Braves’ Dansby Swanson’s career hasn’t been a total swing-and-miss

Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson throws his helmet after striking out April 11 at Truist Park. Gauging Swanson’s value never has been easy. His career hasn’t borne out his draft station, but he has been a solid player. (Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Combined ShapeCaption
Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson throws his helmet after striking out April 11 at Truist Park. Gauging Swanson’s value never has been easy. His career hasn’t borne out his draft station, but he has been a solid player. (Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

As of Thursday evening, the Braves had played 14 games. Dansby Swanson had struck out in all of them. Dating to the end of last season, he has whiffed in 17 consecutive games. This is not yet close to an MLB record, of which Aaron Judge and Bill Stoneman are co-holders. Each whiffed in 37 consecutive games. Stoneman was a pitcher. Judge is not.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Braves

Carping about strikeouts is a 21st century sign that you’re old and crabby. Everybody strikes out now. The Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman struck out twice against the Braves on Tuesday. (Yes, that was a weird sentence to type.)

Swanson leads the majors with 22 K’s. Joey Votto, once a great hitter, has 18. Adam Duvall, again a Brave, has 17. So does Shohei Ohtani, reigning American League MVP. So does Josh Donaldson, bringer of rain.

On the day Judge’s whiff streak ended in 2017, his OPS was 1.013. He already had made an All-Star team. He would soon be named rookie of the year. He finished second in MVP voting. His Yankees carried the Astros, deep into the dark art of trashcan-banging, to a Game 7 in the ALCS. He finished second – to Votto – among MLB players in wins above replacement.

Striking out doesn’t make you a terrible hitter. What makes you a terrible hitter is not hitting. Swanson’s OPS – that’s on-base percentage plus slugging – is .432, which is indeed woeful. His career OPS is .722. FanGraphs assesses his Weighted Runs Created Plus at 31. Among qualifying MLB hitters, that’s 15th worst. The average WRC+ is 100.

ExplorePhotos: Braves' Max Fried dominates Dodgers

Disclaimer: Even great hitters can catch a bad start. After 14 games in 2021, Freeman’s batting average was .200. (Swanson’s is .143.) Freeman finished the season at .300. The 2022 Braves have 148 games remaining. We know from history that Swanson’s slumps tend to be pronounced. He was hitting .213 when demoted to Gwinnett on July 26, 2017. He returned soon. He has been the starting shortstorp since.

Swanson has never been an All-Star – he might never be an All-Star – but fills a key position on one of MLB’s best teams. Spotrac estimates he’ll make $10 million this season. He can become a free agent in November.

In January, ESPN’s Buster Olney rated baseball’s top 10 shortstops. Swanson didn’t make the list, nor was he included among six honorable mentions. Four All-Star shortstops – Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor and Trevor Story – have changed teams and/or signed new deals since the truncated 2020 season. Those contracts total $911M. Their annual asset value is $31.4 million.

Seager and Lindor are 28. Story is 29. Correa is 27. We tend to think of Swanson as one of the younger Braves, but he’s 28. He’s their oldest – by 46 days over Matt Olson – starting infielder.

Were Swanson going to become a great player, he’d be one by now. This doesn’t mean the Braves won’t try to keep him. He’s a solid defender who has delivered his share of big hits. They know they can win a World Series with him.

It would be difficult to upgrade over Swanson. Trea Turner figures to be available after this season, and Xander Bogaerts might be, but each would want his $30M per annum. And yet: Would it be possible to re-sign Swanson without overpaying?

His career WAR is 8.6. The WAR of the four shortstops who recently re-upped mentioned above ranges from Correa’s 34.1 to Seager’s 21.6. Would Swanson agree to remain a Brave for $12M per year? For $15M? Oh, and there’s this: He’s represented by Excel, same as Freeman.

Gauging Swanson’s value never has been easy. His career hasn’t borne out his draft station. Off the top of my head, I’d deem him a pretty good player – not awful, not great. (This assumes he won’t continue to strike out every game.) That might be enough for the Braves, who have more than a few players with higher ceilings.

I go back to what a baseball man said of Swanson in 2018: “To me, he’s Blauser.” That sounded like, and might have been meant as, a putdown. Except that Jeff Blauser was twice an All-Star. His WAR through his age-28 season was 14.0. He wasn’t the best player on the mighty Braves of the ‘90s, but he was among the reasons those Braves were mighty. That can stand as a charitable description of what Swanson has become.