How Cubs’ Dansby Swanson developed his smooth and easy fielding style

In his short time with the Cubs, Swanson has a long defensive highlight reel.

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Cubs shortstop Dansby Swanson has elevated the team’s defense since signing this winter.

Cubs shortstop Dansby Swanson has elevated the team’s defense since signing this winter.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Dansby Swanson’s advice to young infielders runs counter to the most common coaching methods in youth baseball.

During infield drills, he’ll have them field fungoes on the run with one hand.

“It’s a confidence thing,” Swanson said in a conversation with the Sun-Times. “Because the more that you can play offense on defense, and go get the ball, and have confidence to go towards a moving ball and to catch it with one hand, the more plays you’ll be able to make.”

That’s how Swanson learned as a kid. Look at him now.

The Gold Glover’s defensive résumé was a big draw for the Cubs when they recruited him last winter and then signed him to a seven-year, $177 million contract. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer helped build the Cubs’ last championship team, which was one of the best defensive squads of all time. So when he was looking for a top shortstop to build around, Swanson was intriguing.

“You just see how easy he plays,” manager David Ross said. “One term I’ve used already is a ‘sleepy shortstop.’ Because it feels effortless, it feels fluid, it feels natural, there’s not a lot of anxiety in it for anybody. And so it’s just very comforting.”

Growing up, Swanson said he became “obsessed” with the video “Superstar Shortstops.” The VHS tape, which came out in 1999, featured Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, the “three-headed monster,” as Swanson put it, of the position in the late ’90s. It also covered the evolution of the position and highlights of some of the best shortstops of all time.

“I watched it every day as a kid,” Swanson said. “I grew up loving the game. I grew up loving what it meant to play shortstop, what that embodied. And defense was obviously a big part of that.”

Early on, molding Swanson into the kind of shortstop that would one day have a well-watched defensive highlight reel of his own was a family affair.

His father, Cooter, a former Troy University baseball standout, was the “baseball genius of the family,” as Swanson put it. He was the one who taught Dansby to catch the ball on the run. After school every day, Dansby would go to his grandfather Herb’s house and insist he hit him grounders.

Dansby’s mother, Nancy, who is in the Trojans’ Hall of Fame for her collegiate tennis and basketball career, coached him when he was about 7 and 8 years old.

“You can ask any of my friends, too,” Swanson said, “she was the scariest coach we all played for.”

Even before that, Nancy would roll a tennis ball to 5-year-old Dansby in the living room, a precursor to the fielding drills he still runs through as a part of his pregame routine.

Don’t misunderstand Swanson’s advice to the next generation. Fundamentals are the foundation of everything he does on the field. But the way he has approached defense his entire life lets him tap into his natural athleticism, rather than overemphasizing the “get in ready position and make an alligator with your hands” method.

When Swanson first started working with Braves third-base coach Ron Washington, who is renowned for his work with infielders, the drills reminded him of his mom’s living-room routine. Swanson brought Washington’s system with him to Chicago, where it has spread.

In a shortened version of Washington’s drills, Swanson starts on his knees with a small glove, working short hops in the middle, to the glove side and to the backhand side, always moving through the ball. Then he rises to his feet and puts on a pancake glove. He fields ground balls shuffling from side to side. The final stage brings in his normal glove, catching short-hops to both sides in a variety of positions.

Isolating glove work makes it second-nature for the infielder no matter where the ball is hit. That much is clear when Swanson slides into the 5-6 hole to field a grounder backhanded on one knee, a play that has garnered plenty of oohs and aahs already this season.

“That’s kind of always been my move,” Swanson said, “since I was a kid.”

In the past few years, though, his favorite play has become one that has nothing to do with sliding or diving. It’s charging a chopper in the hole, fielding it one-handed and throwing on the run across his body.

“I don’t like setting my feet very often,” he said. “If I catch the ball on the move, I like to just throw it on the move. I just feel more confident that way.”

PADRES AT CUBS

Tuesday: Blake Snell (0-3, 6.00 ERA) vs. Justin Steele (3-0, 1.44), 6:40 p.m., Marquee, 670-AM.

Wednesday: Michael Wacha (2-1, 7.08) vs. Drew Smyly (2-1, 3.13), 6:40 p.m., Marquee, 670-AM.

Thursday: Seth Lugo (2-1, 2.78) vs. Hayden Wesneski (1-1, 6.23), 1:20 p.m., Marquee, 670-AM.

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