Three Cuts: Braves turning to organization’s young arms during division race

The light-hitting defensive shortstop is not a unique development in baseball. Since the turn of the millennium alone, 29 qualified shortstops have finished a season hitting at least 25 percent below league average while posting a defensive WAR of 10 or higher — and names like Alcides Escobar, Adam Everett, Elvis Andrus and Julio Lugo prove teams can reach the World Series stage without an overwhelming offensive threat at short. 

The last few years have felt like a shift, though.

For the past two Octobers, two-way stars Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa and Corey Seager played for championships and the fourth shortstop of the bunch, Addison Russell, owns 9.2 career wins above replacement (and counting) before his 25th birthday. The current 2018 World Series favorites in Vegas feature Lindor, Correa, Russell, Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts and Didi Gregorius at short.

Dansby Swanson could become the 30th player on that aforementioned list.

The 24-year-old’s offensive numbers have plummeted since his red-hot start. His overall slash line reads like gas prices in various parts of the country. Thirty-two extra-base hits mask his walk and strikeout rates trending in the wrong directions. And if he can not halt this season’s trajectory — he was slashing .217/.279/.353 for 60 weighted runs created plus since May 1, the eighth-lowest mark among qualified players, before a very strong day at the plate in the Brewers series finale — he could end up matching last year’s disappointing performance at the plate.

One cause for Swanson’s struggles? A strength has been completely taken away. 

The right-handed former No. 1 overall hit well against left-handers in his first two seasons, posting an OPS over 1.000 against southpaws in 2016 and approaching the league average with a .741 OPS last year. In a limited sample size, that has not been the case this season (per FanGraphs):

2016: 164 wRC+

2017: 90 wRC+

2018: 53 wRC+

If pitch selection in the 87 plate appearances this season offers any hints as to the drop-off it’s that lefties are reading the scouting reports.

Opponents are staying down away — emphasis on away — and cutting down on four-seam fastballs. Left-handers threw Swanson four-seamers on 31.5 percent of pitches the previous two seasons, but that’s been lowered to 26.7 percent in 2018. There’s also been a notable decline in curveballs. Stepping into that void: Sliders and two-seam fastballs, pitches featuring both movement and velocity. Left-handers threw Swanson 41 sliders total in 2016 and 2017, but he’s already seen 64 this season, likely due to his 31 percent whiff rate against the pitch when thrown by southpaws. 

Swanson’s numbers were better against left-handers every year and at every level prior to this season and there’s plenty of noise in a small sample that small, but there also appears to be a blueprint out there that he has yet to solve, one that’s trickled over from right-handers to left-handers.

Mitigating all of this is the fact that Swanson has improved dramatically with the glove. If he hadn’t, he likely would not be seeing regular playing time given the production of Johan Camargo and Charlie Culberson. Instead, Swanson ranks among the top 10 shortstops in defensive runs saved, defensive WAR and ultimate zone rating. He’s a plus glove at a premium position, which continues to buy him starts for an organization emphasizing defense.

The question will be, if his difficulties continue this month, how this coaching staff and front office evaluates the opportunity cost of not making a waiver deadline move, calling up top position prospect Austin Riley and shifting Camargo to shortstop or simply giving Culberson more at-bats. (More performances like Sunday’s will certainly make the decision easier.) By no means is this suggesting the franchise should “give up” on a 24-year-old former top pick under club control for the extended future, it’s merely a recognition of how priorities can shift during a playoff race.

Adam Hagy

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