Dansby Swanson’s significant big league path
As the first overall pick in 2015, Dansby Swanson knows a thing or two about expectations.
Such a status has no nuances. No gray area. It’s black and white. If you are caught no. 1 Overall, you have to grow, and fast. Otherwise, the labels come. It doesn’t matter the sport or the league. This inflexibility exists across the sporting spectrum.
What’s interesting about this concept is that the Major League Baseball draft is unlike any other in sports. It’s interesting in that the expectation doesn’t change, but the calendar does. In the NFL, top picks are slotted into starting rosters almost immediately. Much the same is true for the NBA. Does the fact that it will probably be at least two years before we see the top pick of a draft improve or dampen some of those expectations? If you find yourself at the back of the collective mind of the fans until your eventual summons? Maybe. It probably doesn’t matter.
What matters is the perfect confluence of events that transpired in Los Angeles this week and what it tells us about development. In LA, we not only saw the 2022 MLB Draft, but we also saw Dansby Swanson don the All-Star badges for the first time in his career. For the Vanderbilt product, it was the culmination of a long and arduous struggle, but also one that tells us a lot about how to view development as it exists in baseball.
The slow development
The Arizona Diamondbacks selected Dansby Swanson no. 1 on Vandy. In December, he was gone. Swanson was sent to Atlanta, along with Ender Inciarte and Aaron Blair, as part of a deal to get Shelby Miller (and, to a lesser extent, Gabe Speier) from the Braves. The trade, of course, ended up being a disaster for the Serpents. But that doesn’t mean going from a team stuck in purgatory to last year’s World Series winner was a walk in the park for Swanson.
Although he was drafted in 2015, Swanson was taking hacks at Major League level the following year. In 145 plate appearances, he hit base at a clip of .361 and posted a wRC+ of 107. It was a nice little flash in the pan for Swanson. But over the next three seasons he fell well below average, thanks to that last stat. His wRC+ totals were 63, 79 and 91 through 2019. It was a gradual improvement, but it also speaks to the potential rush that came with climbing the minor league ladder as quickly as he did. .
Even if it was impossible to get anything out of the sprint of a 2020 season, that year was something of a threshold for Swanson. Although he showed marked improvement over three full seasons in the big league, the skill set changed for Swanson by this time.
The withdrawal rate jumped. The walking rate dropped a bit. His Swing% went up and his Contact% went down. But in 2020, he was an above average performer. And in 2021 it fell just a little below the average baseline set by wRC+ (98). We saw less contact-oriented approach and more power. It posted ISO numbers of .190 and .201. He raised the ball much higher. This development brought us to the 2022 season which resulted in an All-Star caliber performer in Dansby Swanson.
Harness the Greatness
Swanson leads qualifying shortstops in fWAR this season (4.3) on the verge of erasing his previous career high (3.4). The ISO is in line with the past two years, and it’s at the 82nd percentile in Barrel%. In addition to the attack, the defense was elite. Swanson’s nine over-average strikeouts are a career high so far, in addition to his four defensive points saved. But the numbers aren’t necessarily the most important thing here.
What is first important to note is that the development has not been close to linear. Swanson flashed, backed up, and flashed again. He struggled at home plate and on the field. Even as no. 1 choice, there was not a smooth path. And that’s important. We’ve seen players with a certain level of draft pedigree struggle mightily before putting it together years later (Alex Gordon, anyone?). What Swanson shows us about development is how much there is that is unquantifiable. Especially when you factor in the mental side and the expectations that come with being a first draft pick.
The path here has been uneven from a performance standpoint. Even the start of his 2022 All-Star campaign featured an average of .213 and 80 wRC+ in April. But what makes Dansby Swanson such an important face in baseball is his vulnerability. As such, it’s not entirely a collection of words about Dansby Swanson as a stat sheet, but also about Dansby Swanson as a human.
The internal struggle
There is no doubt that sport, at all levels, has a mental health problem. Baseball is obviously no exception in this regard. What sets Swanson apart from his athletic compatriots is his willingness to be open about the struggles he has experienced mentally.
These are conversations that need to happen. Of course, there is an increased awareness of the problem itself, but more needs to be done than that. Dansby Swanson’s willingness to talk about this aspect of the game not only makes it engaging, it makes it – and its path to Los Angeles – of paramount importance.
When I was with former SBNation Beyond the Box Score, I wrote this about baseball’s mental health crisis:
The nature of accessibility in baseball has changed. In order to get the shot you desire, you need funds and you need time in almost unlimited amounts. Young athletes burn out at the high school level or even earlier. Any sign of injury or mental weakness is not just meant to be frowned upon, it’s meant to be exploited by your competitors or, even worse, your coaches. Youth sports are obviously a separate issue in this discussion. But the root of the problem is there. Culture is toxic. You can play through the pain. And you certainly can’t show emotion. It is weakness. The coaches will tell you. Your teammates will tell you.
Sport is hard. Baseball is tough. Having to climb the minor league ranks while simultaneously battling a myriad of factors – inside and outside the game – is some of the toughest physical and mental tests the world of athletics has to offer. While Swanson’s story probably isn’t terribly unique, his new All-Star status and previous commitment to discussing mental health make him stand out. Because we know it and have seen it under the microscope since 2015.
This is why nuance matters. In several respects. Consider the factors a Major League draft pick or international signing should look down upon arriving at an organization. You probably have at least two years to grow within the system. You have the expectations, the performance, the injury and, in the case of so many people, the financial struggle, on top of everything else. It’s not a straight path in terms of performance, and it’s not a priceless path. Swanson’s path to greatness is able to show us a number of such avenues that can arrive at even the highest caliber of prospect.
That’s not enough space to have the conversation that needs to take place. But Dansby Swanson represents a door. Even better, Dansby Swanson represents two doors. One opens with a discussion of our understanding of how prospects develop from a sports perspective. The other to mental health and its massive role in the sports world. At the moment it is a Alice in Wonderland situation. The door is a little too small to pass. Dansby may be the first sip of the potion to send us deeper into the abstract.
Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Matt Fletcher (@little.gnt on Instagram)