Projecting Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves Cornerstone

Last night, Dansby Swanson, 2015’s first overall pick, debuted for the Atlanta Braves. After destroying High-A pitching to the tune of .333/.441/.562 in April, Swanson spent 84 games at the Double-A level. He hit a less exciting, but still respectable .261/.342/.411 at the latter stop.

During his brief stay in the minors, Swanson didn’t stand out in any particular area offensively, but was better than average across the board. He posted a healthy 11% walk rate this season, a .151 ISO, and made enough contact (recording an 18% strikeout rate) for it not to be a concern. Even his 13 steals indicate a guy who’s fast, if not exceptionally fast.

Swanson is a good hitter, but his bat alone doesn’t make him a particularly exciting prospect. What really sets him apart is that he’s a good hitter who also happens to play a mean shortstop. Eric Longenhagen noted yesterday that he thinks Swanson will be a plus defender at short. The data support that observation. In just 105 minor-league games at short this year, he’s been a +19 defender according to Clay Davenport’s model.

My KATOH projection system projects Swanson for 5.6 WAR over his first six seasons by the traditional method, which makes him a top-40 prospect. KATOH+, which integrates Baseball America’s rankings, projects him for an exciting 11.8 WAR, which puts makes him a top-15 prospect.

To help you visualize what his KATOH projection entails, here is a probability density function showing KATOH+’s projected distribution of outcomes for Dansby’s first six seasons in the major leagues.


To put some faces to Swanson’s statistical profile, let’s generate some statistical comps for the giant outfielder. I calculated a weighted Mahalanobis distance between Swanson’s High-A and Double-A performance and every season at those levels since 1991 in which a shortstop recorded at least 400 plate appearances. In the table below, you’ll find the 10 most similar seasons, ranked from most to least similar. The WAR totals refer to each player’s first six seasons in the major leagues. A lower “Mah Dist” reading indicates a closer comp.

Please note that the Mahalanobis analysis is separate from KATOH. KATOH relies on macro-level trends, rather than comps. The fates of a few statistically similar players shouldn’t be used to draw sweeping conclusions about a prospect’s future. For this reason, I recommend using a player’s KATOH forecast to assess his future potential. The comps give us some interesting names that sometimes feel spot-on, but they’re mostly just there for fun.

Dansby Swanson’s Mahalanobis Comps
Rank Name Mah Dist KATOH+ Proj. WAR Actual WAR
1 Troy Tulowitzki 0.78 11.9 28.6
2 Asdrubal Cabrera 0.98 8.6 13.3
3 Royce Clayton 1.18 10.7 13.6
4 Reid Brignac 1.45 11.5 1.7
5 Aaron Hill 1.61 7.7 13.7
6 Joe Thurston 1.62 6.0 0.2
7 Pokey Reese 1.84 8.6 6.4
8 Erick Aybar 1.87 12.5 14.4
9 Alcides Escobar 2.11 11.0 10.8
10 Nomar Garciaparra 2.21 15.5 32.8

Given his skills, there’s little reason to think Swanson won’t ultimately be a successful big leaguer. But it’s less clear he’ll be up to that challenge right now. His numbers in Double-A have been closer to good than great, and have actually been pretty mediocre in recent weeks. Over his last 20 games, Swanson hit just .244/.333/.333.

This kind of feels like a rush job. Steamer projects Swanson for just a .242/.300/.362 (76 wRC+) batting line from here on out, which feels about right based solely on his minor-league stats. For anecdotal evidence, look no further than Swanson’s top Mahalanobis comp — Troy Tulowitzki — who put up a ghastly 46 wRC+ as a September call-up following his Swanson-esque season.

At the same time, though, a seamless transition to the big leagues from Swanson wouldn’t be unprecedented. Hanley Ramirez and Manny Machado had similar track records when they were first promoted, and both hit the ground running. Top prospects’ tools have a habit of coalescing into on-field performance in a hurry, and the Braves apparently think Swanson is almost there. I guess we’ll see if they’re right.

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Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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Concerned Reader John
Concerned Reader John

I can’t help but think of Brandon Crawford when I read about Swansby (I admit I don’t watch much Braves AA baseball), a plus defender with an average to above-average bat (and similar ability on the basepaths). Maybe not the most exciting cornerstone, but an immensely valuable player. If his bat can improve beyond that, he’s a 6-8 WAR player.


Also the hair.


Was Crawford’s bat ever thought of as good as a prospect? His minor league numbers were pretty awful. Crawford has just taken the immensely unlikely path of improving at the plate every year after getting called up.