When I posted about the Dansby Swanson signing on social media I said the seven-year $177 million deal was very reasonable, dare I say, “intelligent spending,” given the shortstop market we’ve seen this year. One of my friends, Cubs fan James Lockard, summed it up even better when he replied “I guess, but it still feels like buying a Prius when everyone else around you are getting Ferraris.”
James is absolutely right. In a season where most of the major market teams are making 10-plus year commitments north of $250 million to some of the biggest stars the game of baseball has, the Cubs did the sensible thing. They made an entirely reasonable deal, for a very solid player. Make no mistake, Swanson makes the Cubs a lot better than they were when Danny and I were Hoyering Our Way to Existential Dread on Cuppa Cubbie Blue last Thursday:
But Swanson is the responsible move in a sea of big investments in generational talent. That might wind up being the right move in the end, but it’s most likely that the teams who invested in Ferraris are going to outrace the Cubs to the playoffs, at least in the short-term. Let’s take a look at the numbers behind the signing.
I’ve spent more than a few hours trying to figure out if Dansby Swanson is a good hitter and after all of that time, the closest I got was that Dansby Swanson was a good hitter last season and in the shortened 2020 season, but beyond that I’m not sure. Take a look for yourself:
Dansby Swanson Offensive Stats
Swanson has had two full above-average seasons at the plate according to wRC+ and both of those seasons occurred in the last three, sandwiching an almost exactly league average season in 2021. For purposes of looking forward, more recent seasons are more predictive than earlier seasons, so that is good news. Additionally, it’s good news that his best season was not the juiced ball season in 2019. However, he’s also had three other seasons with more than 500 plate appearances and a below average wRC+, Swanson’s true value probably lies somewhere between his best and worst seasons.
His walk rate and K rate have both trended slightly in the wrong direction over the course of his career, although whatever changes he made at the plate appear to have come with more power, so that’s probably a tradeoff the Cubs will take. That said, striking out one of every four plate appearances while walking less than 8 percent of the time isn’t exactly great. You can see where Dansby’s 2022 would have ranked among the 2022 Cubs by K rate below:
2022 Cubs w/ Swanson by K Rate
Swanson’s 2022 results honestly look like what Cubs fans are hoping for from a full season of Seiya Suzuki, and that is certainly the high end of what Cubs fans should hope for, but it is worth noting that is his career season. There is a reasonable argument to be made that a .348 BABIP is an unsustainable outlier in Swanson’s career. Davy Andrews at FanGraphs made precisely this argument as he tried to unravel the Swanson riddle earlier this offseason:
At the plate, it sure looks like Swanson’s success in 2020 and ’22 was tied to some luck on balls in play. Much of his increased value came from keeping his production consistent in 2022’s tougher offensive environment. However, his contact profile provides some reason for optimism:
Despite a slightly lower barrel rate, Swanson’s career-best hard-hit rate and exit velocity make his BABIP seem a bit more sustainable. His fly balls aren’t suddenly going for home runs at an exaggerated rate. He’s largely done this by getting better at what he was already good at: crushing fastballs. Swanson has always punished four-seamers, but his hard-hit rate on them has climbed to 62.3%, just outside the top 10. The real area of concern is his plate discipline:
You should really check out the whole piece, but the upshot is clear — Swanson crushes fastballs and his hard-hit rate improvement in 2022 is good news. That good news needs to be tempered with realistic expectations given that his two strongest seasons are clearly BABIP outliers. Additionally, he has more swing and miss in his game than the best hitters in the league, which could impact his ability to replicate that career year.
It is worth taking a look at his 2021 and 2022 Statcast profiles next to each other, because while the 2022 profile has a lot of red, well, it tips into blue pretty fast:
Don’t get me wrong, 2021 Swanson would still be an upgrade over the players the Cubs used at 2B last season, but well, it’s just not very clear if the improvements Swanson showed in 2020’s shortened season and his breakout 2022 are sustainable.
At least one analyst I trust believes in the breakout, Ben Clemens at FanGraphs looked at Swanson’s ZiPs projections and percentile outcomes going forward. Again, you should check out the whole piece, but this is encouraging:
The above comparisons to (José) Iglesias and (Andrelton) Simmons might make sense from a total offensive contribution perspective, but Swanson is nothing at all like them at the plate. He’s not a slap-hitting contact fiend; he’s basically the opposite of that, in fact. For the past three years, he’s been stinging the ball on contact, posting barrel rates above 10% in each year, ranking in the top 15% in the game. Some of that is because he puts a ton of balls into the air — you can’t get credit for a barrel if you don’t hit it in the air — but he also makes a lot of loud contact.
Over the years, Swanson has gotten better and better at getting to his power. That’s how you end up with a higher isolated power in 2022, the year of the new dead ball, than in 2019, the peak of the rabbit ball era. He’s hit more home runs in his past two seasons over a combined 1,349 plate appearances than in his previous 2,038 plate appearances in a higher-offense era. Group 2020 in with New Dansby, and that’s 40 homers in his first 1,774 plate appearances followed by 62 in the most recent 1,613 trips to the plate.
ZiPS buys into Swanson’s newfound pop, projecting him for a slugging percentage nearly 20 points above his career mark in 2023. It sees him roughly the same way I do, as an above-average bat despite his early-career struggles:
I admit, these ZiPS percentile projections for 2023 had me substantially happier about this signing than I was when I was commenting on it here last week:
Even if those top 40 percentile outcomes don’t come to fruition, Cubs fans should be optimistic about Swanson joining the Cubs for his defense, which has consistently been a plus element of his game (although, again, 2022 was clearly an outlier). With Swanson at shortstop, Nico Hoerner presumably moves his defense to second base, and honestly, who wouldn’t want the top of this leaderboard up the middle for a few years?
Let’s complicate this a little bit, though. If you dig into the direction of the outs above average Dansby and Nico have saved, you’ll see most of them came to the right. In Dansby’s case, he was pretty neutral to his left and back. Nico is better to his left, but worse in the hole. I think they are both solid defenders, but it’s worth noting that Nico could actually be the better overall defender at short. Let’s also take a look at some other leaderboards, first up, fielding metrics from FanGraphs:
SS Defensive Metrics 2022
By FanGraphs’ overall defensive metric the Cubs now roster the first and fifth best defensive shortstops in baseball from last season. If you prefer defensive runs saved, Nico is tied for fifth, while Swanson is tied for 8th (still solid).
That said, there are some red flags lurking under the surface, and those red flags are immediately visible in this Statcast arm strength leaderboard:
2022 SS by Arm Strength
|Name||Total Throws||Max Arm Str||SS Arm Str||Inf Arm Str||Overall Arm Str|
|Name||Total Throws||Max Arm Str||SS Arm Str||Inf Arm Str||Overall Arm Str|
|Bobby Witt Jr.||613||94.6||87.4||88.4||88.4|
Forgive the very long table, it’s necessary in this instance, because among all shortstops who had at least 300 throws from their position, Dansby Swanson had the weakest overall arm in that cohort. He threw a full MPH slower than the next worst, the Cardinals’ Tommy Edman. We can look at this data a slightly different way thanks to Statcast visualizations:
When I run that same data with fewer throws the only players around Swanson are Dylan Moore and David Fletcher, two guys who are not seeing a lot of playing time at shortstop because they are naturally second basemen. For reference, Nico Hoerner sits at a solidly middle of the pack 85.3 mile per hour average. Put a slightly different way, Nico’s average arm strength sits at the 51st percentile, according to his Statcast player profile, while Swanson is in the 13th percentile. One last caveat, if you look at the graphic above, you can see that Swanson’s maximum arm strength is much closer to the upper end of the graph. It’s possible he’s just not maxing out on every throw, but it’s worth keeping an eye on, because I imagine the Cubs will want the stronger arm at short over the long term and to my eye that is currently Nico.
It’s impossible to tell the real story of this contract without looking at a market that has shifted substantially this year. Whether you prefer MLB Trade Rumors contract estimates or the crowd-sourced variety at FanGraphs, both have been low this offseason. They’ve been low in years, they’ve been low in AAV, they’ve just been low. So they only way to really judge this deal is in the context of the rest of the market. To capture this I created a table with the key offensive and defensive stats above from 2022, plus contract details:
2022 Big 4 SS and Nico
|Nico Hoerner||135||517||10||20||5.4%||11.0%||.129||.300||.281||.327||.410||.320||106||2.3||6.0||85.3||13||14.3||4.0||Arb 1||~2.8|
Looking solely at 2022, it really seems like the Cubs got quite the deal on Swanson. The best overall player from 2022 signed for the lowest AAV and fewest number of years. To understand why the market didn’t love Swanson as much as it loved the other three shortstops I expanded the number of years for this table to look at the same players since 2018 (obviously, Nico started playing in 2019, so his PAs are much lower):
The Big 4 SS & Nico 2018-22
|Nico Hoerner||895||13||28||6.7%||13.1%||.108||.308||.277||.333||.385||.313||98||0.1||21||85.6||30.6||6.4||Arb 1||~2.8|
One note here, the Statcast arm strength data only goes back to 2020, so it is averaged over three seasons rather than five. However, the rest of this data clearly indicates why Swanson was available for so many fewer years than the other big four shortstops. Over the last few seasons he’s been a glove first, league average bat. The Cubs might still take that, particularly with a pitching rotation that is built on contact, but if those upside ZiPS projections come to fruition, it’s possible the Cubs got the best deal of the lot here and they won’t have to worry about having this deal on their payroll after 2030.
Last week when Carlos Correa signed, I wondered what type of horrific reception awaited Cubs ownership and the front office at Cubs Convention in January given their body of work during the offseason to date.
If the Jed Hoyer and Tom Ricketts walk into Cubs Convention with their current body of work from this offseason they are going to get booed louder and longer than Elon at the Chappelle show, and they will deserve every second of it.— Sara Sanchez (@BCB_Sara) December 14, 2022
With the Swanson signing, I think Tom Ricketts, Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins have avoided that worst case scenario, but my friend James’ comment still sticks with me: they opted for the Prius while their peers opted for Ferraris.
This is the largest deal that Jed Hoyer’s front office has inked during his time in charge, and it’s just really not that big of a contract relative to the rest of the league or the Cubs monetary might. It doesn’t crack the top ten in MLB in years or AAV. It is the second largest deal in the history of the Cubs franchise, and it is nowhere near the top 20 contracts as of 2021, let alone ever.
Cubs fans should be excited that Swanson immediately makes the team better defensively up the middle, and likely improves them offensively as well. However, it’s more than reasonable for fans of one of the priciest baseball experiences in the league to wonder when (if?) their team will ever finally flex that financial muscle to sign elite players.