How Corey Dickerson Fits the Rays and the League

It shouldn’t take a lot to understand why the Rays went and picked up Corey Dickerson. In general, it was a pretty classic Tampa Bay move: they dealt more expensive and conspicuous talent for under-appreciated talent and team control. Jake McGee is very obviously good, but Dickerson is his own brand of productive, and he ought to remain affordable for years. The Rays have been doing things like this for the better part of a decade.

That’s what’s most important: Dickerson should remain a quality hitter, and he fits within Tampa Bay’s budget, whereas McGee was pricing himself out. Yet you can find even more appeal in the specifics. Dickerson’s also a good match for an organizational trend, a trend that’s being mirrored by the rest of the league.

Dickerson was just the subject of an article written by Marc Topkin. Here’s an excerpt from the lower section:

“And I think the biggest thing, taking away the bat speed and taking away the swing path, is how aggressive he is.”

That’s hitting coach Derek Shelton, and while he had plenty of good things to say about Dickerson, he’s the biggest fan of the approach. Dickerson, you could say, goes up ready to hit, and last year he swung at 56% of all pitches, which put him right near the top of the league. You don’t normally associate the Rays with free swinging, but times have changed. The Rays have publicly stated that times have changed. It’s no secret: the Rays want to bat more aggressively, and they took a big step forward in that regard last season.

Here’s a very simple table. We have some plate-discipline information covering the last 14 years. For each year, here’s where the Rays have ranked in MLB in team swing rate:

Rays MLB Swing-Rate Ranks
Season Swing% Rank
2002 5
2003 1
2004 9
2005 2
2006 2
2007 2
2008 23
2009 21
2010 23
2011 27
2012 26
2013 28
2014 27
2015 6

The Rays were an aggressive-hitting team under their old name, then they shifted rather abruptly as the more successful era dawned. There were six consecutive top-10 finishes, then seven consecutive bottom-10 finishes. That brings us to last year, when the Rays returned to the upper third. It was a rather dramatic shift, as these things go, and now here are the 10 biggest team year-to-year swing-rate increases that we have here on record:

Increases in Team Aggressiveness, 2002 – 2015
Year 1 Year 2 Team Y1 Swing% Y2 Swing% Change
2009 2010 Blue Jays 44.8% 48.9% 4.1%
2014 2015 Rays 45.0% 48.5% 3.5%
2014 2015 Twins 44.8% 47.8% 3.0%
2005 2006 Marlins 44.1% 47.0% 2.9%
2003 2004 Mariners 43.2% 46.0% 2.8%
2012 2013 Marlins 45.0% 47.8% 2.8%
2010 2011 Braves 43.9% 46.6% 2.7%
2008 2009 Giants 47.8% 50.4% 2.6%
2010 2011 Royals 44.9% 47.5% 2.6%
2009 2010 Mets 43.5% 46.0% 2.5%

There are the recent Rays, in second, and followed closely by the recent Twins. It might not seem like an increase of 3.5 percentage points is all that meaningful, but this goes to show how unusual it is. The Rays are second out of a sample of 390, and it was very much deliberate.

Somewhere around the midpoint of last season, the Rays talked and decided they wanted to be more aggressive at the plate. Here’s Shelton, talking about it on a game broadcast. The Rays were already batting more aggressively early on than they had been in the past, but then they kicked things up another notch. In the season’s first half, the Rays ranked 15th in baseball in team swing rate. In the second half, they ranked fourth. Of the 10 Rays players who batted at least 50 times on both sides of the All-Star break, all 10 showed at least some small swing-rate increase. Generally, a player’s approach is a player’s approach, and there’s not much room for tweaking, but the Rays pushed some players out of their comfort zones, and coincidentally or not, the second-half offense was far more successful. So that helped to get players to buy in.

Nobody wants for their hitters to go out of the zone and flail. Control of the zone is still as important as ever, if not even more important, but as many people have already written, hitters are less incentivized these days to be patient. Pitchers are getting ahead more, and so many two-strike pitches are unhittable, and bullpens have also gotten so good and so deep there’s no soft underbelly to expose. The idea isn’t to chase balls — the idea is to better prepare hitters to go after strikes, so opportunities aren’t wasted. This is a newer focus of the Rays, and you can see elements of it league-wide.

League swing rate has increased from 46% in 2012 to north of 47% last season. That’s small, but then check out this plot. There are signs of a decline in population of extremely patient hitters, characterized here as being hitters with swing rates under 40%.

swing-rate-plot

Last year, fewer than 4% of all players who batted at least 100 times had swing rates under 40%. The previous low was twice as high, and even just a few seasons back, the rate was over 10%. I don’t love using cutoffs, and maybe it’s a blip, but it seems like a hint of something more real. There’s less of a reason to sit and wait, with pitchers so incredibly talented, so patient hitters are either being selected against, or they’re having to evolve. It’s not true for everyone — Joey Votto is a freak — but there are exceptions to everything. In general, hitters ought to be prepared to go after the first good and hittable pitch that they see.

League-wide, there are signs of something. With the Rays, we don’t have to guess, because they’ve made it explicit. They want to swing more aggressively, they’ve started swinging more aggressively, and for an offense that wants an aggressive approach, Corey Dickerson is a perfectly natural fit. It’s not that hitters like Corey Dickerson are the wave of the future. It’s more that hitters quite unlike Corey Dickerson are very possibly the wave of the past.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Baron Samedi
6 years ago

Swing at strikes. Such a revelation.

Only glove, no love
6 years ago
Reply to  Baron Samedi

Sure yes… but maybe the “wait for your favorite strike” approach is too risky now and the better approach is more “take what they give you”…