This tool helped Swanson accelerate return to Cubs

July 27th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian’s Cubs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CHICAGO --  was finally feeling improvement with the pesky left heel issue that landed him on the injured list, and the Cubs shortstop had just about enough of watching games from the dugout. He decided it was time to put in a request with assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington.

“I went up to J-Wash during one of the games,” Swanson said, “I told him that I felt like I could push myself offensively, just in terms of in the cage with hitting off the machine.”

Swanson wanted to get back on the field as swiftly as possible for the Cubs, who are in the midst of a crucial stretch of games ahead of a Trade Deadline that will define the direction of the final two months. He was activated on Saturday after missing more than two weeks with the issue, and has hit .438 (7-for-16) with a two-homer game (Tuesday) in his first four games back for Chicago.

Rather than embarking on a Minor League rehab assignment, the shortstop wanted to up the volume and intensity of the hitting work behind the scenes. It was a way to expedite his return to the field once his heel was cooperative.

Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly said one approach the hitting group took was to have Swanson get in a pile of swings using Driveline Baseball’s “smash factor balls.” The training balls are softer, but can mimic the movement and speed of real baseballs, and the impact generates needed feedback minus the same physical toll.

“They have a really good flight, just like a four-seam fastball,” Kelly explained. “And they have a little bit of variance in horizontal -- east and west -- movement. So, it's a really true spin of a pitch. And they can take a lot of swings at a high velocity.

“When he was actually ready to get back and we were able to ramp things up, I think it just kicked him into another gear. And challenging him was awesome.”

Swanson said the sessions also included ramping up the pitch speed higher than normal.

“It’s not going to be a feel-good session,” Swanson said with a smirk. “But, it’s important to do things faster than what you do in the game, so that the game, at best, can feel a little bit slower.”

The early returns require the small-sample disclaimer, but Swanson has logged a 1.375 OPS out of the chute since being activated (and that includes Wednesday’s 0-for-5 showing). His first homer on Tuesday against the White Sox came against a fastball from Michael Kopech that was 3.77 feet off the ground, per Statcast. That was the highest pitch the shortstop had ever hit for a home run in his career.

It was a sign that the rapid-fire ramp-up helped Swanson swiftly regain his timing, even without live at-bats.

“Hitting is so much about just being ready to hit, being on time and in a good position,” Swanson said. “Whenever you hit pitches like that -- which, it was a pretty good pitch -- it kind of is that immediate feedback of, like, ‘I’m doing the right things.’”