He was once the face of the organization’s full-fledged rebuild, and while he hasn’t met expectations up to this point of his big-league career, Dansby Swanson is quietly blossoming into a sturdy shortstop.
After being acquired in the notorious Shelby Miller trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Swanson was touted as the focal point of the Braves’ future. Unfortunately for the shortstop, his big-league career began on the wrong foot. While he impressed in the 38 games he played in 2016, he was sent down to Triple A midway through the ensuing season, struggled to get into a groove at the plate when he returned, and underwhelmed in 2018.
Coming off winning the National League East, all eyes were on the Braves’ heavy swingers such as Freddie Freeman, 2018 NL Rookie of the Year Award recipient Ronald Acuna Jr., and Ozzie Albies, given their success at the plate, as a unit. Heck, there were more eyes on Nick Markakis, who hit .297 and drove in 93 runs in 2018, and free agent signee Josh Donaldson than Swanson.
Did Swanson outplay or outshine those players in 2019? No, but he put together a well-rounded season that should invigorate confidence into the Braves organization and its fan base.
The 2019 regular season brought out the best version of Swanson at the plate. Hitting .251 while sporting a .748 OPS and totaling 17 home runs and 65 RBIs, he was a steady source of offense in manager Brian Snitker‘s lineup. Those cumulative figures are career highs when it concerns him playing for the majority of a season.
Swanson also posted career highs in average exit velocity (89.8 percent), hard-hit percentage (41.6), and barrel percentage (10.1). Strikeouts have plagued the shortstop over his three-year career, but he has become adept at pouncing on mistakes, hitting the ball to all fields, and doing so with a line-drive approach.
Meanwhile, he’s also a reliable fielder. He has an above-average arm, is adept at turning double plays, and forms a killer middle infield duo with Albies.
We haven’t seen what an improved or slightly fine-tuned Swanson can do over an entire season. However, while Swanson missed roughly a month due to a heel injury this season, he didn’t skip a beat when he returned, continuing to put the ball in play, make hard contact, and hold his own in the field.
Had Swanson played every day or 150-plus games (he appeared in 127 games this season), his offensive statistics would be more impressive. At the same time, he made up for some of that missed time in the playoffs.
Swanson was phenomenal in the Braves’ first-round series matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals. Hitting .389, recording a .977 OPS, and totaling two RBIs, including three doubles — most notably a two-out, game-tying RBI double in the ninth inning of Game 3 — he was an offensive spark plug.
Health and sustaining his recent level of play are pivotal factors to Swanson taking the next step and becoming another piece to the puzzle in this lineup. Despite the offensive fireworks in their lineup over the last two seasons, an improved Swanson would serve the Braves well.
With Donaldson, who’s coming off a monster year, and Markakis, a five-year fixture in right field, hitting the open market this offseason, the Braves are faced with the possibility of losing two hallmark figures in their clubhouse.
Being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in back-to-back years and each of your last nine playoff appearances and surrendering 10 runs in the first inning of a win-or-go-home Game 5 at home can be discouraging. But this is a great offense even if they lose some veterans to free agency. Their young core is the predominant reason for that optimism even with the NL-pennant winning Washington Nationals, 86-win New York Mets, and anxious Philadelphia Phillies in their division.
Freeman, Acuna, and Albies are the givens moving forward for this offense. They’re three of the best players both offensively and defensively at their respective positions. But Swanson is gradually improving from all aspects of the game, and while he may never live up to being a number one draft pick, he’s beginning to blossom into one of the better shortstops in baseball.
After a rough start and the developments of other prominent youngsters, that’s all the Braves could ask for. The more the merrier.