Dansby Swanson’s Meaningful Big League Path

Dansby Swanson is an All-Star, but the path to get there wasn't easy.

As the first-overall pick in 2015, Dansby Swanson knows a thing or two about expectations.

Such a status has no nuance to it. No gray area. It’s black and white. If you’re taken no. 1 overall, you’ve got to develop, and quickly. If not, the labels come. It doesn’t matter the sport or league. That inflexibility exists across the athletic spectrum.

What’s interesting about that concept is that Major League Baseball’s draft isn’t like any other in sport. It’s interesting in that the expectation doesn’t change, but the timeline does. In the NFL, top picks are inserted into starting lineups almost immediately. The same largely goes for the NBA.  Does the fact that it’s likely going to be at least a couple of years before we see a draft’s top selection enhance or ease some of those expectations? If you’re ending up in the back of the fans’ collective minds until your eventual call-up? Maybe. It probably doesn’t matter.

What does matter is the perfect confluence of events that occurred 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 donning All-Star regalia 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 so much about how to view development as it exists in baseball.

 

The Slow Road of Development

 

The Arizona Diamondbacks selected Dansby Swanson no. 1 out of Vandy. By 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 has, of course, ended up a disaster for the Snakes. But that doesn’t mean moving from a team stuck in contention purgatory to last year’s World Series winner was a cakewalk for Swanson.

Despite being drafted in 2015, Swanson was taking hacks at the Major League level by the next year. Across 145 plate appearances, he reached base at a .361 clip 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, by way of the latter stat. His wRC+ totals ran 63, 79, and 91 through 2019. It was a gradual improvement but also speaks to the potential rush that occurred in jumping up the minor league ladder as quickly as he did.

As much as it was impossible to take anything away from the 2020 sprint of a season, that year represented something of a threshold for Swanson. While he did demonstrate marked improvement across three full big league seasons, the skill set changed for Swanson at that point.

Strikeout rate jumped. Walk rate dropped a touch. His Swing% rose and his Contact% dropped. But in 2020, he was an above-average performer. And in 2021, he fell just slightly below the average baseline set forth by wRC+ (98). We saw less of the contact-oriented approach and more power. He posted ISO figures of .190 and .201. He elevated the ball far more. That evolution brought us to the 2022 season that has resulted in an All-Star caliber performer in Dansby Swanson.

 

Harnessing Greatness

 

Swanson leads qualifying shortstops in fWAR this season (4.3) on his way to obliterating his previous career-high (3.4). The ISO is in line with the last couple of years, and he’s 82nd percentile in Barrel%. In addition to the offense, the defense has been elite. Swanson’s nine Outs Above Average are a career-best thus far, in addition to his Defensive Runs Saved of four. But the numbers aren’t necessarily the most important thing here.

What is first important to note is that the development hasn’t been anything close to linear. Swanson has flashed, stepped back, and flashed again. He’s struggled at the plate and in the field. Even as a no. 1 pick, there wasn’t 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 down the road (Alex Gordon, anyone?). What Swanson shows us about development is just how much there is that isn’t quantifiable. Especially when you factor in the mental side and accompanying expectations of being a top draft pick.

The path here has been uneven from a performance standpoint. Even the start of his 2022 All-Star campaign featured a .213 average and 80 wRC+ in April. But what makes Dansby Swanson such an important face in baseball is his vulnerability. As such, this isn’t totally a collection of words about Dansby Swanson as a stat sheet, but also about Dansby Swanson as a human.

 

The Internal Struggle

 

There isn’t any doubt that sport, at any level, has an issue with mental health. Baseball is, quite obviously, no exception in this regard. What sets Swanson apart from his athletic compatriots is his willingness to be open about the struggles he’s experienced on the mental side.

These are conversations that need to be happening. Sure, there’s an increased awareness of the problem itself, but it needs to go deeper than that. Dansby Swanson’s willingness to talk about that side of the game doesn’t only make him engaging, it makes him — and his path to Los Angeles — of paramount importance.

When I was with SBNation’s now-former Beyond the Box Score, I wrote this on baseball’s mental health crisis:

The nature of accessibility in baseball has changed. In order to have the shot you desire, you need funds and you need time in an almost unlimited quantity. Young athletes are burning out at the high school level or even earlier. Any sign of injury or mental weakness is not only meant to be frowned upon, but it’s meant to be exploited by your competition or, worse yet, your coaches. Youth sports are obviously a separate issue in this discussion. But the root of the issue is there. The culture is toxic. You can play through the pain. And you sure can’t show emotion. That’s weakness. The coaches will tell you. Your teammates will tell you.

Sports are hard. Baseball is hard. Having to climb the minor league ranks while simultaneously combatting a myriad of factors — inside and out of the game — is among the toughest physical and mental tests that the world of athletics has to offer. While Swanson’s story likely isn’t super unique, his new status as an All-Star and his prior commitment to discussing mental health make him notable. Because we know about him, and we’ve seen him under the microscope since 2015.

This is why the nuance matters. In a number of respects. Consider the factors that a Major League draft pick or international signee must stare down upon their arrival in an organization. You’ve got likely at least a couple of years developing within the system. You’ve got the expectations, the performance, the injury, and, in the case of so many, the financial struggle, on top of whatever else. It isn’t a straight path in performance alone, and it isn’t one that doesn’t come at a price. Swanson’s path to the bigs is able to show us a number of those avenues that can befall even the highest caliber of prospect.

This isn’t enough space to have the conversation that needs to be had. But Dansby Swanson represents a door. Better yet, Dansby Swanson represents two doors. One opens to a discussion about our understanding of how prospects develop from an athletic standpoint. The other to mental health and its massive role in the world of sport. Right now, it’s an Alice in Wonderland situation. The door is a bit too small to fit through. Dansby can be the first sip of the potion to send us farther into the abstract.

 

Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Matt Fletcher (@little.gnt on Instagram)

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. A former high school English teacher, Randy now works in the corporate world and resides in Arizona.

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