Scouting Dansby Swanson Badly

I live in Portland, Oregon which is a beautiful city of rivers and mountains and beer and pine trees and beer. About the only thing it doesn’t have that I wish it had is professional baseball. The closest pro team is the Hillsboro Hops, the short-season Single-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and they’re about a half hour away by car. In case you are not familiar, here is a hop.

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That’s not a problem because a half hour isn’t a reasonable distance to drive for baseball. It is. It’s a problem in the general sense because a city like Portland should probably have more than a low Single-A baseball team. Then again, we’re all about to be swallowed up by the ground anyway so whatever.

But back to baseball! The lack of the sport here means there aren’t many opportunities to see a noteworthy game or related event. Wednesday night represented a departure from that norm. Dansby Swanson, the very first player selected in the most recent 2015 baseball draft, was going to make his professional debut and it was going to be with the Hops in Hillsboro. Yay Portland!

It was at this point that I thought, hey, I can watch Swanson in a scouty way and help inform not only myself but the readers of FanGraphs dot com as well. I get beer and a baseball game while, you, dear reader, get scouty-ish information on the top player drafted. That’s what we in the business call “a win-win.”

By way of catching you up on Swanson, here is what Kiley McDaniel had to say about him back in April.

Swanson was an advanced defender with a light bat in high school, then played second base his first two years at Vanderbilt and over the summers. Scouts got their first recent look at him playing short this spring and it still works. Swanson is a plus runner with fringy raw power and a strong 6’1/190 frame. He’s a contact hitter with more 10-13 homer power that wears out the gaps and would be a nice 6th-10th overall pick most years, but a high probability shortstop with some ceiling is hard to ignore in this draft.

Now back to me. I arrived, family in tow, at Ron Tonkin Field, home of the Hops, as the National Anthem was playing and had no trouble locating our seats. This is because the park contains not very many of them. When you’re used to a major-league stadium, finding six seats among 3,500 is like finding your bed in your bedroom.

Swanson started at shortstop and as the Hops were the home team, he was in the field first. This is where I tell you that in the six innings he played the ball was only hit to him twice. The first was a lazy pop-up to the lip of the outfield grass. He caught it easily with a nonchalant wave of the glove. The second came in the second inning. A ground ball was hit up the middle but well to the left of second base. It wasn’t exactly an easy play, but not quite approaching difficult either. Swanson half turned his hips and shuffled his feet, easily got in front of the ball, picked it, and threw over to first, showing off a strong arm.

Beyond that, Swanson never saw the ball outside of throwing it around after a strikeout or catching a ball tossed back in from the outfield. Once the left fielder raced back to catch a ball at the track, caught it, and tried to throw a runner out at second. His throw was a strong one but he had no chance to make a play and Swanson tried, rightly, to cut the ball off, but the throw was well over his leaping attempt to catch it.

With only two real chances to see him react to a play in the field it’s difficult to get a sense of how good Swanson is defensively. He seemed to have quick feet, and his practice throws before the start of innings had good zing on them. This does not differentiate him from many other players at the low Single-A level however.

We’re almost 600 words into this and I haven’t brought up Swanson’s hitting. If you’re a Swanson fan or a Diamondbacks fan or both, this, as you will find out, was nice of me. Swanson’s first day at the plate as a pro consisted of striking out twice and walking once. During all three plate appearances he faced left-handed pitcher Tayler Saucedo out of Tennessee Wesleyan University. Saucedo was himself a 2015 draft pick, though he was picked in the 21st round and received, as far as I can tell, a very modest bonus. Saucedo was throwing a high-80s fastball that occasionally touching 90-91, a high-70s off-speed pitch, possibly a curveball that didn’t curve much, and a low-80s-to-high-70s changeup. Sometimes the stadium gun would read Saucedo’s fastball as in the mid-to-upper 30s. Seriously.

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We’re going to assume that was a problem with the stadium radar gun and move on.

Here are Swanson’s plate appearances in sequence.

First Plate Appearance

From about 75 feet away Swanson didn’t look nervous. Nervous looks different for different people, so not being familiar it’s hard to say how he felt, but he didn’t look panicky. I’m sure he felt some twinge of a thought of “well, here I go!” or some tidbit of anxiety with the knowledge of what he was doing by stepping into the batters box, but if so he didn’t show it. He took his time to get into the box, with a few seconds dedicated to fiddling with his batting gloves, and then a tapping of the bat on the plate. Then he took the first pitch for a strike…

which I show you here for posterity’s sake. The rest of the at-bat was unremarkable save for the fact that it was his at-bat. During this plate appearance he only swung but once, a ball popped foul that went somewhere over the first base dugout.

The swing looked quick, with little weight transfer or leg kick. He simply shifting his weight forward as he swung. His bat looked fast on the few occasions I saw him use it. Then, on a 1-2 count, he took what appeared to be a change up for strike three. Oops.

Second Plate Appearance

Swanson’s second time up didn’t result in any better result for him, but it did for me! I learned you can get better video of a right-handed hitter from the first-base side of the field. Look at me being all scouty! Here is Swanson taking a breaking ball for strike one during his second time up.

One thing that was different about this plate appearance was that Swanson decided to swing the bat a bit more. He swung three times during this AB resulting in a foul (weakly grounded behind him) and two swings and misses. Alright, so that’s not really an improvement, but as your little league coach said, better to go down swinging than watch strike three go past. Why’d your coach say that, though? Who cares how you strike out? You’re out either way. Your coach was an idiot.

Third Plate Appearance

I’m honestly not sure if Swanson swung at all during his third at-bat. I do know I don’t have video of him doing so. He worked the count full in either case and then managed to lay off an offspeed pitch in the dirt that not even Pablo Sandoval would have offered at for ball four. It was a victory for Swanson who eventually came around to score the tying run, but not one that really showcased any ability. Maybe some plate patience, but even that wasn’t obvious as Saucedo’s command wasn’t there by that point.

I wanted to be impressed by Swanson. I wanted to see him standing out as a man among boys, to know by watching the tools on the filed that the shortstop was going to be a major leaguer and maybe sometime soon. Sadly none of that was on display Wednesday night. That night Swanson was just a medium-sized former college guy playing a baseball game. While he didn’t look out of sorts, distracted, outclassed, or like he didn’t belong, he did look like most of the other guys in low-A. That’s not to say he’s not the great prospect the Diamondbacks saw worthy of $6.5 million and the first pick at the top of the draft. He might be. He probably is. Sometimes, though, it just takes more than a day to show it.

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Well-Beered Englishman
7 years ago

At risk of repeating myself, I once again lobby that we, the people, refer to him with his first initial, thusly: J. Dansby Swanson.

As in, “J. Dansby Swanson, Attorney at Law”
Or maybe “pioneering 60s R&B legend J. Dansby Swanson”

Lloyd Christmas
7 years ago

Dansby Samsonite