Free Jarrod Dyson!

If there is one thing we have learned from the American League teams this postseason, it’s that defense and baserunning really are very important. No one person has better exemplified this than Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson. You’ve already read Jeff’s article on how Dyson stole perhaps the biggest base since Dave Roberts in 2004. Eventually though, this postseason run for the Royals is going to end. Whether that is in four games or 14 games is not yet certain, but when it does end, the Royals will need to make a decision as to what they are going to do with Dyson next season. They should let him play.

Over the past two seasons, there have only been 29 outfielders in baseball more valuable than Dyson. Of those 29, only one of them had as few plate appearances as did Dyson. Most of them have double the plate appearances, and some have 2.5 times Dyson’s 529 PAs. Dyson is particularly adept afield. Over the past two seasons, only three outfielders have been worth more defensively per our Def statistic, and only 15 position players in general.

And it’s not just UZR where Dyson ranks well. He also scores well via DRS as well as our Inside Edge fielding numbers. They all paint him as one of the very best defensive center fielders in the game. Even his Fans Scouting Report score, which has penalized him in the past for his less than stellar throwing strength, has risen for the second straight year, and now stands at an above average 61. He has put this defense on display when called into duty, and the diminutive center fielder has made the most out of his limited opportunities.

That is not something that can be said about Norichika Aoki, the man who has played instead of Dyson and who is set to enter free agency after the season ends. In fact, Aoki had done a great deal to squander his walk year, and has only redeemed himself in the last month-plus. At the end of August, Aoki’s slugging percentage was the same as his on-base percentage — .332. He then went bananas in September, to the tune of .379/.432/.494, and it still only brought him up to 1.1 WAR for the season.

Aoki essentially had the same season as he did in 2013, but with the demerit of horrible baserunning mixed into the equation. Once a bargain, Aoki has trended from 2.3 WAR, to 1.6 and 1.1 in his three major league seasons. Even if you consider the poor baserunning decisions, both in the stolen base department and otherwise, to be a one-year blip, he’s still unlikely to add much value in that department.

Dyson, on the other hand, excels at baserunning. We covered that up top. Let’s cover it some more. Over the past three seasons, Dyson ranks sixth in the majors in BsR. Here again this is where we bring up the lack of playing time. One fun stat that Baseball-Reference tracks is stolen base opportunities. Dyson managed to have 116 of these, which are defined as “plate appearances through which a runner was on first or second with the next base open,” and successfully stole a base during 31 percent of them. That’s a higher rate than Dee Gordon, who stole bases in 27.9% of his stolen base opportunities, but because Gordon had 229 SBOs, he wound up with 64 steals as opposed to Dyson’s 36. Double Dyson’s playing time, and something like that could be in the cards for Kansas City.

Of course, it’s tempting to keep Dyson in reserve so that he can jump in for anyone at any time, that need will be lessened next season thanks to the person of Terrance Gore, who stole five bases in 11 SBOs. And if the club declines Billy Butler’s club option or ships him off to a team desperate for his sweaty charms, then there won’t be as glaring of a need for a regular pinch runner anyway.

The reason to this point that Dyson hasn’t been further let off the chain is because his hitting tool is not necessarily up to snuff, particularly against left-handed pitching. To which I would say, so what? This season, the other four teams in the AL Central had a combined total of 25 pitchers start at least 10 games. Of them, six were left-handed — John Danks, Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, David Price, Drew Smyly and T.J. House.

One of these six (Smyly) won’t be around next season, one is terrible (Danks) and three of them — Price, Sale and Quintana — are so good that it doesn’t matter if you stack the deck against them with right-handed hitters anyway. Lefties or righties, a team faces long odds to get to four runs scored on the day against that trio. So, while you certainly don’t have to play Dyson in all 162 games, he isn’t in more danger of being victimized by left-handed starting pitchers than anyone else on his team is.

Finally, there is the matter of salary. Dyson is eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason, but even if he scores a raise to $3 or 4 million, he’s going to be cheap compared to the value he’s providing. And given that the Royals are going to need to pinch every penny if they want to bring James Shields back, they could do a lot worse than letting Aoki and Willingham walk and installing Dyson every day.

In other sports, specialists generally go far more appreciated than they do in baseball. Specialist relievers are often derided or fit into a tiny box so small that they can never provide real value. Such is not the case with Jarrod Dyson. He might not be the next Willie Mays, but three-win outfielders don’t exactly grow on trees. That’s essentially what Dyson has been the past two seasons, in part-time duty. Even if he regresses to more average defense in a full-time role, he will be just as valuable as Norichika Aoki was this season. And if he manages to maintain that elite level of baserunning and defense for a whole campaign, then the Royals might just have a four-win player on their hands for a relative pittance. Free Jarrod Dyson.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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9 years ago

Gotta agree with you Paul. It’s not like Dyson’s going to cost KC a ton in arbitration, given the skill set he has. They have him under team control through 2017, when he turns 33. So they can watch their wallets while having a guy who should be about as good as Billy Hamilton over the next 3 years.

9 years ago
Reply to  tz

The guy has accrued 7.9 WAR in 977 career plate appearances. That’s about 5 WAR over a full season. Steamer600 has him projected for 2.8 WAR. How can you not give him a full-time shot?

As you mentioned, one thing that’s great about him is that his skillset (defense and baserunning) doesn’t cost much in arbitration (or free agency, for that matter).

Even if you bench him vs LH starters, he still deserves more than the 250-300 PA’s he’s been getting for the last 3 years.

Joshua Choudhury
9 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

Because you can’t treat his PAs as a pro-rated season and extrapolate the totals to a full season. Dyson’s PAs have been distributed such that he’s playing a disproprortionate number of innings (and spending a disproportionate amount of time on the basepaths) relative to the number of PAs he accrues.

If he played full-time, his WAR/PA would take a very steep dip.

Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad idea to give him more playing time, just that it isn’t immediately obvious that using a good player tactically such that he maximizes the amount of time he spends doing the things he’s good at isn’t a poor move.

9 years ago

My point in citing the pro-rated 5 WAR thing is that — even if his production rate took a “very steep dip” — he’d still be an above average player. No one thinks he’d actually be a 5 WAR player. But he could be a 3 WAR player.

As a starter, he’s got 907 career PA’s. In those games, he’s had a .325 OBP and had 85 SB’s in 97 attempts (which would work out to about 60-for-70 over a full season). Combine that with above-average defense in CF, and you have an above-average starter right there. You don’t even need to look at his UBR or UZR numbers (inflated to some degree by defensive replacement and pinch-running) to conclude that.

Also, his crazy 20.8 UZR/150 isn’t affected by his lopsided time as a defensive replacement, because it’s a rate stat based on defensive opportunities.

Joshua Choudhury
9 years ago

I don’t think he’d be a bad starter–that’s not really the point. Here’s what I’m getting at:

Last year, Dyson had 290 PAs and played 691 innings in the field. In other words, for every PA during which KC had to suffer through Dyson’s 85 wRC+, they got roughly 2.4 innings of stellar defense.

Lorenzo Cain, who played full-time (and I’m intentionally using a good defensive outfielder who wouldn’t be pulled for a defense sub so as not to skew the numbers downward), had 502 PAs and played 1111 innings in the field, or 2.2 innings of defense per PA.

That’s fine–the Royals would probably take 2.2 innings of defense per PA from Dyson, even if we’re ignoring the fact that this would also similarly reduce the ratio of baserunning opportunities to PAs and remove his tactical value as a pinch-runner. But the important thing isn’t the value of ‘Jerrod Dyson, full-time outfielder’ in isolation. It’s a comparison between that value and the value the Royals could derive from giving the extra playing time to someone else. So we’re interested in the delta.

If you give Dyson extra playing time to get to Cain-levels (and achieve a normal, full-time player balance of PAs and innings), he’d be playing 2.0 innings in the field per PA in the extra playing time. That is to say, Dyson’s extra playing time would be allocated as if he were a late-career Manny Ramirez.

Dyson could absolutely provide value as a starter, and I think it’s potentially a strong option for the Royals to consider.

But we shouldn’t ignore that the player they’d be getting in the extra time isn’t going to have nearly the same per-game value as it would appear. Or, in other words, if he’s a 2.8 WAR guy as a role player, and a 3.0 WAR guy as a full-time player, my reaction isn’t ‘Well, 3 WAR is good.’ It’s ‘why don’t we see if another player can use that playing time to provide more than 0.2 additional WAR?’

Maybe the Royals’ roster won’t be constructed in that way–roster spots have value, after all. But this seems like a pretty classic example of how guys with specific skills can enable creative roster construction.