Dansby Swanson is physically healthy, his wrist issues a fragment of the past. But his scorching start, and perhaps the best run of his career, is more attributed to his mental prowess.
Swanson’s first 13 games have conferred him as more than a defensive marvel. He’s had the walk-off single to upend Miami. He’s had the three-run blast lost in the Colorado sky. He’s had the surge of opposite-field power unprecedented in his life.
A distinguished defender, Swanson is making his mark on the other end.
“I think just the ability to swing at good pitches and put myself in position – not just hitters’ counts, but physically in position to see the ball, be able to trust my timing,” Swanson said of this season’s difference. “Just use what God gave me, the hand-eye coordination. I finally discovered what that looks like for me personally.”
The 25-year-old is hitting .293/.392/.659 through 41 at-bats. He leads the Braves with 15 RBIs, also good for fifth-highest in the National League. Always best in pivotal moments, Swanson has continued that trend: He’s hit .304 (7-for-23) with runners on base and .462 (6-for-13) with runners in scoring position, a tick up from his .286 career average in such situations.
Unlike the past, Swanson has concocted a power stroke. He’s already hit four homers (he had 14 last season). He became the first Atlanta-era Braves shortstop to hit three home runs in the first nine games.
“He’s been hitting the ball hard since spring training,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “He’s carried it into the season and he’s been getting huge hits for us.”
It’s been a rebirth for the No. 1 overall pick. He hit .302 across his first 38 games upon his promotion in 2016. His first full season was less spectacular, with the Cobb County native sinking from hyped cornerstone to a minor-league demotion after he hit .213 with a .599 OPS in 59 games.
Since he was recalled from that brief dose of the minors, Swanson has remained in the majors. He played better to finish 2017, but last season felt more of the same. Swanson hit .238/.304/.395 in 136 games. He missed the final week of the regular season and playoffs with a wrist injury which, as it turned out, had plagued him since May.
Criticism comes with the territory. Swanson is a high-profile local product who was sold as the future during a difficult stretch in franchise history. Thus far, checking his Baseball Reference page doesn’t do him justice. The early portion of his career needs context.
That’s what makes this trial so vital. The wunderkind is over any ailments, has enough major-league seasoning and is fully backed by his peers and the organization. The defense is elite. The speed is dangerous. And while the bat may regress to the mean, any semblance of his late production could make Swanson an All-Star caliber player.
Catcher Tyler Flowers, a fellow Georgia native, sees Swanson playing similarly as he did in 2016. He sees a player spreading the ball around the field, exhibiting a keen eye. Even more importantly, he sees confidence.
“He’s been great,” Flowers said. “Even spring training he got it dialed in. He’s in a good place mentally, and that’s really helping him have some good at-bats. I think he’s been great, and hopefully you guys (the media) don’t talk to him too much to mess him up (laughs).
“He’s seeing the ball really well. Laying off some tough pitches, swinging at good pitches, fighting, battling. It’s been fun to watch.”
When he’s on, Swanson is one of the more electrifying players on a Braves roster not lacking pizzazz. He flashed in spring, when he hit .353 despite getting a late start while recovering from wrist surgery.
Swanson doesn’t remember the exact moment the soreness went away. The team was careful with him, willing to wait out any discomfort to make sure he’d be ready for opening day.
“It was still a work in progress just because of the volume of everything I kicked up,” Swanson said. “There’s nothing you can do in rehab that prepares you for that much volume. Once the second or third week got going, and I was playing, I felt better. I started to feel like I was where I needed to be.”
It’s overreaction season, so one shouldn’t be chastised for still having questions. Swanson started well last year, interrupted by that infamously frigid April afternoon in Chicago. His first full-season was a dip from his initial taste of the bigs.
But this might be a different Swanson. The deck is stacked in his favor. He’s mastered the mental aspect, at least better than he has before. This Swanson could be the one advertised. It won’t be about maintaining his exceptional start, but more so in how he levels the peaks and valleys into consistency.
The defensive highlights will always be there. The furiously fast base runner will always be there. On offense, at least through two weeks, there’s reason to be optimistic.
“He’s seeing the ball, he’s having really good at-bats right now,” manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s playing really, really well.”
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