I love Jarrod Dyson’s story.
Fiftieth round draft pick. The 1,475th player selected in the 2006 draft. He opened his career with the Royals Rookie League club in Arizona and hit .273/.358/.373 as a 21 year old in his first taste of pro ball. A raw talent with speed to burn, Dyson glided through the Royals system. A ball in 2007. Double-A in ’08. Triple-A called in 2009 and 2010. He got the call to the majors when rosters expanded in September of 2010. He got a few starts, played decent defense, stole a couple of bases and was largely overmatched at the plate.
He seemed destined, in a best-case scenario, for a role as a fourth outfielder. In fact, I remember arguing he was surplus to requirements on the Royals. He would be better utilized on a team with true outfield depth where he could act as a late inning defensive replacement or a pinch running assignment sprinkled among a few spot starts here or there. The Royals of 2010 (and 2011 and 2012) were not that team.
But the Royals love their athletes and that, ultimately, is what Dyson is. He’s a supreme athlete.
Four years after his debut, Dyson was a key component to the Royals march to the AL title.
Baseball is kind of like that.
As the 2015 looms on the horizon, Dyson again looks to be cast in the role of the fourth outfielder. Alex Gordon is the mainstay in left. Lorenzo Cain has center. And the Royals didn’t give $11 million to Alex Rios so he could sit on the bench. But at this point in his career, Dyson has evolved from a fringy speedster on a second division squad to a legitimate asset on a team with sights on October.
As a hitter, Dyson lacks the discipline at the plate to be a consistent offensive threat. His career walk rate is 8.8 percent (and has declined in each of the last two seasons.) He should be north of 12 percent if he was to be an effective leadoff man where he could use his speed tool with abandon.
When he puts the ball in play, it’s on the ground roughly two-thirds of the time. That’s an excellent ratio for Dyson. Again, it’s all about leveraging his speed. He lacks even gap to gap power, so if the ball is going in the air, odds are strong it will settle in a defender’s glove. On the ground, his legs give him a chance. Over 11 percent of his hits last summer stayed on the infield. That was just a shade under his career infield hit rate of 12 percent. From Texas Leaguers, here is Dyson’s spray chart from 2014:
A cluster of bunt hits down the third base line, a few “tweeners” on the right side and some grounders up the middle. His game is about singles, so when he’s in the lineup, he’s practically the conductor of the Royals Singles Train.
Here are the top five outcomes of a Dyson plate appearance in 2014:
Groundout – 25.2%
Single – 20.3%
Strikeout – 18.1%
Flyout – 8.7%
Walk – 7.7%
The above totals add up to 80 percent. Meaning four out of five of Dyson’s plate appearances end in one of five ways. I haven’t crunched the numbers, but that seems like a thin cluster outcomes. I’d wager most players are around 70-75 percent on their top five outcomes. (I did a quick check and Alex Gordon is at 75 percent. So is Lorenzo Cain.) This isn’t an indictment of Dyson’s offensive game. Just an observation. These are the most common outcomes for most players. Baseball is a game of failure, right? It just so happens that Dyson’s cluster of outcomes is a little more narrow than the average batter.
Let’s just get one thing out of the way: Dyson’s offense is not good. His slash line of .269/.324/.327 doesn’t profile as a mainstay in any lineup. His wRC+ was 85 in 2014, just a couple of points above his career average. Now we don’t have the same kind of sample size for Dyson as we do a guy like Mike Moustakas, but Dyson has been very consistent offensively over the last three years. He is who he is with the bat. A singles hitter who doesn’t take enough walks to play everyday.
The thing with Dyson is once he gets to first base, if second base is open, he’s going for it. I mean really going for it. Singles and walks can turn into doubles and triples, which can turn into runs. Such is the Royals mantra. This is Jarrod Dyson. And that’s what speed do.
We all know Dyson is a burner. But he truly leverages his speed. Last year, Dyson took advantage of stolen base opportunities more than any runner in baseball. Baseball Reference defines stolen base opportunities as a plate appearance where the runner was on first or second with the next base open. Makes sense, right? Dyson, according to BR, had 116 stolen base opportunities. He ran on 43 of those, a rate of 37 percent. Basically, if he had the chance, he was running a little more than one-third of the time. That’s a massive amount of stolen base attempts given the opportunity. That made him the most likely runner (minimum of 100 opportunities) to attempt to swipe a bag in the AL last summer. By far.
Wow. Seven percentage points ahead of the runner with the second highest stolen base attempt average. And 14 percentage points ahead of fifth place. That is impressive.
Not only was Dyson running often, he was effective swiping that bag. His success rate on steals last year was 84 percent, swiping 36 bags in 43 attempts. The accepted baseline for stolen base success rate is 75 percent. Below that, you’re hurting your team. Above it and you’re helping. If you’re nearly 10 percentage points above it… That’s exceptional.
There can be no question; the speed is a weapon. And it seemed like Ned Yost figured the most optimal way to deploy this weapon late in the year and throughout the postseason. Dyson appeared in 120 games, made it to the field in 108 of them and started 66 times. That’s about the perfect mix for a player of Dyson’s skill set.
Of those 108 games he made it to the field, he patrolled center in 106 of them. According to the Fielding Bible, Dyson saved 14 runs in center. That’s an amazing number of runs saved for a part-time defender. He ranked fifth among all center fielders in runs saved! Apologies for the exclamation point, but damnit, that deserved one. He was in the field for 678 innings, or less than half of the innings the Royals played defense in 2014 and the guy still was the fifth best defender according to the Runs Saved metric. Let that soak in for a moment.
Dyson does it by making the plays he should make. Here’s data from Inside Edge on Dyson’s range in center field.
Broken down into raw numbers, Dyson made over 99 percent of the “routine” plays and over 93 percent of the “likely” plays. My eye tells me he doesn’t always run the best routes, but his speed makes up for an error in judgement from time to time. The guy is a damn good defender. Also, his arm is above average for a center fielder. I think that took some fans by surprise given his build and makeup as an offensive player. You know, slight, fast guys aren’t supposed to have strong arms. They’re supposed to be more Johnny Damon and less Alex Gordon. Either way, his arm has been an underrated aspect of his defense.
With Lorenzo Cain a better all around player than Dyson, it makes sense to start him ahead of Dyson. I absolutely loved how Yost used Dyson in center in late game situations, moving Cain to right. Loved it. In a single move, he upgraded his defense from really good to freaking amazing. An outfield of Gordon-Dyson-Cain is without a doubt the best defensive outfield in the game.
Dyson is the fourth player I’ve profiled who is eligible for arbitration. He asked for $1.6 million. The Royals countered with $900,000. Major League Trade Rumors estimated he would earn $1.3 million. With a midpoint between asked and offered at $1.25 million, it stands to reason this case won’t go to a hearing the and the sides will be able to settle. Dyson’s defense alone is worth millions, but arbitration hasn’t evolved past the counting stats like home runs. Steals just aren’t as impressive. Neither is his role as a fourth outfielder. Dyson was worth 3.1 fWAR last year, which Fangraphs calculated as worth nearly $17 million dollars. Yeah, that’s not a typo. Nearly all of that value comes from his base running and his glove.
It will be interesting to see how the Royals use Dyson in 2015. I’ve heard rumblings the Royals think enough of Rios in right, they won’t lift him for a defensive replacement late in games. That’s disappointing for a couple of reasons. One, Rios has been worth negative runs saved in right the last two seasons, indicating a loss of range with his age. And two, because when you have a defensive weapon on your team like Dyson, it’s incredibly wasteful if he spends his time on the bench. He won’t provide near as much value if he’s only called upon as a spot starter and occasional pinch runner. He needs to get on the field as often as possible, without exposing his bat. That’s why he’s the ideal fourth outfielder.