenty of success against fastballs.

He’s slashing .358/.336/.642 and .449 wOBA against the pitch — all career highs — with eight of his nine home runs, nine doubles and a triple. His Run Value — the run impact of an event based on the runners on base, outs, ball and strike count — is tied for eighth overall and second in the National League, trailing only the Nationals’ Juan Soto (13) and the Cardinals’ Nolan Arenado (10).

Swanson’s average vs. fastballs represents a 104-point jump from 2021, his wOBA is up 107 points and it all could be even better, with his xSLG (.712) sitting 70 points ahead of his actual slugging percentage.

The Braves are second overall and first in the NL with 40.6 wFB, and Swanson is driving that with a team-leading 12.0 on his own.

3. Opportunity doesn’t knock, he does

The clutch gene has been strong with Swanson, but he’s ratcheted it up to another level when it comes to breaking through with two outs and runners in scoring position.

He has a career .781 OPS in those situations, with three seasons of .829 or better, but that figure currently sits at 1.333, which is the second best (with a minimum of 25 plate appearances) in the majors behind Paul Goldschmidt’s 1.582, and Swanson’s average (.458) is also second to Goldschmidt (.478).

Stacked up against the last 20 years of Braves hitters, Swanson’s average is fourth behind Mark Teixeira in 2007 (.476), Brian McCann in 2006 (.471) and Charlie Culberson in 2018 (.464) and his OPS is sixth on list led by Teixeira (1.910), McCann 2006 (1.447), Wilson Betemit in 2006 (1.437), Adam Duvall in 2021 (1.433) and Culberson (.1.369).

Swanson also finds himself in the top 30 this season in high leverage situations with 181 wRC+ and a 1.009 OPS. Those figures are the best of any qualified Braves hitter.

4. Pulling less, going opposite field more

The ability to hit to all fields — especially to opposite field in producing extra-base hits — has been one of the biggest points of growth for Swanson, who is doing so at rates unseen in his seven seasons.

The right-hander is hitting to left field at a rate of 37 percent, going to center at a rate of 35.2 percent and hitting to right field at a 27.9 clip. That’s a career low in terms of his pulling the ball and career highs in going to center and right in any 162-game campaign save his rookie year of 2016, when he had just 145 plate appearances.

Two of his nine home runs have been to right, where he’s had seven of his 22 extra-base hits (31.8 percent). That’s also the highest of Swanson’s big-league seasons, a figure that has increased every year since 2018, with a 26 percent rate in 2019 and 27.4 in 2021 (that rate was at 28 percent in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season).

Anderson is the only shortstop to go opposite field at least 28 percent of the time who boasts a better wOBA (.391) than Swanson’s .391 and the Braves star’s 24.8 percent line drive rate is the best with a minimum of 250 PAs. He’s simply spraying the ball more than ever and doing so with authority.

5. As Braves go, Dansby goes

This is not meant as a dig toward Matt Olson, who is having his ups and downs in his first season with the Braves, but in losses the first baseman is the most dangerous hitter in the league. His .937 OPS is 64 points higher than anyone else and he’s second with a .303 average in Atlanta losses. In wins, he has the third-worst OPS among qualified hitters at .692.

The anthesis is Swanson, because as he goes, the Braves have been going.

In the team’s wins, the shortstop’s .350 average ranks sixth and his OPS of .984 ranks ninth, numbers that jump up to a .379 average during the 14-game winning streak with a 1.041 OPS; in losses, he’s 60th in OPS (.606) and 48th in average (.217).

6. For the defense

Ninety-third percentile in outs above average, no shortstop has been better than Swanson when it comes to plays to his right — where he’s had five OAA — and those lateral plays toward third base have been a major upgrade.

A year ago, he was at zero OAA in that department, but he does continue to have issues on plays to his left, where he’s at minus-4, tied for the third-worst figure among qualified shortstops. Ultimately, Swanson has been impacted by positioning. When shaded toward second, he’s at minus-3 OAA, but when playing toward left — again, that strength of plays to his right — he’s third in the league at three OAA and when he’s playing straight up, he’s tied for second and first in the NL, with two OAA.

The Braves are among the league’s most shift-heavy teams when it comes to right-handers (34.9 percent) and only the Cardinals (40.5) and Rockies (37.3) have shifted less against lefties than Atlanta at 41.1 percent. The defensive philosophy is playing perfectly to Swanson’s strength, and it’s also helped fuel a season where his 6.2 Def is fourth in the NL (a list topped by teammate Travis d’Arnaud at 7.3).

7. The order of things

During the 2016 Winter Meetings just outside Washington D.C., manager Brian Snitker said he had designs on hitting Swanson — who was entering his first full season — at No. 2 in the order. It was a point driven home later that day by president of baseball operations John Hart in the suite of then-general manager John Coppolella, when Hart said, “Dansby’s a perfect two-hole hitter because he can do so many things.”

He wasn’t ready. At least not yet. Swanson hit .145 in 2017, and .2018 the following year. He put together 305 plate appearances at No. 2 in the order in 2019, hitting .269 with an .801 OPS. Maybe he was showing those forecasts from three years prior were right, but Swanson would land on the injured list, missing 30 games with a bruised right heel. He’d hit .194 after his Aug. 26 return that year, primarily sitting at sixth in the order.

We’re now in the longest extended run of Swanson in the No. 2 spot since 2019, with his 92 plate appearances leading to a .381/.435/.571 slash line, four homers and four doubles. He’s fourth in wRC+ (181) among those with at least 90 PAs batting second, fourth in wOBA (.437) and fifth in OPS (1.006).

8. Feasting at the right time

As mentioned, Swanson is raking during the Braves’ streak, and push it back to the start of this run against teams with losing records, and he finds himself in some rarefied air.

He has the NL’s best average (.377) since May 20, while ranking second behind Goldschmidt (243) with 190 wRC+. The OPS (.997) is fourth in the circuit, trailing Goldschmidt (1.252), the Phillies’ Bryce Harper (1.008) and the Mets’ Pete Alonso (.999).

Ahead of this set of games, Swanson had a .696 OPS and was hitting .227, an OPS that was 120th and average that had him 138th.

9. Vying to put streakiness behind him

Streakiness had been a part of Swanson’s game that he struggled to distance himself from.

He’s hit at or above league average in 15 months in his career, but through his first four seasons, each was met by a drop off the following month. He wasn’t able to string together consecutive months of a wRC+ of 100 — league average — or better until the shortened 2020, when he rattled off three straight from July-September. That 60-game slate represents the only time Swanson has been better than 98 wRC+ in a season.

Last season had its moments, as he hit 19 percent above average in May, only to dip to 16 below the following month. He went on a tear in July (139 wRC+) and August (138), only to falter in September to the tune of 49 wRC+.

This year has shades of that streaky play, with Swanson hitting 19 percent below average in April, followed by a jump to 135 wRC+ a month later. But, in all those previous months in which he’d posted a wRC+ of 100 or better in his career, Swanson has never followed a month as high as he had in May (135) with an even better month than the 190 he’s ripping through June at. The closest was in 2020, when he went from 101 in August to 109 in September.

There’s still plenty of games to be played this month, but what we’re currently seeing is Swanson stringing together the two best months of his career. Dial it back to last July, and Swanson’s combined 130 wRC+ is fifth best of all shortstops and third in the NL, behind the Giants’ Brandon Crawford (151) and the Brewers’ Willy Adames (140).