After kicking off the 2020 season by recording a hit in each of his first ten games, a stint that featured a .368 AVG and five extra-base hits, it appeared that Dansby Swanson had again reached his peak. The hot start was beginning to look like… well… just a hot start, as Swanson suddenly fell into a five-game funk that ended with him reaching base only twice altogether, trimming that .360+ AVG by nearly 100 points in less than a week’s time.
On August 9, entering the second game of a four-game set versus the Phillies, the former first-round pick was carrying a more typical .276 AVG, and given his past, it was only natural to expect Swanson’s performance to continue to level out as the sample size increased.
Except that hasn’t exactly been the case as the Braves continue inching towards the halfway mark of the 2020 season.
Since that matchup with the Phils nine games ago, Swanson has batted .333, and though he isn’t raking quite like he was at the start of the season, his performance at the plate is still head and shoulders above what we’re accustomed to. And in case you missed Monday night’s clash with the Nationals, Swanson did more than just contribute… he won the damn thing with one swing of the bat in the bottom of the 9th.
Dansby called game.#ForTheA pic.twitter.com/EDbRNSCkCD
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) August 18, 2020
However, as Swanson touched home plate, and his teammates proceeded to celebrate in near-perfect social distancing form, I took a look at the shorstop’s numbers up to this point. Yeah… Swanson is undoubtedly having an excellent season thus far. But is it sustainable? And how does this performance compare to previous seasons?
We’ll go out of order and answer the latter question first, as it may surprise you.
The truth is… this isn’t necessarily the best start of Swanson’s career, at least in terms of his standard numbers. Take a look at Swanson’s stats through his first 24 games of each season, starting with his debut year in 2016 (in which he only played in 38 games overall):
- 2016: 93 PA, .301 AVG, 2 HR, 4 2B, 10 RBI
- 2017: 99 PA, .151 AVG, 2 HR, 1 2B, 5 RBI
- 2018: 106 PA, .303 AVG, 2 HR, 8 2B, 13 RBI
- 2019: 95 PA, .263 AVG, 5 HR, 4 2B, 21 RBI
- 2020: 100 PA, .298 AVG, 3 HR, 6 2B, 16 RBI
As you can see, other than that slow start in 2017 (which wound up being just a plain lousy year for him), Swanson has always come out of the gate hitting pretty well. And this season that trend seems to be continuing.
However, when you start looking deeper into his numbers, you begin noticing some discrepancies — both good and bad.
The first thing that jumps out is that Swanson was already at 0.8 bWAR for the 2020 season before Monday’s game against Washington (which should surpass 1.0 WAR after last night’s 3 for 6 performance at the plate when Baseball-Reference updates his player page). Already being at 1 WAR at this point in the year is quite significant for him, considering Swanson’s career-best WAR total so far is just 2.3… and that was a full 162-game season in 2018.
Simple math tells us — under normal scheduling circumstances — if Swanson were to keep up his current performance, he’d finish well above that mark in 2020 (though, it would be surprising… hence the phrase “hot start”; and we know the Braves won’t be playing 162 games this season anyways… so it’s a moot point).
But then there are other differences this season that stand out in a negative way. The fact that Swanson is striking out roughly 8% more in 2020 compared to his career rate (30.9% / 23%). Oh… and he’s also walking at just a 4.3% clip, which compared to his career rate (9.2%), is less than half as often. (If you watched Austin Riley’s ridiculous start during the 2019 campaign, you should know that a high K rate/low walk rate combination can become a significant problem.)
There’s also this stat called Batted Balls In Play (or BABIP), which predicts this will be tough to maintain for the Braves’ shortstop. Before Monday’s game, Swanson’s BABIP was sitting at .404 — ninth-highest in the majors and 98 points above his career mark. It’s safe to say that he is getting rather lucky when he puts the ball in play, and the bad news is that those “lucky” events aren’t coming from infield-hits or super-hard hit balls, given he’s nowhere near his career-high in either of those categories.
Swanson’s IFH% is a career-low 4.5%, while Statcast has his Hard Hit rate at just 35.6% (though FanGraphs claims it’s 45.8%… so perhaps it’s best to go with somewhere in between). That only leaves errors by the defense and/or batted-balls that are simply finding holes (and the latter isn’t a very sustainable skill).
On top of finding very little to help prop up his BABIP, Swanson’s contact rate also isn’t providing a ton of optimism that his strong performance will continue too much longer. His overall contact rate was 67.4% before yesterday’s game, compared to 75.8% for his career. Swanson’s ability to make contact on pitches in the zone is also lagging quite a bit too, coming in more than 10% lower than his usual rate. That’s concerning, given his swing rate on pitches in the zone is up by over 5%. More swings at strikes, but less contact will eventually equal more failure, and the longer the season progresses, the clearer that equation becomes.
But either way, it’s great to see Swanson having success at the plate (so far he’s rating better on defense as well), even though he may not be this good all season. Whether or not his numbers wind up where we expect them to be at season’s end, it’s already apparent Swanson has made massive strides when it comes to the very things that haunted him earlier in his career (like breaking balls and laying off junk pitches). In fact, the 26-year-old finally looks 100% comfortable at the plate this season, and Swanson’s hitting line drives at a career rate.
Maybe the regression will come slowly, or, given the 2020 season is so short, perhaps his decline will be almost unrecognizable. One thing’s for sure, though, Swanson has been one of the most important players (if not the most) in the Braves’ lineup thus far this season. Let’s just cross our fingers and hope he can keep it up.
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