“You have to be good to be a hot dog,” said Pirates play-by-play broadcaster Greg Brown during Tuesday night’s Reds-Pirates contest, quoting Dock Ellis to conclude an anecdote about the May 1, 1974 start in which the Pirates’ free-spirited righty intentionally drilled the first three Reds he faced. In illustrating the long and oft-heated rivalry between the two teams, Brown appeared to arrive at an epiphany regarding the home run celebrations of Derek Dietrich — a subject of unhealthy fixation that had dominated an often cringeworthy broadcast while clumsily recapitulating the game’s generational culture war. The 29-year-old utiltyman had just clubbed his third dinger of the game, fourth of this week’s series, seventh in eight games against the Pirates, and 17th overall, the last a career high and a total tied for fifth in the majors.
Dietrich, who spent six years toiling for the Marlins before being designated for assignment and released last November (stellar personnel management there, Jeets), isn’t a player over whom opponents generally obsess. Beyond being a bat-first type whose defensive versatility depends upon certain levels of tolerance, he’s earned a reputation as something of a cut-up. In the minors, as a member of the Double-A Jacksonville Suns in 2013, he put on a display of his juggling skill that progressed to as many as five balls, then to bowling pins, literal machetes, and flaming torches:
On May 5 of this season, when the Reds wore throwback uniforms from 1911, Dietrich wore a fake mustache made out of eyeblack, and homered that day to cap a back-to-back-to-back three-pitch barrage:
The next day, when a swarm of bees invaded a Reds-Giants game, Dietrich masqueraded as an exterminator:
The night after that, when the lights went out at the Oakland Coliseum, Dietrich showed up ready for work as a handyman, with a homemade utility belt:
Alas, that was the night that the Reds were no-hit by the A’s Mike Fiers.
Fortunately, Dietrich is playing well enough to get away with applying an extra dollop of mustard. Through Wednesday, he’s hitting .262/.368/.713 for a 170 wRC+. His slugging percentage would rank fourth in the NL and his wRC+ fifth if he weren’t 30 plate appearances short of qualifying for the batting title. Even while largely sitting against lefties, his home run frequency is within an eyelash of topping anyone with at least 100 PA in a season:
|Ted Williams||Red Sox||1953||13||110||11.82%|
Obviously, not all of the above seasons are complete ones. Williams produced his flurry of homers in a 37-game stretch after returning from a combat assignment as a pilot during the Korean War. Olson did his damage during a 59-game stint as a rookie. Sanchez, like Dietrich, is homering at a near-record clip at a time when the entire majors is averaging 1.33 home runs per team per game, the highest rate in history.
Like Sanchez, Dietrich has been taking particular advantage of a single opponent within a front-loaded season series schedule, in this case the Pirates:
|Eddie Rosario||Twins||Blue Jays||7||5|
In his years with the Marlins, Dietrich had never particularly wrought havoc against the Pirates, batting .231/.241/.327 in 54 plate appearances against them and homering just once, a solo shot off Trevor Williams on June 10, 2017. From the outset of this season, however, he’s been like Bugs Bunny tweaking Elmer Fudd. On Opening Day, in his first plate appearance as a Red, he swatted a three-run pinch-homer off Pirates reliever Richard Rodriguez, a blow that broke open a 2-2 game and proved decisive.
Fast-forward to April 7. After going 2-for-4 with a double the day before, Dietrich homered off Pirates starter Chris Archer, dropping the bat and admiring his 436-foot, two-run blast, which bounced into the Allegheny River just beyond PNC Park’s fences. Archer, himself prone to demonstrative displays on the mound, took umbrage, and in Dietrich’s next plate appearance, sailed a 93 mph fastball behind the hitter’s back. After both benches were warned, benches cleared, with Yasiel Puig offered to take on all of the Steel City:
Though Archer — who was not ejected at the time, but later drew a five-game suspension — went on to strike out Dietrich twice in that game, Dietrich rebounded to hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning off Nick Kingham, though the Reds ultimately lost, 7-5.
While the Pirates held Dietrich in check for most of Monday’s doubleheader — he was 0-for-5 with a hit-by-pitch before stepping to the plate in the seventh inning — he took Alex McRae over the wall in that plate appearance. Again he dropped the bat, started slowly out of the box, and took his own sweet time to round the bases. When Puig followed with a solo homer, he sped around the diamond at about double Dietrich’s speed:
Via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bill Brink, Dietrich offered some tongue-in-cheek humor afterwards:
“Honestly, I was a little anxious the first couple at-bats. I talked to my hitting coach, Turner Ward, and he said slow it down, slow yourself down, and back it up, and that’s what I did. Unfortunately I got out a little slow out of the box again because I slowed down and I backed it up. I’m going to listen to my coaches. I’m very coachable.”
…“I was just glad that Yasiel picked me up. That was the joke about it, I guess, after the fact,” Dietrich said. “We had to even out the times, so he definitely picked me up, and it’s funny that he’s the guy that did that. I could expect maybe Joey [Votto] or even [Eugenio] Suarez to do that, but when Puig does it, it makes it that much better.”
Monday’s home run and its aftermath did not sit particularly well with Brown and his booth-mate, analyst John Wehner. The latter, who spent parts of 11 seasons in the majors (nine of them with Pittsburgh) while hitting a grand total of four home runs, aired his grievances as guest on on the 93.7 Fan Morning Show:
“I can’t stand him… I don’t understand why you have to do that. It’s different if you’re a Hall of Fame player, you’re a 60-homer guy, you’re an established guy. Nobody ever heard of him before this year. I heard of him because of his grandfather [Steve Demeter] who used to be a minor league coach for the Pirates. He was the sweetest guy in the world. He’s rolling in his grave every time this guy hits a home run. He’s embarrassed [because] of his grandson.”
Now, that’s some chutzpah. Here we can only presume that Wehner himself is auditioning to be Dietrich’s grandmother, arguably the only person with the standing to express embarrassment on behalf of his late grandfather. In a professional playing career that spanned from 1953-72, Demeter played 15 games in the majors with the Tigers (1959) and Indians (1960); he was traded straight up for Norm Cash in a 1960 deal that some Cleveland fans haven’t forgotten. He spent more than 30 years working for the Pirates’ organization as a minor league manager (1972-80 and ’87), coach (including 1985 with the big club), instructor, and scout. He died in 2013 at the age of 78.
More on his role in Dietrich’s life below, but first, more inappropriate speculation from the Pirates’ broadcasters. They made Pittsburgh’s new Public Enemy Number One the focal point of Tuesday night’s pregame segment, with Wehner airing his personal revenge fantasy:
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a message sent to Dietrich. Certain guys aren’t going to be bothered by it, other guys will be and eventually, he may end up getting hurt. I’m not saying the Pirates or some other team. He might do it to the wrong guy and then gets hit, breaks a bone, might miss some time and maybe he’ll get around the bases a little quicker.”
Hooboy. Stay off his lawn, kids.
When Dietrich, playing first base in place of Votto (who was out with a tight hamstring), batted in the first inning, Brown and Wehner indulged — and I mean indulged — in some conjecture. Said Wehner, “You know, if [Reds manager] David Bell was out prior to the game talking to the home plate umpire, discussing whether or not Dietrich gets a ball thrown at him, then that would suggest that he thinks that Dietrich did something wrong. [Pause] If that was what they were discussing. Who knows.” The words if and suggest are doing so much work in those sentences that they could rightfully file a complaint with OSHA.
The pair then discussed the polarizing nature of on-field celebrations and MLB’s “Let the Kids Play” campaign. “Why does baseball have to be like other sports? I don’t get it,” asked Brown. “I don’t get what’s so cool and fun about standing there watching a ball, and taking forever to get around the bases,” said Wehner, strongly implying that he himself had never hit a 430-foot home run against a heated rival whose pitcher had previously thrown at him.
The inning ended with Dietrich grounding out to first baseman Josh Bell, but the diatribe continued into the commercial break, with Brown confusing the spectacular with the banal by suggesting that Bell “should have jumped around right in front of Dietrich, up and down.” At the start of the second inning, the broadcast displayed the home run trots of Dietrich and the normally demonstrative Puig side by side to show the contrast in style and speed, then showed a clip of Puig — who in his seven major league seasons has caught endless grief from the fustiest guardians of The Right Way to Play the Game — bypassing Dietrich in the dugout, as if to suggest some measure of disapproval, a thread that both broadcasters desperately tugged at for a couple more minutes.
At the top of the third inning, Dietrich-fest continued, with sideline reporter Robby Incmikoski setting up a short segment from Monday’s postgame interview. “I let it rip and traveled the bases. That’s it,” said Dietrich. “I don’t do anything intentionally to show anyone up, I don’t do anything against any other team, I just hit the ball and whatever happens after that, you know, I come back in and try to do it the next time.”
Not exactly inflammatory stuff, but enough to keep the home(r) fires burning, with Brown taking his turn to speak on Demeter’s behalf: “I just can’t imagine that if he were alive today that he would approve of it. Obviously, we don’t know him as well as even Derek did.”
As the broadcast cut to photos of Demeter and a young Dietrich wearing various Little League uniforms, Wehner invoked another violent fantasy, saying, “I’d like to think Steve Demeter would slap him upside his head… I guarantee he would tell him it was uncalled for.” Just when you thought that he’d gone completely off the rails, he backtracked to say that Demeter was “one of the nicest men alive… a very, very friendly man, so humble and kind.” Brown pointed out that Dietrich has the words “Let it fly” tattooed on his arm as well as the dates of his grandfather’s birth and death, a reminder to respect the game. “That’s not respecting the game, the way he goes around the bases,” replied Wehner.
As so often happens, this was a case of Old Men Yelling at the Wrong Clouds. You may be thinking to yourself that the phrase “Let it fly” does not sound like advice from 1950s Squaresville when it comes to on-field conduct, and you’d be correct. From a 2013 story about Dietrich by the late Juan C. Rodriguez of the Sun Sentinel:
Tattooed on the inside of his left wrist are the words, “Let It Fly.” That was the mantra Demeter instilled in his grandson. In February, Dietrich added his grandfather’s dates of birth and death under the phrase.
“That’s always been his advice,” said Dietrich, a sophomore at Georgia Tech when he got the tattoo. “It pertains to offense and defense. Let it fly. Have fun out there. That’s kind of how I go about my business. He had so many things throughout his life and throughout our conversations that I’ve taken from him.”
When Dietrich came to bat with one on in the fourth, he destroyed Pittsburgh starter Jordan Lyles’ first-pitch changeup, dropped the bat, got out of the box a bit more quickly, brushed hands with first base coach Delino DeShields on his way down the line, then jumped and patted the bare head of third base coach J.R. House, who had doffed his helmet, as he rounded towards home. “A new move after this one,” sighed an exasperated Wehner. Throughout the inning, the broadcast kept cutting to Dietrich on the bench, perhaps hoping to catch him grabbing his crotch while doing a cartwheel. In his next plate appearance an inning later against Geoff Hartleib, Dietrich swatted another two-run homer; though he again dropped his bat, he played the trot straight.
As he came to bat in the seventh inning, facing Hartleib again, Brown began telling his Ellis story, and of the 1970s-vintage battles between the Lumber Company and the Big Red Machine. Mid-anecdote — which was prolonged by a visit from pitching coach Ray Searage — Dietrich followed with his third two-run homer, the aftermath of which included a bit more flair in the form of a Michael Jordan-like shrug to the Cincinnati dugout as he headed to first base. Here’s the supercut of the three homers, alas with Cincinnati’s broadcasters and camera angles (you’ll have to pull up MLB.tv to partake in the Pittsburgh POV):
“And there’s a drive to right. He has hit three home runs!” said a suddenly animated Brown, finally getting into the spirt of admiring an impressive individual performance now that the Pirates were down 10-0. “Holy smokes! Derek Dietrich, three two-run homers in three consecutive at-bats. First career three-homer game and… that is something else.” After Dietrich’s curtain call, Brown circled back to the Ellis story: “You have to be good to be a hot dog.”
“Huh,” huffed Wehner as the broadcast cut to a commercial.
Dietrich’s performance has now livened up several clashes between the two division rivals, both very much in the thick of the NL Central race despite subpar records (27-27 for Pittsburgh, albeit with a -63 run differential, and 26-30 for Cincinnati, but with a +36 differential). As for what’s changed from his time with the Marlins, during which he hit .254/.335/.422 (109 wRC+) while homering in 2.8% of his plate appearances, the biggest difference in his mechanics appears to be the position of his front (right) foot, which he used to set up well behind his back foot in a more open stance before his stride brought his feet parallel, as in this March 31, 2018 home run off Yu Darvish:
Now, he sets up with his feet closer to parallel, as you can see from the Archer home run (again), with his bat less upright as well:
There’s probably more to the change than what I see from randomly flipping through a dozen home run clips on Baseball Savant, but that’s what’s most apparent. The results have been dramatically different:
Dietrich is elevating the ball with more consistency, and while his average exit velocity remains modest, his rate of barreling the ball has tripled, and with it, his xwOBA has skyrocketed. He’s cut his chase rate and halved his strikeout-to-walk ratio despite a slightly higher whiff rate. He’s doing virtually all of this against righties. Wednesday’s start against Pirates lefty Steven Brault was his first against a southpaw this year; he’s 3-for-13 with a double against them.
I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that Dietrich will not continue to challenge the likes of Bonds, McGwire, and Williams when it comes to home run frequency. Nonetheless, he’s become a much more powerful and entertaining hitter who has certainly added spice to the lower reaches of the NL Central standings. Here’s hoping he continues to chip away at the crustiest corners of the game.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.