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.