David Dahl May Not Be the Rockies’ Answer

The Colorado Rockies are acting like a team with expectations for 2018. Before the start of the offseason, Cot’s Contracts projected a salary of $131 million for the team, an all-time high for the franchise. That was before they added $40 million in average annual value by signing Wade Davis, Chris Iannetta, Jake McGee, and Bryan Shaw. The players seem to expect big things as well, and have used this energy in their pursuit of free agents. McGee, according to Patrick Saunders, helped sell Wade Davis on the Rockies saying, “[T]his was a team that was going to win now.”

Now, many questions remain for the Rockies, and those questions have led some to doubt Colorado’s ability to contend. Can the pitching keep up its pace from last year? Can Charlie Blackmon repeat his MVP-type performance? Is Jonathan Lucroy back? While all three of those uncertainties can be addressed by playing the actual games, there’s another question that might have been answered recently.

David Dahl saw only 82 plate appearances in 2017, all at the minor-league level. After a breakout 2016 rookie campaign in which he slashed .315/.359/.500 over 237 plate appearances while adding average defense in the outfield, Dahl was expected to be a key contributor to the Rockies going into the year. There were thoughts of a .300 hitter with 20-20 potential, enough to get most fanbases excited.

Unfortunately, those fantasies had to be postponed. On March 6th of 2017, the Rockies released a seemingly innocuous announcement that Dahl had suffered a stress reaction in his ribcage and would be reevaluated in two weeks. That injury would persist for basically the entire season.

Reports concerning Dahl’s return to health give the Rockies some hope of improving an outfield that was horrendous outside of the aforementioned Blackmon; however, the combination of Dahl’s profile as a hitter and the consequences of missing a full year suggest that enthusiasm ought to be curbed.

This is not Dahl’s first experience with serious injury. In May of 2015, he required a splenectomy after a collision with a teammate, but amazingly avoided missing the entire season. The 2017 injury to his ribcage may have longer lasting effects, however. The last of his 82 plate appearances happened on July 31st, and his first spring training at-bat will be his first against live pitching in over six months. Furthermore, the performance of former rookies returning from a lost year is mixed at best.

Players Missing a Year with Injury
Player Rookie Year Rookie wRC+ Return wRC+ Diff
Kelly Johnson 2005 95 118 23
Jason Castro 2010 56 99 43
Ryan Kalish 2010 87 42 -45
Jurickson Profar 2013 75 78 3
Jose Iglesias 2013 102 97 -5
Christian Vazquez 2014 70 52 -18
Gregory Bird 2015 137 86 -51
Average 89 82 -7

Since 2000, seven players have both (a) missed an entire MLB season the year after surpassing the 130-plate-appearance threshold and then (b) returned from the injury to accrue over 100 PAs in their first season back. Several were top prospects prior to their rookie season, including Johnson (No. 47 by Baseball America), Kalish (No. 76 by Baseball Prospectus), Castro (No. 41 by Baseball America), and Profar (No. 1 by Baseball America, MLB, and Baseball Prospectus). Their injuries were varied, from Tommy John surgery to torn ACLs to torn labrums. Dahl went into his rookie season ranked 31st by Baseball Prospectus, 39th by Baseball America, and 46th by MLB. His offensive upside was surpassed by only Profar and (maybe) Bird, and his performance was bested in this group only by Bird.

Of this group, however, only Kelly Johnson and Jason Castro made substantial progress after returning — and Castro only because he really couldn’t do much worse and still remain in the majors. Profar continued to struggle, Iglesias continued to bat better than expected for one more year, and Greg Bird had a dip in line-drive rate and BABIP. It is a very small sample size, but these players definitely did not progress as a whole at an age where some progression is not unexpected.

However, a small collection of disappointing returns is not the only reason to have reservations about Dahl’s prospects this season. His 2016 line has several worrying trends that should scare some evaluators. He does has some free-swinging tendencies, even if his 24.9% strikeout rate doesn’t leave you thinking of Joey Gallo. Despite this, Dahl chased pitches outside the zone at a rate of 35.6% (compared to a league average of 30.3%) while recording a swinging-strike rate of 14.9% (league average 10.1%). All this leads to a low walk rate (6.3%), something that has continued from his minor-league lines.

Even when Dahl makes contact, there are indications he’s headed for a downturn. The most glaring point is his .404 BABIP, a rate of mammoth proportions that is certainly unsustainable, even at Coors. This is especially unsustainable considering his 87.9 mph exit velocity, which found him sandwiched between Gordon Beckham and Christian Bethancourt at 248th best in 2016. His 90.7 mph exit velocity on fly balls and line drives was 350th in the league, and his barrels per plate appearances (according to Statcast) was 287th. In short, his power and batted-ball profile leave one with several questions.

Dahl’s sprint speed falls at 27.7 mph (slightly above average), and he is an adequate defender in left field. All in all, if his BABIP regresses to normal levels, his combination of low walk rate, adequate defense, and some power will render Dahl a corner-outfield version Adam Jones in a good scenario. While that is nothing at all to disregard, it is a little ways from the .300 and 20-20 thoughts that may have filled some heads after 2016.

Dahl is young, and he is undoubtably talented. He is also now ostensibly healthy and ready to return for 2018 in some form. He also will surely be better than Raimel Tapia (-0.1 WAR), the 2017 version of Ian Desmond (-0.8 WAR), or Alexi Amarista (-1.2 WAR). However, to expect him to cleanly return from an injury that cost him a full year and progress from his 2016 level is probably not advised. Further, his own impressive 2016 line has many holes once you get underneath the surface even just a little bit. Dahl could be good, but he probably will not be good enough for the Rockies to start expecting too much for 2018.

Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.

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4 years ago

Agree Dahl’s health is a huge question mark. But his pedigree, 2016 minor league results and raw tools all suggest a solid major leaguer, at a minimum. The Rockies should know his health better than any of us…