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Slump busted? Cubs' Dansby Swanson mashes homer, flashes leather

Jared Wyllys Avatar
May 5, 2024

Headed into Sunday’s game against the Brewers, Dansby Swanson was in a particularly tough stretch in what has been a slow start to the season as a whole. He had a .170 batting average over the 15 games leading up to Sunday, and Swanson committed a rare throwing error that contributed to a loss during the series in New York against the Mets and missed fielding a few ground balls in this weekend’s series that he can usually be counted on to make.

Better things might be on the horizon, however. In Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Brewers, Swanson showed signs on both sides of the ball that he is poised to break out of the slump he’s been in for most of the season thus far.

“A lot of the season hasn’t been my best, and today was just kind of like a ‘Be aggressive, go get it’ kind of mentality, and that carries over offensively and defensively,” Swanson said.

The standout in Sunday’s box score is his sixth-inning home run — the first Swanson has hit since April 24 — but he also made multiple Gold Glove-caliber plays at shortstop. In the first inning, Swanson helped turn a run-saving double play that kept the Brewers from jumping to an early lead.

“The play in the first, it’s a really big play,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “You keep runs off the board, don’t feel like you’re playing from behind. They got a good pitcher on the mound, the wind’s blowing in today, so it’s tougher to score. It’s a really big play.”

But even when he’s not hitting, Swanson can almost always be counted on to supply good defense. That’s why the errant throw earlier in the week and a couple of misplays Saturday are an anomaly, not cause for long-term concern. His performance at the plate so far this season has merited closer attention, however.

Going into Sunday, Swanson was getting noticeably less hard contact in exchange for much more soft contact at the plate compared to last season. He had a hard-hit rate of 35.1 percent and a soft contact rate of 12.1 percent in 2023, but through just over 130 plate appearances this year, Swanson’s hard-hit rate has dropped to under 30 percent, and his soft-contact rate is up to 17.1 percent, his worst since his 2018 season with Atlanta.

With a hitter like Swanson, getting him back on track can be a tough job. He has a long track record and knows himself as a hitter well, so there isn’t the same level of guidance and instruction that might be necessary for a younger batter. Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly said, over the last couple of weeks, working with Swanson has involved a lot of leaning on his mental strength.

“That’s one of the things that separates the really good players from someone like the average players, is they’re able to just keep that mental side of it so strong,” Kelly said. “His mental makeup is incredible. He’s confident. He stays confident. He knows that each day is a new day and that he has some way to impact our team, whether it’s on defense, offense, or just being the personality and the leader that he is. So, we just kind of draw off of that from him daily.”

Kelly said a batter like Swanson is almost never going to make major adjustments to his approach at the plate. Getting out of a slump is mostly a job of making sure he’s in line with what has worked for him at the plate in the past and making small tweaks to help him keep producing at the level he expects.

To help Swanson get out of this slump, they have watched video of at-bats from past seasons, reflecting on what Swanson felt and thought during those plate appearances, Kelly said. In some instances, he’s pulled up a playlist of Swanson hitting a bunch of home runs.

“We’ll do that with our guys quite a bit where it’s like, ‘Hey, this is you,’” Kelly said. “’That name on the back of the jersey is still the same.’”

Watching old video has to be done with caution, Kelly said, because it can sometimes be a trap. Swanson might be able to watch a bunch of old at-bats from a past season, but recreating everything about his approach in those situations is never possible. 

“A lot of times your body’s just different, right?” Kelly said. “You’ve gone through things over the past couple years. Maybe you’ve played 10 in a row or 11 in a row. Your legs aren’t feeling right. And during that time you were really fresh. There’s key markers that we’ll look at that are really stable with a lot of guys.

“But you can’t recreate the feel. You can’t put yourself in that exact moment again of what your mechanics felt like or what your approach was like. I mean, sometimes they were facing a sinkerballer and you’d seen a bunch of sinkerballers that week. So maybe your approach was a little more right center and that got you locked in. 

“There’s just so many factors that go into trying to recreate a feel from two years ago.”

The key markers, according to Kelly, are things like stride length and height and watching out for small issues like what he calls “chasing shape” in pitches. That can take the form of a batter seeing a lot of breaking pitches and subconsciously changing his posture in anticipation, for example. Something as subtle as leaning slightly forward in the batter’s box can impact a batter’s swing path enough to make hitting pitches the way he used to a lot more difficult.

Swanson’s home run in the sixth inning Sunday doesn’t necessarily mean he’s out of the slump, but there are other signs he is trending in the right direction.

He had a 109.3 mph exit velocity on the homer in the sixth inning, but Swanson generated a lot of hard contact in his other plate appearances. His eighth inning flyout to the outfield left his bat at 101.1 mph, and his softest contact of the afternoon, a liner to third base in the fourth inning that turned into a double play, had a .530 xBA (expected batting average). On Friday, he had a flyout with a 99.8 mph exit velocity and .510 xBA.

Even moments like those, when he hits the ball hard but it doesn’t show up in the box score, are confidence boosters. Swanson described it as feeling like, “Oh my gosh, there I am,” and those times have been valuable during a tough first month of the season.

“Sometimes you may not be getting hits,” Swanson said, “but you’re getting pitched super tough, and you just have to keep a little perspective and continue to stay committed to what it is you’re working on [and] not let one at-bat bleed into the next 50. Just continue to go day-to-day, and I think things work out pretty well when you do that.”

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