Atlanta Braves’ Dansby Swanson Has a Slider Problem

So it’s early in the season and the Braves aren’t playing well. One reason they aren’t playing well is the their star shortstop isn’t playing well.

Both of these things matter very little to the Atlanta Braves.

Let me assure you guys of something right now. This post isn’t about the 2017 season. It’s been a week. From an analytical perspective, a week’s worth of data is useless. Somebody named J.T. Realmuto is leading the league in hitting so let’s all relax.

No player in baseball saw a higher percentage of sliders than Dansby Swanson.

No, this post is about Dansby Swanson and trends that have begun early in his career. And that means most of this data is actually from 2016.

 

Swanson was acquired in one of the great heist of the 21st century, quickly made his way through the minors, and made his debut August 18th 2016.

And what a debut it was.

Once he got here he decided to remind everyone why he’s a top prospect and former number 1 overall pick. He hit .302/.361/.442 in his 6 week stint in the majors and more than held his own at the game’s most demanding defensive position. A star was born.

But being 2016, and now 2017, we don’t just look at the AVG/OBP/SLG line anymore to determine what kind of player a guy is. We have batted ball profiles and exit velocities and launch angles and pitch tracking and just about every tool imaginable to dig into a guy’s surface numbers to see if they’re real and if the can be repeated in the future.

And with Dansby there are some red flags.

Let’s Dive Deep

One red flag is his hitting profile. Tony Blengino studied some batted-ball profiles over at Fangraphs this offseason, including Swanson’s, and revealed his exit velocities don’t profile as that of a major offensive weapon, at least not yet. It’s obviously still early in his career and profiles change as bodies change but the data is interesting.

Another red flag is the way he’s being pitched and that’s what we’re going through today. As we look at the early part of his career, Dansby Swanson is being pitched in a very unique way, specifically in one area. Sliders.

Here’s the highest % of sliders seen last year:

 

PlayerSlider %
Dansby Swanson25.9
Marcel Ozuna24.7
Peter Bourjos24.5
Giancarlo Stanton23.7
Rene Rivera23.7
Sean Rodriguez23.0
Adonis Garcia22.7

 

No player in baseball saw a higher percentage of sliders than Dansby Swanson. (min 120 PA)

Now he was only in the majors for 6 weeks so these numbers can still move but this is an interesting trend and it’s continued into this year. His slider percentage for 2017 is 25.2% so early on we can assume there is a book on Dansby that says pound him with sliders.

So I wanted to know how he’s doing on those sliders since it’s such large part of the pitchers game plan.

Baseball Savant and their Statcast data affords us that capability. Since Dansby has become a major leaguer, he’s seen 170 sliders. Here’s the breakdown of those 170 pitches:

  • 71 balls
  • 33 called strikes
  • 47 swinging strikes
  • 19 balls in play

And here’s the breakdown of the 19 balls in play

  • 9 groundouts
  • 1 lineout
  • 7 flyouts
  • 1 single
  • 1 double
  • AVG Exit Velocity: 81.9 mph

In case you got lost somewhere in all that, Dansby has seen 170 sliders in his short career and has exactly 2 hits off them. Two. Or to put it another way, 98.8% of the time a pitcher has thrown Swanson a slider, it doesn’t result in a hit.

And that 81.9 mph exit velocity is almost 10 mph less than his exit velocity against every other pitch (91.2mph).

This is why Dansby sees more sliders than anyone in baseball. He really struggles to do anything with them. Pitchers want him to swing. So far his best bet has been to take them and just hope there a ball.

Dansby obviously isn’t alone in these struggles. Baseball history is littered with examples of players who had to make serious adjustments the first time they got exposed to big league off-speed stuff. These are the best pitchers in the world and even the “bad” ones have nasty stuff. They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t.

 

But… Last Year?

Now you might be asking how in the world Swanson put up a .302/.361/.442 slash line with numbers like this against a pitch he sees more than anyone. One answer is a lot of good fortune. Swanson ran a .383 BABIP in those 6 weeks in 2016 and given the major-league average is .300, it’s fair to say that kind of luck simply won’t last.

Another answer is even with him leading the league in sliders seen, it still only represents 25% of the total pitches thrown to him. That leaves the other 75%, mostly which are fastballs, to do his damage. 80% of his career hits have come off fastballs so clearly that’s been his plan.

Don’t take this post as some dramatic call for Swanson to completely change his approach. That’s not the point of this.

This is simply noting, early in his career, a trend in the way he’s being pitched and the numbers for why that might be so. They’re not the best numbers right now but he’s got an entire career to improve them.

My guess is he’ll adjust. And then they’ll adjust. And then he’ll adjust again and on and on and on.

That’s just one of the many beauties of baseball.