As part of the rebuilding project currently underway with the Atlanta Braves, shortstop Dansby Swanson has drawn center-stage attention from the sports media world since his arrival in the majors this past August.
Much of what has been written about this Vanderbilt product and former 1st-round pick has been overwhelmingly positive, and his production in the minor leagues has done nothing to counter that early assessment.
However, let's not get the wrong idea about Swanson. Is he a valuable addition to the Braves' lineup? Yes, but at this point it isn't saying a whole lot. Does he have All-Star potential? Possibly, but it's awfully early to be saying for certain.
Is he a fantastic player, fundamentally strong in the field and patient beyond his years at the plate? Yes.
So then, why am I taking a contrary stance concerning Swanson's future in the ML?
Let's be clear: I'm not saying that he isn't going to be an excellent full-timer in the majors. What I am saying is I'm not so sure that he's going to be a perennial All-Star candidate, as some have stated.
The first, most obvious reason is that it's way too early to know how he will measure up in the big leagues. That's a given, so we'll just consider that a caveat and move on.
Secondly, Swanson doesn't grade highly in any measurable category beyond batting. There are no aspects of his game that appear weak, but also none that are exceptional.
He does get outstanding reviews on his 'intangibles', which is another way of saying that he's coachable, gets along well with teammates, and brings a great attitude to the park on a regular basis. This is a very good strength to have, and to some extent it may cause his tools to play up, but by how much?
Will it give him a stronger arm? Perhaps his weakest tool is arm strength, and that's not to say that he has a weak arm, but if he's going to stay at short then he'll need more than a positive attitude to make the tough throws.
Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin seemed to think he would have no problem staying at shortstop:
"I think he's a kid that can stay at shortstop. There's no hesitation with me, because he continually gets better at that position. He's a point guard out there. He can play on the run. He can play in any direction. He's got dexterity, he's got flexibility, he's got awareness, and he creates angles."
Fantastic. Can he make the deep throw? Can he gun down the faster runners in the ML consistently?
In 37 games at short for Atlanta, Swanson had 129 fielding chances (44 putouts, 79 assists, 6 errors). Now I won't say that I expected him to be flawless out there, but if you look deeper, you'll see what I mean:
According to Inside Edge, Swanson made only 2 of 3 plays deemed to be "Unlikely" (that being, played deemed by IE scouts to have a 10-40% chance of being fielded successfully). Out of nine "Remote" chances (10% or less of success), Swanson completed none. Is it fair to even mention such difficult plays in this discussion? Maybe, maybe not, but if a player has descriptors like "dexterity", "flexibility", and is said to play the position like a "point guard", then I say we should expect that much of such a player.
Of course, I'll grant that it was his first exposure to ML conditions. But if he's going to be what so many have said he will be, it's going to have to happen. For now, color me dubious.
Let's talk about his bat: Swanson has a reputation for making frequent contact, drawing walks and showing generally-sound judgment at the plate. Again, with the understanding that he made the jump from Class-AA in 2016, his contact percentages were more or less in-line with the ML average. For all of the pomp and circumstance placed on his ML debut, we should be expecting a bit more than average.
What also stands out for me is that benefited from a .383 BABIP, which is eighty-three points above ML average and virtually unsustainable for all but the most talented (or very lucky) batters.
Swanson showed an ability to use all fields, with 37.8% of the balls he put in play landing in center field. This is a good sign. He also picked up six infield singles, likely a product of his hustle as well as his above-average-to-plus speed. However, Swanson will be lucky to peak at ML average in terms of power, so most of his XBH are and will be predicated on his base-running ability. He is currently 6'1", around 190; he is athletic and mobile, but when he starts to lose a step, do you put him at third when he barely has enough arm for short?
If you move him to second base, where he'd likely be better off, do you put Ozzie Albies, who certainly has more arm strength but is coming off an elbow fracture suffered while swinging a bat? Granted, Albies likely has considerable time before he will be a regular in the majors, but if we're talking about a position that best fits Swanson's current tool set, it's second base. At the keystone, he could profile as a Gold Glove-caliber defender with at least enough offense for the position. Again, however, we're speaking hypothetically.
Now, am I saying that I don't think Swanson will be an All-Star in the majors? No.
What I am most definitely saying is this: I don't think he's going to become quite the offensive beast that so many are expecting. If he's less than a solid, consistent player in all aspects of his game, I would be surprised.
But let's not lay that savior label on him just yet, Braves fans. If you get a dependable, consistent glove man who bats .280, swats 30 doubles and is one of several main cogs in your offensive machine, consider yourselves fortunate to have that.