The Month-to-Month Mystery of Dansby Swanson

The Cubs are unsure what they want to be. So is Dansby Swanson.

The Chicago Cubs have had an interesting season. An early season lull left them in a deep hole in matters of postseason prospects, but they rode a torrid second half to the middle of the playoff picture. More recently, though, they’ve trended back down away from contention. What seemed like a certainty just a couple of weeks ago is now a massive question. They’ll need a strong final two weeks to outlast some of their other wild card hopefuls.

Their overall trajectory is not all that dissimilar from their marquee free agent signing of last winter. Dansby Swanson, signed to a seven-year, $177 million deal in December of ’22, has had his moments. While he’s excelled defensively — to the tune of the best metrics of any big league shortstop — he’s gone through waves offensively. At times, that contract has seemed like a steal. Other stretches, though, have been more laborious for him at the dish.

Monthly Mysteries

The following represents Swanson’s month-to-month splits throughout 2023:

  • April: .286/.412/.347/.759, .061 ISO, 22.7 K%, 17.6 BB%, 120 wRC+
  • May: .248/.315/.469/.784, .221 ISO, 21.0 K%, 8.1 BB%, 111 wRC+
  • June: .261/.327/.413/.740, .152 ISO, 22.8 K%, 7.9 BB%, 103 wRC+
  • July: .259/.328/.519/.846, .259 ISO, 34.4 K%, 8.2 BB%, 125 wRC+
  • August: .184/.264/.398/.662, .214 ISO, 28.2 K%, 10.0 BB%, 77 wRC+
  • September (through 09/18): .258/.343/.409/.753, .147 ISO, 20.3 K%, 8.1 BB%, 101 wRC+

Altogether, Swanson has gone for a slash of .249/.329/.421/.750, a .172 ISO, and 105 wRC+. His 24.3 K% sits just 33rd percentile, while his 10.4 BB% is in the more respectable 75th. Underneath the surface of each month, though, there’s a lot to pick apart.

April looks great. Despite a total power void, Swanson was constantly on base. Interestingly, this came despite a ground ball rate near 55 percent and his lowest HardHit% of any month this season (29.6). But he somehow emerged with a .386 BABIP, which left it as his most productive month.

July is perhaps his most interesting month, though. A .259 average is almost directly in line with his career average, while he showcased power at a higher rate than any other month by a wide margin. Was he selling out for power? It’s possible, considering the ballooning punchout rate.

Trouble with the Curve Offspeed

Pitch selection could bear a large amount of the responsibility for Swanson’s variability between each month. Throughout his career, Swanson’s best contact has come against fastballs. Not unusual for a hitter, obviously. His 2022 season was, arguably, his best. That year he swung at fastballs at a higher rate than any other pitch type. From 2018 to now, the gap in hard hit rate and slugging against fastballs vs. all other pitch types is massive for Swanson. We’re talking 15-percent-higher-than-other-pitch-types-at-minimum massive.

It certainly begs the question, then, as to why Swanson is spending so much time hacking at other pitch types. Especially considering 2022’s outcomes with fastballs as his swing focus. But Swanson has spent more time this year swinging at offspeed stuff. Seven percent more time, in fact, against other pitch types. Hard hit and slug, however, are at his lowest against offspeed pitches. April and July, in particular, don’t feature any hard hit contact to speak of against that pitch type.

His 46.3 GB% is easily his highest since 2017. His BABIP is almost 40 points lower than it was in ’22. Certainly not a coincidence. In working with his highest GB%, we can also lay the blame at the feet of offspeed swing rate. Offspeed stuff has been responsible for more groundballs than any other pitch type. Also not surprising. But in every month where Swanson struggled to elevate, offspeed pitches were right there slapping him in the face. This included a month of April where he hit an absurd 100 percent of offspeed pitches on the ground.

So, there’s clearly something here in regard to Swanson’s approach. We’ve seem him go hunting for fastballs in the past. And while Swanson has been reasonably patient this year (4.01 P/PA), the selection appears to be a central issue feeding into his variability.

Breaking Bad, Also

It’s not as if Dansby Swanson’s aggressiveness on the offspeed is solely responsibility for his 2023 inconsistency, though. Breaking pitches also represent a sore subject if Swanson is to get his game on track down the final stretch.

There are three months this season in which offspeed pitches have represented Dansby’s highest whiff rate: April (57.5 percent), August (45.9), and thus far in September (25.8). The whiffs transpiring in the other months in between? You guessed it. Breaking pitches represented Swanson’s highest Whiff% in May, June, and July, including a 43.6 percent clip in the latter month.

It’s not as if there’s any production to speak of that helps to compensate for the whiffs there, either. Those issues present against offspeed stuff are just as present with the breaking pitches: minimal hard contact, minimal slug, and high rates of the wormburner.  Ultimately, Swanson’s swinging at a higher rate of breaking pitches outside of the strike zone than the other two pitch types. And this is occurring at his highest rate against that pitch type since 2017. When you’re trying to level out your offensive production, it’s not what you want.

Swing Fast, Swing Furious

Overall, 2023 is not a far cry from where Dansby Swanson typically performs at the plate. The cumulative figures do illustrate a downward trend from his final season in Atlanta (2022), but the line and wRC+ align closely with his overall production over time. On the positive side, he has walked more and struck out a touch less this year. On the negative, he’s putting the ball on the ground quite a bit more and making BABIP work for him less as a result.

The easy fix? Become more aggressive on the fastballs. Swanson only has one month this season where fastballs have represented his highest volume of swings. That came in July. What else happened in July? His highest power output that fed into his most productive month of the year.

It’s not a mystery. Swanson’s best offensive season came when he was aggressive on the fastball. Last year’s swing rate against the hard stuff was not only his highest against the three pitch types, it was his highest against that pitch type in any season of his career (53.7). It’s where Swanson needs to be if he’s going to close out the year on a high note and lead the Cubs to the competitive October situation which he so vocally desires.

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. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

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