Two Ways Dansby Swanson Is Being Pitched Like a Slugger

Dansby Swanson is dapper. Dansby Swanson is exciting. Dansby Swanson should have great plate discipline and a good hit tool. And Dansby Swanson is a major leaguer. These things are all true. Dansby Swanson may also be a slugger in the future, but he’s not yet. That’s weird, though, because he’s being pitched like a slugger in two key ways.

It’s early going, of course. And things will change. But let’s see where Swanson would sit right now on a couple lists, if he qualified. Look at his percentage of first strikes.

First-Pitch-Strike Percentage
Name First-Strike Percentage
Dansby Swanson* 48.7%
Bryce Harper 50.3%
David Ortiz 50.8%
Gregory Polanco 51.4%
David Freese 52.6%
Brett Gardner 53.0%
Brian McCann 53.8%
Danny Espinosa 53.8%
Carlos Santana 54.0%
Charlie Blackmon 54.1%
Qualified batters with Swanson added.

He’s not getting first-pitch strikes right now. Oh, and he’s not seeing many four-seamers, either:

Four-Seam-Fastball Percentage
Name Four Seam Fastball Percentage
Dansby Swanson* 25.8%
Marcell Ozuna 29.4%
Marwin Gonzalez 29.6%
Marcus Semien 29.6%
Kyle Seager 29.7%
Kendrys Morales 29.9%
Danny Valencia 30.2%
Mark Trumbo 30.2%
Salvador Perez 30.9%
Rougned Odor 30.9%
Qualified batters with Swanson added.

It’s weird. The batter to whom Swanson is most similar in these two regards is Brian McCann, who’s right behind Odor on the four-seam fastball list. Brian McCann is a patient slugger! Dansby Swanson is just a baby, man.

I asked the 22-year-old about this statistical anomaly, and he laughed. “That’s a funny breakdown, I wouldn’t have pieced that together without you saying that,” he told me before a game against the Giants. He agreed that it seemed intuitive that a young hitter would see more fastballs early on until he proved he could hit them, a fact that’s mostly backed up by the data, but he didn’t know why he wasn’t getting the normal treatment.

He only had a couple ideas for the reasoning behind pitchers giving him a free ball and avoiding the four-seam. “Part of it is just who I’ve seen,” he thought, though he’s seen quite a few different pitchers by now. “I’m also hitting in front of the pitcher. They’d like to see if I’ll get myself out first, and if I’m on, they can get the pitcher.”

That seems possible, but it’s not really how it plays out in the National League. Check out the first-pitch and four-seam rates by batting order in the table below. With the help of Jeff Zimmerman, we’ve taken the pitchers out, so don’t focus too much on that ninth spot.

First-Pitch and Fastball Percentages by Batting Order
Batting Order Fastball% F-Strike%
1 65.4% 55.7%
2 64.8% 54.9%
3 62.5% 53.9%
4 61.6% 53.3%
5 62.2% 54.3%
6 62.8% 54.7%
7 63.4% 55.0%
8 64.4% 56.1%
9 68.6% 59.8%
National League teams, with the pitcher subtracted.

It looks like the trend is clear. As you get closer to the pitcher, you see more fastballs and more first-pitch strikes, not fewer. Well, more correctly, as you get further from the middle of the order, you start seeing those things. So Swanson’s limited diet of fastballs and first-pitch strikes isn’t because of his spot in the batting order.

Whatever it is, it’s not really changing the batter’s approach much, yet. He’s known as having good plate discipline, and he’s generally been taking the first pitch. He’s swung at 24% of the first pitches he’s seen, which is pretty much the median in baseball in any given year. He’s profiting off of the free ball one he’s gotten 50% of the time so far.

As for the lack of fastballs, this mimics something he already saw when he got to Double-A. “So many breaking balls,” he agreed, but not necessarily because he couldn’t handle it. Those pitchers just had better command of their breaking balls, so they threw them more.

His response to the lack of fastballs and first-pitch strikes will be the same it has been so far. “Learning how to stay within yourself and doing what you do best well, and not worrying about what they’re going to do,” is what he’s trying to do now. “Focus on yourself and keep your preparation in mind. Being clear in the head.”

If that sounds like he won’t keep track of the breaking-ball percentage he’s seeing, you’re right. “I’m a thinker so I don’t want to overthink,” he laughed. “If you think, it’ll distract you and just take you away.” Especially since this could all change in another two weeks.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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5 years ago

The whole batting 8th thing makes sense, especially since he’s already probably one of the better 8th hitters in the NL.

5 years ago
Reply to  mcescher

I’ll attribute it to batting eighth, but not because I think he’s a good eighth-place hitter (yet). I think it’s the combination of batting eighth and the fact that pitchers don’t know what he’s about, yet. There’s no “book” on him, and as a rookie with the pitcher behind him, they’re just seeing if he’ll chase bad pitches.

5 years ago
Reply to  mcescher

Batting ahead of the pitcher only occurs about twice per game. Typically, the third time through the order the pitcher is replaced with the best available hitter. The way the table is presented implies that the pitcher is always in the batting order.