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Dansby Swanson is reaching his potential

After something of a breakout 2020, Dansby Swanson’s 2021 had been off to a slow start. That’s beginning to change.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Dansby Swanson has always been an interesting player. His pedigree as a number one overall pick has never quite aligned with his career production, but the flashes of his upside have always been visible since he got to the Big Leagues.

Swanson didn’t get a ton of time at the minor league level, so it might be a development issue that has made him more of a raw talent than refined prospect. Or maybe there were some setbacks from early on in his career on the mental side, which he’s been very open about recently on social media. It could be a combination of both. Nonetheless, we saw something of a breakout for Swanson in 2020, leaving hope for what he could be moving forward.

In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Swanson slashed .274/.345/.464/.809 to go along with a 1.9 WAR and 116 wRC+. That easily eclipsed anything he had done previously at the Major League level. This left a lot of hope that Swanson could potentially thrive in what was expected to be a potent Atlanta offense in 2021.

But this season didn’t get off to the way that one would have hoped for Swanson or for the club as a whole.

If you were to look at Swanson’s overall output thus far on the season, you’d be wildly disappointed in the results. In a year where few are hitting well, Swanson acumulated a slash with a .237 average, a .295 on-base percentage, and a .740 OPS, all fairly significant drops from what he was able to turn in last year. His wRC+ sits at just below league average at 96 and his 0.6 WAR ranks 15th among 28 qualifying shortstops. Tough scene for a guy hoping to take that next step after a strong 2020.

May, however, has been an entirely different story for Swanson. And it very much reignites that hope that the breakout is on the way, even if there are some warts in his game that will likely leave him out of the “elite” conversation for much of the shorter term future.

Looking at the aggregate 2021 numbers, none of it looks great. But a lot of that can be attributed to his slow-start to the season. Across 105 plate appearances in April, he hit only .189, reached base at a .267 clip, and posted a paltry 62 in regard to his wRC+. His ISO, which was the highest of his career in 2020, came out at just .126. He had one of the higher swing rates, but posted one of the lowest contact rates among shortstops, at just 70.8 percent. His CSW% also fell on the higher side, at 27.4 percent.

May has been a completely different story.

Rather than toiling in mediocrity in the way that he did in the season’s opening month, Swanson has bounced back spectacularly heading into the end of this month. His average is .295 for the month, with a .329 OBP. His OPS has leapt from .582 to .932, while his wRC+ is a robust 140. That ISO I mentioned is up at .308 points. It hasn’t been a marginal improvement from one month to the next. He’s exploded in essentially every statistical category.

What’s impressive—or maybe concerning—about this is that not a lot has changed in terms of the peripherals and underlying trends. If anything, some of those areas don’t look as good as when he got off to that miserable start. Swanson’s swing rate from month-to-month has gone from an even 50.0 percent in April to 50.4 in May. His CSW% was 27.5 and 27.4 for the two months, respectively. So he’s still swinging and whiffing at virtually the same exact rates. He’s actually striking out slightly more in May than he did in April (31.4 percent) and walking slightly less (5.8 percent). So he’s up there hacking wildly half the time and whiffing in virtually the same style. With that in mind, what exactly has changed here that’s allowing Swanson to not only shake off that slow start but absolutely thrive in just flipping over the calendar from one month to another?

Most notably among all of this is the fact that he’s simply making more contact. His overall Contact% has gone from that 70.8 figure to 74.3, while his Contact% on pitches inside of the strike zone moved from 78.1 to 80.9. Neither one is a big jump, but it’s possible that these are significant enough to move the needle in such a way to see the types of outputs that we’ve seen from Swanson in May. In swinging at virtually the same rate, but making more contact, Swanson has been able to cover much more of the strike zone than he was able to in the first month of the year:

Dansby Swanson April Contact Rates
via FanGraphs

That’s April. Swanson doesn’t have an overly elongated swing, so it makes sense that he was making his best contact on the inner-half of the zone. In May, though, Swanson clearly made an adjustment in which he was able to expand his zone coverage, while not having to retool his mechanics:

Dansby Swanson May Contact Rates
via FanGraphs

What’s even more impressive about this is the fact that Swanson has not only been able to expand the consistency of contact across the strike zone, but he’s been able to generate more power from all over the place as a result. This is his ISO/P in April:

Swanson April ISO
via FanGraphs

And here’s that same category from May:

Swanson May ISO
via FanGraphs

So while Swanson is still doing the same type of work across those pitches that are right in the wheelhouse of his swing path, he’s been able to expand the reach of said path in order to drive the ball from all over the strike zone. Which has helped to result in his ISO of over .300.

It’s also possible that another contribution to this has been the fact that Swanson has been more choosey with his pitch selection. His approach against fastballs and breaking pitches hasn’t fluctuated in any statistically significant way. He’s within about a percentage point of both in his Swing% against the two types. Against the offspeed, though, is where we see the change.

Swanson’s Swing% against offspeed has dropped seven full percent, from 64.4 in April to 57.4 in May. And with that, the numbers against the offspeed have shot up. After hitting .167 (with a .272 xBA) against offspeed in April, Swanson has gone for an even .500 against that pitch type in May (.386 xBA). His wOBA against offspeed in May is .539 after a .210 April. So a lot of what we’re seeing from Swanson now can be attributed to not only slightly increased contact all over the zone, but his absolute mashing of offspeed pitches.

This is how Dansby Swanson is going to continue to showcase his development as a shortstop. His defense and his baserunning have always been largely fine. It’s always been about the bat and the production at the plate. The aggression and the swing-and-miss in his game likely aren’t going anywhere, but if he can simply turn that into more contact, especially against the offspeed where he’s accumulating much of his power production, then Swanson suddenly moves into the upper echelon of shortstops rather than a guy we’re simply waiting on to take the next step in his development.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandyHolt42.