With another season having come to another merciful end, there’s a lot we can take away from the last six months. What looked in March like a promising up-and-coming farm system is now generally accepted to be the best in the game. Zack Greinke declined; Joakim Soria didn’t. Kila Ka’aihue restored his luster; Alex Gordon didn’t. Mike Aviles impressed, then he didn’t, then he did again. Wilson Betemit exploded out of nowhere; Brian Bannister shriveled into irrelevance. Yuniesky Betancourt improved from being an all-out disaster to…well…something less than an all-out disaster.
And most importantly, the Royals finally, belatedly started clearing house; by the end of the season Kyle Farnsworth was blowing leads and Rick Ankiel was striking out in Atlanta, Willie Bloomquist was dispensing his winning attitude on an actual winning team in Cincinnati, and Jose Guillen was hitting into rally-killing double plays in San Francisco. The future looks brighter today than it did in March, and frankly looks brighter than it has in seven years.
But the present is as grim as always. The Royals won 67 games this year, compared to 65 last year, and even that overstates their progress. The Royals have scored fewer runs this year (676) than last (684), and allowed more runs (845) than last (842). Soria’s superhuman season helped the Royals convert a slightly worse run differential into a slightly better record.
There’s a lot to ponder about the Royals’ performance this season. But over the last few weeks, I’ve spent more and more of my time thinking about a specific player, a player who until he was called up four weeks ago I had hardly thought about at all.
The first time I gave Jarrod Dyson serious consideration for even a moment was last winter, when I asked Trey Hillman at the Winter Meetings manager press conference whether there were any minor league players he was looking forward to having contribute at the major league level in 2010. Granted that none of them were quite ready yet, but I figured he’d mouth a few platitudes about Mike Moustakas or Eric Hosmer or Mike Montgomery. Instead he mentioned just one player – Jarrod Dyson, who was coming off of a season in which, at the ripe age of 24, he had hit .258/.331/.319 in Double-A.
That seemed…odd. I could make a cheap crack at Hillman’s expense here, but it’s not like Hillman was scouting Northwest Arkansas games while managing the team in 2009. (Although if he was, that would explain a lot of things…) No, it was clear that as an organization, the Royals were enamored with this speedy old outfield prospect with absolutely no power. The question was why.
Fast-forward through 2010, when Dyson missed the first half of the season with various injuries. He then returned and sped through some rehab stints – hitting .520 in rookie ball, .327 in Wilmington, .240 in NW Arkansas, with a lot of steals and not much else in the way of secondary skills. He made it to Omaha in late July – just a few weeks before he turned 26 years old, mind you – and hit .278/.327/.349. He did steal 13 bases in 46 games, and he did hit the first home run of his five-year professional career. (It hit off the top of the wall, and bounced over, for a grand slam.)
He was promoted to the majors on September 6th, and over the next two weeks played sparingly. In his debut, he pinch-hit and walked; in his second game, he pinch-ran and immediately stole second base. He did start on the 18th and get three hits, making him 5-for-14 in his brief career.
On September 21st, I got an email from a long-time contact of mine, a long-time Royals fan with a scouting background – let’s just call him Amateur Scout Guy, or ASG. ASG used to correspond with me years ago, primarily to let me know that I was vastly overrating Prospect X and that Pitcher Y was an arm injury waiting to happen. He didn’t impress easily. He was also usually correct.
I hadn’t heard from ASG in years, but something mildly disparaging I had written about Dyson caused him to reach out to me. “I saw Dyson in NW Arkansas and also in Omaha this year, and I gotta tell you... he is legit. I like him decidedly more than [Derrick] Robinson, and I will bet you Dyson plays a lot more for the MLB club than Robinson ever does. I thought he was fantastic - espec. his CF defense. His arm, speed, and CF defense ALL were clearly better than Robinson for me, and I think he'll hit and walk as much or more than Robinson as well.”
ASG was making a presentation for the defense in the case of Sabermetrics v. Jarrod Martel Dyson. The defense was helped when, that night, Dyson went 3-for-4 with two doubles. Four games later – he hit his first major-league home run, and this once cleared the right-field fence cleanly.
Of course, in the three games in between, Dyson went 0-for-14. I felt compelled to respond on behalf of the prosecution. “So please, if you can, explain to me this: why I should believe that Dyson can be the Royals' everyday centerfielder next year, given that he has no power (last night notwithstanding), he doesn't hit for much average, and he's too old to improve much more?
“I'm not saying you're wrong - on the contrary, he's opened my eyes with his speed and defense to the point where I'm willing to have my mind changed. But you can't just explain away a five-year track record.”
ASG conceded nothing. “Dyson will be a top-15, maybe a top-10 (he would be in my top-10) prospect in a loaded Royals system, the best in the game. Top-100 for BA? No, but he’ll play more MLB games than 20-30% of the top-100 will. Sure, if he was 22 or 23, BA and everyone else would be all over him. But he’s not, and yet that’s got nothing to do with his ability and tools. I am telling you, at this point, I am convinced the organization believes much more strongly in Dyson than they do in Robinson. No doubt in my mind whatsoever. Robinson is 22 years old, so… get my point?
“…I really believe in the CONCEPT that there are some ultra-athletic – but raw – position players who can come very quickly, put it together very fast.”
Obviously, we have a disconnect here. The stats say Jarrod Dyson is a poor man’s Joey Gathright, or (as I compared him to before the season) Endy Chavez: a player with top-of-the-line speed and defense, but below-replacement-level hitting skills. The scouts – or at least one scout – thinks that Dyson’s numbers are a reflection of his inexperience playing the game, and that – even at age 26 – he is poised to take a giant step forward and become a quality everyday centerfielder in the majors.
I don’t doubt ASG when he says that “the organization believes much more strongly in Dyson than they do in Robinson.” This is, after all, the same organization that believed much more strongly in Jason Kendall than in John Buck, and in Mike Jacobs over Kila Ka’aihue. You’ll have to forgive me for not putting much stock in the organization’s opinion.
That said, I made it a point to watch Dyson as much as possible in the season’s final weeks. And I saw enough to understand why a scout would believe his eyes over a lyin’ stat sheet.
It’s not just that Dyson has speed to burn, though he certainly does. I don’t have the scouting bonafides to throw an “80 speed” label on a player, but if he’s not an 80, he’s at least a 75. He’s clearly the fastest Royal since Gathright. In 305 minor league games – basically two full seasons – Dyson stole 131 bases, at an 80% success rate. In just 14 starts and a handful of late-inning appearances with the Royals, Dyson stole 9 bases, and was caught once. The dude is fast.
But it’s not just his speed on the bases that is so enticing. It’s that he makes such good use of his speed in the outfield – he gets a quick first step, and accelerates rapidly. Again, I’m not comfortable calling him an “80 glove”, but I think it’s fair to say he’s a 70 – a plus-plus centerfielder. The only Royal outfielder in the last 15 years who put his speed to such good use defensively was Carlos Beltran.
On Monday, September 27th, in just his eighth start in the majors, Dyson recorded 10 putouts in centerfield – tying the Royals’ franchise record for putouts by an outfielder. Granted, there’s some luck in having that many flyballs in your vicinity in one game, but it says something that the record he tied was shared by Amos Otis and Beltran, two of the four elite defensive centerfielders in Royals history. (The other two would be Willie Wilson for a stretch in the early 80s, and Brian McRae for a stretch in the early 90s.)
In 129 innings in center field, Dyson had a range factor of 3.49, meaning he recorded 3.49 outs per nine innings. I’m fairly certain that no centerfielder in history has ever had a range factor of 3.49 for a full season. (Anything over 3 is Richie Ashburn/Willie Mays/Andruw Jones territory.) The advanced metrics are similarly gushing about Dyson’s defense; Total Zone ranks Dyson as 3 runs above average, and Baseball Info Solutions’ plus/minus system ranks him at 4 runs above average – in the equivalent of less than 15 games in the field.
On top of that, Dyson actually has a pretty strong arm – maybe a 60 or 65 on the scouting scale. Most waterbug-type centerfielders who can run like the wind but can’t hit for power have noodle arms – think Juan Pierre, or Coco Crisp, or even Johnny Damon. Dyson doesn’t fit that mold at all.
So you’ve got a player with three above-average to outstanding tools in his speed, glove, and arm. I can see how that might get the scouts salivating. That still doesn’t make him a valuable player. He has no power, and while he might have the speed to beat out a bunch of groundballs Ichiro-style, he doesn’t make good enough contact to hit for a good average. His strikeout rate in the minors is about 108 per season, and in his major-league cup of coffee, he struck out 16 times in just 57 at-bats.
Dyson’s final start of the season was a microcosm of his talents. His first time up, he reached base when the third baseman bobbled his groundball. Does Dan Johnson make an error if he wasn’t rushing to throw out the speedy Dyson? Maybe not. In the third inning, he caught up to Carl Crawford’s fly ball deep in the right-centerfield gap and made the catch look almost routine. In the bottom of the fifth, he laid down a textbook sacrifice bunt to move Mitch Maier from first to second.
But in his other three at-bats, he made outs, twice on a strikeout.
As he stands now, Dyson is certainly an intriguing player – a fantastic late-inning defensive replacement/pinch-runner, but someone who simply doesn’t hit enough to start. There’s no way to spin the stats to make him out to be anything more than a fourth outfielder, and at age 26, there’s no way to spin a projection system to suggest that he’s going to improve much upon who he already is.
The argument for Dyson, then, is that even though he’s already 26, he’s so inexperienced at playing baseball that he has an uncommon amount of room to improve. Dyson hardly played baseball before he was signed by the Royals as a 50th-round pick, and while he’s been in the system for five years, he’s played in just 323 games as a pro.
I’m sympathetic to the argument that an exceedingly athletic player with not a lot of experience can be expected to improve, even if he’s already in his mid-20s. The classic case of this would be Kenny Lofton, who was more of a basketball player than a baseball player in college (he was the sixth man on some great University of Arizona teams). Lofton was also a late pick; he was selected by the Astros in the 17th round in 1988. Three years later, in a good hitter’s park in Triple-A, Lofton hit .308/.367/.417 with just two home runs, struggled in a September call-up, and the Astros were so unimpressed they traded him to Cleveland that winter for Eddie Taubensee.
The next year, Lofton hit .285/.362/.365 for the Indians, led the league with 66 steals, and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. The year after that, Lofton began a seven-year stretch (1993 to 1999) where he was arguably the best leadoff hitter in baseball.
So yeah, I’ve seen athletic hitters figure it all out and become late bloomers. But look, Dyson is no Lofton. Lofton was old for an elite prospect, but he was 24 when he was Triple-A; Dyson was nearly 26. Lofton struck out a lot less, and hit for much better batting averages. And even though the Astros didn’t respect his talent, the rest of baseball did – Baseball America ranked Lofton as the #28 prospect in baseball after the 1991 season. Dyson’s not going to sniff their top 100.
Of course, Dyson doesn’t have to be nearly as good as Lofton to still be an asset for the Royals. He needs to cut his strikeouts, and he needs to hit lefties (he batted just .203/.242/.271 against LHP in Omaha; against RHP he hit .301/.362/.382.) But if he can hit .270 and draw the occasional walk, his speed and defense will make him a valuable player.
Dyson’s statistical track record would make you believe that even that modest ambition is unrealistic. The Royals, and ASG, will make you believe that it is. I don’t have a strong position either way. That, in itself, is progress, because a month ago I thought that Jarrod Dyson was a complete distraction from the minor league players who actually have a real future. Now, I’m willing to keep an open mind.
While Derrick Robinson might be the future in centerfield, he’s certainly far from ready. Next year is likely to be a transitional year, a year where the makeup of the roster in September is likely to be dramatically different than it was in April. It’s a year for the Royals to experiment a little, and see what they have with some of their young players, as opposed to wasting time with more short-term veteran solutions.
Given that, what do the Royals have to lose by letting Dyson play centerfield next season? If nothing else, his stellar defense may help in the development of some of the team’s many young pitchers. I do think Dyson will benefit from another half-season in Omaha, while Mitch Maier and Gregor Blanco get to showcase themselves in the majors.
But the thought of Dyson starting in centerfield next July, or even next April, no longer fills me with dread. On the contrary, I think it will be quite fascinating to watch. The all-out war between Scouts and Stats has simmered down to a low-level guerrilla battle. Dyson remains one of the few remaining flashpoints in this conflict. Regardless of which side wins, we’ll learn something from the outcome. We’ll get to watch an exciting rookie try to establish in the majors instead of watching another thirtysomething veteran cash a paycheck. And who knows? The Royals might have a found a viable everyday player in the 50th round.