What, me worry?
Dansby Swanson wound up with one of the better who-saw-that-coming platform years this side of Aaron Judge. Just how much he may have helped his own case was suggested by Keith Law, who called him the #3 free agent of the offseason:
Swanson’s walk year didn’t look like any season he’d had before, as he played elite defense at short for the first time ever, made more hard contact than ever, and posted the worst walk rate of his career. By OAA, Swanson was the second-most valuable fielder in all of baseball, preventing 20 outs and 15 runs above average, behind only Detroit second baseman Jonathan Schoop (a former shortstop), an incredible showing that was at least two grades better than Swanson’s previously established level.
At the plate, he continued what has been a career-long trend of getting more aggressive in the zone, yet did so without expanding, posting a below-average chase rate again this year. You might get him to chase off-speed stuff down and over the plate, but otherwise, you have to come into or close to the zone, which seems to explain the boost in his contact quality. He might never be a strong on-base guy, but a plus defensive shortstop, which would still be a step down from his 2022 showing, who can hit 30 doubles and 25 homers a year is a very valuable player.
All of that’s pretty hard to argue with.
But those two paragraphs were instantly overshadowed by the very last sentence he wrote, a contention so surprising it beggared belief:
“… and he should be looking for similar deals to Turner and Bogaerts, 6-8 years and $30 million-plus per year.”
A good shortstop is hard to find
Two things, before we dig further into the numbers:
- There are extraordinarily few great shortstops in baseball. Those few can demand a king’s ransom: easily $150-$200 million and up. Carlos Correa’s likely going to get a good deal more than that.
- Swanson, who is eight months younger than Turner and a year and a half younger than Bogaerts, is closer to their overall value than any of us realized. Law, shockingly, ranked Dansby the highest of the three, but the point is that they’re all in the same conversation.
To be clear, Dansby Swanson does not necessarily have to be considered in the topmost echelon of shortstops. Francisco Lindor, who is three months older than Dans, has another $288 million or so due to him over the next nine years. Fernando Tatis, lol, is still on track for another $324 million over the next 12 years. Dansby’s maybe gonna get half of that.
(Oh, yeah, and Corey Seager, who’s Dansby’s age, got 10 years and $325 million last November. Meanwhile, Marcus Semien, who’s four years older than Dansby, and is also Dansby’s most similar hitter by age, got seven years and $175 million on the same day. Javier Baez, who is, uh… not as good as Dansby, got six years and $140 million, one year ago. Homeboy’s gonna get paid.)
It’s also hard to figure out how to wrap your head around the shortstop position when guys like that are side by side in the leaderboards with guys like Tommy Edman and Andres Gimenez, glove-first prospects who all of a sudden figured out how to hit a little, and instantly vaulted themselves to being among the most valuable players in the game. Wouldn’t it be great to develop a guy like that, instead of having to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at a free agent?
Sure it would! But wishing for that is like wishing every draftee would turn into Spencer Strider. Each year, some random low prospect will turn into an All-Star, and 99.99% of them won’t. You’re going to churn through an awful lot of Tyler Pastornickys and Brent Lillibridges before you get a Tommy Edman.
Anyway, fortunately for me, this article is about Dansby Swanson. I don’t have to tell AA what to do. I just have to try to tell you how good Dansby was.
Swansby in 2022
First of all, whatever your opinion of Keith Law’s prediction, his analysis is a good place to start. Dansby is aggressive, but not a free-swinger. Per his Fangraphs page, he swings at an above-average number of pitches in the strike zone and actually a below-average number of pitches outside the strike zone.
However, his contact rate is also below the league average (and headed in the wrong direction), and his swinging-strike rate is higher than the league average (and likewise going in the wrong direction), which has helped to push his strikeout rate above the league average while his walk rate has been declining. (That said, his walk numbers still compare favorably to the league average for shortstops, but shortstops are worse hitters than most.)
Per Baseball Savant, his increased aggressiveness is netting him higher percentiles in barrels and average exit velocity, but at the expense of more swings and misses and fewer walks. So he’s trading OBP for SLG. That’s okay for now, though it bears watching.
Dansby is a terrific athlete, and that bodes well for his defense to age smoothly. (I’d say the same for his Gold Glove-mate Max Fried, who is also almost exactly the same age as Dans.)
But the outlook for his glove does depend a bit on where you look. His Statcast Outs Above Average was vastly better than ever before, as was his UZR Fielding Runs Above Average. On the other hand, his DRS was very good but the same as it had been in 2020 and 2018, and it was negative in 2017, 2019, and 2021.
It’s important to determine how high the high is, because now that he’s a free agent, it’s typically fair to guess that the best of his defense, just like the best of his foot speed, is mostly behind him, as he prepares for a gentle decline. And that decline looks quite different if it’s coming down from the 21 Outs Above Average he posted in 2022, as opposed to the mere 2 he posted the year before.
The other thing, of course, is he’s just getting older. His sprint speed was 79th percentile last year: that’s terrific, but down from 88th percentile in 2019. His arm strength has remained poor, at 15th percentile in 2022 and 13th in 2021. He’d better not get hurt and lose any more zip, or he won’t be able to get it across the diamond.
What comes next
Obviously, the key issue with all of this is that Dansby is likely to be a great player in 2023 — he’s been a great player for the last three years, even if last year was a career year — but he’s looking for a multiyear commitment, and it’s harder to say for sure whether he’ll still be excellent in four years’ time.
By Bill James similarity score, his most-similar batter is Marcus Semien, a better hitter and worse fielder who has already switched off the position.
(His next-most similar are Juan Uribe, J.J. Hardy, and Ian Desmond; Hardy and Desmond didn’t age well, but none of them really ever had a season as good as Dansby did last year. So they aren’t particularly useful for comparison.)
Another thing to mention briefly is his health. He played 160 games in 2021 and all 162 last year, which was significant, especially after his 2018 and 2019 campaigns were significantly marred by injuries, a torn ligament in his hand in 2018 and a foot contusion the following year. So it almost goes without saying, but his career year in 2022 was partly owed to his career-high in games played, as well. He’ll be 29 in three months, and he won’t play 162 games every year — and to preserve his health, his employer may not necessarily want him to.
What a winner looks like
Dansby’s teammates and coaches have been adamant that Dansby’s qualities go beyond the back of his baseball card. They are unanimous in praising his fierce competitiveness; basically, I think we can think of this as his makeup.
Dansby may slump at the plate for weeks on end as we’ve seen, but he’ll keep working hard and his confidence doesn’t outwardly seem to waver. He’s also outspoken about his faith, as well as about his journey to manage his anxiety and improve his mental health. If you listen to his closest colleagues, they think his intangibles are extraordinary, and that’s something we should bear in mind.
However, not all of his intangibles are positive. He is such a huge Duke basketball fan that, during his sophomore year in college at Vanderbilt, when the Commodores website interviewed him and asked where he would go if he were invisible, he answered: “Motivational speech by Coach K.” And he stated that the last book he read was “Toughness” by Jay Bilas. (His parents didn’t even go to Duke. They’re both Troy University Trojans.)
Anyway, Dansby Swanson is a World Series-winning shortstop, an All-Star and a Gold Glover. He grew up in Marietta as a massive Falcons fan: he bought a house near his parents back in 2017, shortly before his rookie year, and he installed some seats from the Georgia Dome. And he supports the other team, too. “I always, always, always cheer for the Hawks,” he told The Sporting News in 2019. “I’m Atlanta ’til I die.” Oh, and his dad’s name is Cooter.
Call me a chauvinist if you like, but if you ask me, a guy like that belongs in Georgia, not in San Francisco.
That said, as good as he’s been the last few years, it’s been a bumpy road overall. Coop was ready to give up on him until about 15 minutes ago, and he’s an extraordinarily streaky hitter. In particular, his May-August OPS is about 100 points higher than it is in the first and last months of the season. So he takes time to warm up, and by the end of the year it seems like he’s running out of gas. He almost certainly will sign an eventual contract for at least six years, and that will take him through age 35. What will that look like?
Well, I took a look at all of the shortstops who produced 15-19 WAR by the time they turned 28, for all seasons from 1871 to 2016.
(At first, I looked at at all of the shortstops who produced 13-17 WAR by the time they turned 28, for all seasons from 1871 to 2016, because it seemed like a good midpoint around Dansby’s 14.5 career WAR. But as I looked at the list, the players weren’t good comparables, and I realized that’s because Dansby’s career WAR would probably be around two wins higher had 2020 been a full season. So I upped the boundaries by two wins to compensate.)
The most recent are Erick Aybar, Yunel Escobar, and J.J. Hardy: Aybar collapsed after age 31 (as we all remember!) and so did Hardy; Escobar’s effectiveness was over after 30. Next is Jhonny Peralta, who played well through age 32.
The next name is the interesting one: Miguel Tejada. An MVP when he was 28, he remained one of the better players in baseball for the next four years, and was effective through his age-35 season. It may seem like his ceiling was higher than Dansby’s, but actually, given the different offensive environment and Dansby’s significantly better glove, they’re both basically 5-6 win players.
There are a couple of other good names in there — Davey Concepcion was effective through age 34, and so was Scott Fletcher, notwithstanding some ineffective and likely injury-marred campaigns in his early 30s, but he was a glove-first banjo hitter and never a star. The same was true of Bill Russell the Dodger, except that he made three All-Star teams despite not being able to hit. And Herman Long, the ancient Boston Brave, too, for that matter. Most of the rest never amounted to much after they left their 20s behind.
The biggest exception to the rule, and by far the best of the bunch, was Ol’ Aches and Pains Luke Appling, the pride of Oglethorpe University, a deserving Hall of Famer who was quite effective on both sides of the ball. Though it may be ironic for such a famous hypochondriac, his SABR biographer notes that Appling’s key was his durability.
Tl;dr: most of the shortstops with career accomplishments in the same range as Dansby started winding their careers down once they hit the wrong side of 30.
Of course, that’s true for a lot of other positions, too. This is basically the argument we have whenever we’re discussing whether any free agent is worth it. So, the question kind of goes back to whichever unfortunate soul has to write up the Where Do We Go From Here on the position of shortstop. Because the real question is:
What’s the opportunity cost of not re-signing Dansby?
Probably HUGE. Dansby is probably going to be worth ten wins for someone over the next couple of seasons, and if the team thought that Vaughn Grissom (or anyone else in the organization) even had a prayer of stepping in, they would have shouted it from the rooftops as a negotiating tactic to try to lower Dansby’s price.
Inexpensive options like Andres Gimenez and Tommy Edman are not going to be available at any price. Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, and Xander Bogaerts are available, but they will likely cost more than Dansby. And the Braves don’t have much prospect capital to make a Matt Olson-style trade. (The guy I’d love, if prospects were no object: Tim Anderson. A guy can dream.)
So, there aren’t any cheap external solutions and there aren’t any obvious internal solutions, barring something radical and borderline insane — like switching Ozzie Albies back to shortstop, a position he hasn’t played since 2016-17, when he switched to the keystone to accommodate Dansby.
I don’t think Dansby would give us a huge hometown discount, of the kind that John Schuerholz used to demand as a matter of routine. And loyalty is huge for him, and it goes both ways. When the Diamondbacks traded him, he took it hard. As his father explained to ESPN:
“Team is a big thing to our family,” Cooter says. “We all played team sports. When he was drafted by the Diamondbacks, we went out there, and they tell you what they want from you. Dansby is all in. If that’s what you want, and he fits that bill, he’s all in. As far as he’s concerned, he thinks he’s going to play for the Diamondbacks until he retires. So, it’s like a slap in the face to him. He’s very trusting, and all of a sudden that’s out the window.”
I hope the Braves don’t give him reason to start envisioning himself being elsewhere. For right now, his family’s here, his life is here, and his ring was won here. I think the Braves start the negotiations from a position of advantage.
But they also enter them with what feels to me like urgency. If you can figure out another All-Star shortstop we can get for less than $200 million, I’m all ears. Otherwise, I think we better bring back Cooter’s boy and make sure he stays in driving distance of State Farm Arena.
If we do re-sign him, though, I just have one question.
Dansby, why you gotta root for Duke?