At no point last season did Dansby Swanson fling his helmet across the dugout in disgust, or scream something at the first person who asked, “What’s wrong?” or make an obnoxious technicolor mess of the post-game buffet, even though he, like most mortals, probably had a “little Dansby” on his shoulder saying, “Do it!”
Because that just wouldn’t be him. And so, he internalized all the stresses of the season. The mounting losses, the personal failed expectations in his first full season in the majors, the local-boy-does-faceplant narrative. The frustrations built up, somewhat like a pressure cooker.
But Swanson, who strives to go through life like a thermostat stuck on 72 degrees, never let it show. In retrospect, maybe that was part of the problem.
“My biggest thing – and sometimes it can be a flaw – is I just try to be the same person every day,” the Braves’ shortstop said. “Sometimes when you’re struggling and things aren’t going your way, you put a lot of energy into just trying to make sure you’re true to what you believe in. It can be tough.”
So one can imagine how all the other external pressures – playing professionally in his hometown, the first-year struggles and the team’s overly aggressive marketing campaign – only made things worse, even if Swanson was determined to never let it show.
“It all builds, one thing on top of another,” he said. “Everything can lead to something else, you know? Like a chain reaction. But there’s always learning experiences and learning curves. You never really know until you go through all of that stuff. The next time something happens, you know how to handle it. That’s the point I’ve gotten to this year.”
This story has a happy ending. Or at least a happy new beginning.
Swanson went into Tuesday’s game against Philadelphia with a .339 batting average (20-for-59). He ranks among National League leaders in hits, average and doubles (seven). He’s batting .520 (13 for 25) with runners on base – up from .238 in 2017 – and .615 with men in scoring position.
He is the same guy. But he is a different guy.
We’ve picked over the ugly details of last season enough. Suffice to say, hitting .232 is not what he nor anybody anticipated after a 38-game cameo at the tail end of the 2016 season that saw him hit .302 and fulfill every meteoric expectation that had been set. The front office saw him as a potential star on the field and box-office ignition off of it going into the first year at SunTrust Park.
New ballpark. New beginning. New hometown hero. It was too easy.
“Like I told him when he came in, ‘Well, I saw your billboard on the way in on I-85,’ and he hadn’t even been here yet,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Billboards, sides of buses, bobbleheads ...”
Not part of the plan.
Snitker sees a confident player now. Last year, he saw one caught up in a relative typhoon.
“I think he didn’t have an understanding what he was in for -- maybe he thought he did, but he didn’t, physically or mentally,” Snitker said. “You never really know until you experience that first full year. He’s more well-versed and better equipped now for anything. You could tell at spring training, he just knew what he was getting into. He came to camp in a good place. It’s like he was on a mission.”
Everybody fails. Everybody reaches that crossroads at some point. But not everybody has it happen so early in their career, nor on a public stage against the backdrop of so many blowtorch idiots on social media.
The fact Swanson has rebounded says something about not only his talent but his makeup.
“No one wanted him to have that year last year, but it’s only going to make him better moving forward,” Freddie Freeman said. “He knows how to deal with failure. He’s put that behind him and he’s having a great year so far.”
Swanson returned to Nashville after last season. He took a week or so to decompress, did some traveling, then returned to begin his offseason workouts. It was as much about mind as it was body.
He relied on old friends and mentors to help fix whatever was wrong, whether it was his workouts, his body position or his approach.
Team Swanson included Chris Ham, an assistant strength coach for the Vanderbilt baseball team, Josh Tubbs, another Vanderbilt assistant, and James Beavers, his former high school and summer league baseball coach “who probably knows me better than anybody.”
What did they change?
“It was all stuff I used to do,” Swanson said. “It just all kind of got away from me.”
Physically or mentally?
“Both,” he said. “When you can combine the two during workouts, it puts you in a better place. I didn’t transform anything -- that would be one of the dumbest words to use. They were just little baby adjustments. You’re never as far off as you think.”
He’s having more fun now. The Braves are off to a pretty good start, and so is he.
Asked if the game ceased being fun last season, Swanson responded, “It got old, not performing the way I thought I could perform.”
It’s early. There will be slumps. But now there’s positive evidence of how well Swanson can respond to failure, and that sound you hear around the Braves is a collective exhale. No walls were punched during this learning process.
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