Swanson slumping again as rookie’s difficult season continues

There haven’t been a lot of these celebratory moments for Braves rookie Dansby Swanson so far this season. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
There haven’t been a lot of these celebratory moments for Braves rookie Dansby Swanson so far this season. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

ANAHEIM, Calif. – When Dansby Swanson hit .302 with a .361 on-base percentage in 38 major league games late in the 2016 season, after coming directly from Double-A and only 127 games in the minor leagues, expectations naturally soared to unreasonable levels.

It didn’t help that his face was plastered all over billboards literally from the day he arrived in the majors, and that his presence became nearly ubiquitous when the team used him in so many promotions and ad campaigns during the offseason, spring training and right up through today.

But Braves officials — the ones in baseball operations, not marketing — and manager Brian Snitker and his coaches all knew that Swanson was not impervious to the turbulence that almost every rookie goes through. They knew there would be some rough patches for the photogenic, hometown shortstop this year in his first full season in the majors. And there certainly have been.

Take now, for instance. Dansby is slumping again. He’s 2-for-29 (.069) with one RBI, four walks (two intentional), five strikeouts and a .285 OPS in the past eight games, dropping his overall average to .185, his on-base percentage to .272 and his slugging percentage to an anemic .287.

“Young players struggle with adjusting to the adjustments made to them by the rest of the league,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said. “Talented players with character and makeup find a way to succeed, and we are confident that will happen (with Swanson).”

Swanson is 1-for-19 through the first six games of a three-city trip that continues Friday in Cincinnati. He also made an error in each of the Braves’ losses Tuesday and Wednesday against the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim, giving him a team-high 11.

“I knew there were going to be some growing pains,” Snitker said. “You’re not sneaking up on anybody anymore. Pitching coaches have video and plans and all that, they study, and that’s why I said, I didn’t expect the kid to come in and hit .300 every month. I knew there would be an adjustment period, like there is for most guys. Whether it be a pitcher, a position player, whatever.”

Swanson’s .185 batting average is the fifth-lowest among 173 major league qualifiers, and his .559 OPS is the third-worst. (Injured teammate Freddie Freeman’s 1.209 OPS is the majors’ best.)

“I think it’s just a combination of a lot of things,” Swanson said. “Last year, too, like, we were playing so well, everything was just flowing. It’s easier to play well when everyone around you is playing really well — it’s like you’re flowing right along.”

Swanson’s 2017 season has been divided into three distinct stretches of cold and hot offense, with significantly more cold.

In his first 24 games through May 1, he hit .151 (14-for-93) with three extra-base hits, five RBIs, six walks, 25 strikeouts and a .202 on-base percentage and .428 OPS. There were suggestions from many outside the organization that he should return to the minors for more seasoning.

Then, he suddenly started hitting as he did in his first big-league stint in 2016. In 17 games from May 2-22, Swanson hit .304 (17-for-56) with four doubles, two homers, 12 RBIs and a .414 OBP and .896 OPS. All was well. Braves Country breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The slumping Braves rookie has had an encouraging couple of games in the Marlins series including a two-out single Saturday that proved to the decisive RBI in a 3-1 win. (Video by David O'Brien)

But just as quickly as his bat heated up, it cooled again. Swanson has been hitless in seven of his past nine games.

“Everyone hopes that there’s never difficult times, but at the same time it’s foolish to think that,” Swanson said. “You don’t prepare to necessarily go through negative things. You don’t say, ‘Oh, I’m going to struggle this year.’ But there are times that you realize that the training and all the stuff you put yourself through will get you through these tough times. I’m surrounded by a lot of people that are willing to help.”

Considering his relative lack of professional experience — remember, he was playing at Vanderbilt University two years ago — it should probably not come as a surprise that Swanson is struggling mightily in his initial at-bats against a lot of pitchers, particularly those who feature a slider. His kryptonite to date has been the slider, and in the majors, teams quickly discover a player’s weakness and exploit it.

“There’s just getting accustomed to the league and knowing the league and facing major league pitching on a daily basis,” Snitker said. “I mean, the only way you do that and get better at that is to face (big-league pitching).”

In his first time facing any pitcher in a game, Swanson has hit .162 (18-for-111) with a .516 OPS. The second time facing a pitcher in a game, he’s hit .143 (6-for-42) with a .464 OPS. Third time, .348 (8-for-23) with an .848 OPS. And the fourth time, he’s 1-for-2 with a double.

Swanson has had a difficult time in the first five innings of games, going 10-for-93 (.108) with two doubles, two homers, seven RBIs, 14 walks, 27 strikeouts. But in the sixth through eighth innings — usually against relievers or a starter for the third time in a game — he’s 20-for-61 (.328) with four doubles, two homers, 10 RBIs, seven walks and 16 strikeouts.

“That’s one of the things other guys remind me of, too — that it’s pretty much the first time I’m facing this whole league, really,” Swanson said. “So to understand what their stuff does and how it plays differently than other people’s stuff, so that when you do get to see them a couple of times, your memory bank understands what their pitches do and things like that. So I think that’s part of it, when you’re able to recognize different pitches a little bit better and how they’re trying to pitch you and those kinds of things. I mean it helps the more times you see somebody.”

Another statistic that stands out is the counts in which he’s had success and those he has not. It’s pretty clear-cut: In 0-1 counts, Swanson is 5-for-14 (.357) with three of his four home runs. And in 1-0 counts, he’s also 5-for-14. That means he’s 10-for-28 (.357) with the count 0-1 or 1-0, but just 23-for-150 (.153) in all other counts.

“Being aggressive helps a lot with that,” he said.

In any count after 0-1, he’s 14-for-90 (.156) with seven walks, 32 strikeouts and a .214 on-base percentage. And in any count with two strikes, he’s 12-for-100 (.121) with 11 walks, 50 strikeouts and a .205 OBP and .345 OPS.

Pitchers who get ahead in counts against him aren’t having much trouble putting him away, particularly if they have a slider in their pitch repertoire.

“There are times (they’re focusing on throwing sliders),” Swanson said. “I think different situations, too, it just kind of depends on what point the game is at. If you’re up or down a certain (number of runs) they may not want to show you what it’s going to take to get you out and things like that. Mostly I’m just trying to do what I do best and do it better than what they do.”

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