Is Grant Dayton an Elite Reliever?

Two weeks ago, when I was examining the New York Yankees, I noted that they were the only American League team to feature multiple relievers projected by our depth charts (which are powered by Steamer for now) to record at least 1.5 WAR in 2017. Only seven AL pitchers cleared that mark overall. Looking over at the National League, we find that even fewer pitchers hit that mark, though there is still a single team with two of them: the Los Angeles Dodgers.

One, as you can probably guess, is Kenley Jansen. The other, though, might come as a surprise. It’s Grant Dayton. Unless you’re a big Dodgers fan, the first time you probably met Dayton was in last year’s National League Division Series, when he coughed up the two runs, prompting LA manager Dave Roberts to call on Jansen in the seventh inning — and to bring Clayton Kershaw into the game in the ninth to close things out. So, in a certain sense, perhaps we should thank Dayton. If he escapes that seventh inning unscathed, we might not have been treated to Kershaw vs. Daniel Murphy with a runner in scoring position and the season on the line.

Now, if that game was your only frame of reference for Dayton, you might not understand why he’s being projected for such a strong 2017 campaign. Just so we’re clear, here’s the list of relievers who are projected for 1.5 WAR or better next season:

Relief Pitchers Projected for 1.5+ WAR
Player Team WAR
Andrew Miller Cleveland 2.7
Aroldis Chapman Yankees 2.5
Dellin Betances Yankees 2.4
Kenley Jansen Dodgers 2.4
Zach Britton Orioles 2.1
Edwin Diaz Mariners 1.7
Wade Davis Cubs 1.7
Ken Giles Astros 1.7
Grant Dayton Dodgers 1.6
Craig Kimbrel Red Sox 1.5
SOURCE: FanGraphs Depth Charts

That’s pretty good company, don’t you think? Especially when you consider that the pitcher in question didn’t reach the majors until his age-28 season. And especially when there’s a couple of big warning signs in his 2016 stat line.

With regard to those warning signs: the first, obviously, is that he only tossed 26.1 innings (or, if you prefer, faced just 101 total batters). That’s not much to go on, at least at the major-league level. Second, he allowed only a .196 BABIP. Of the 511 pitchers who tossed at least 20 innings last season, only three — Carl Edwards Jr., Steve Geltz, and Brad Peacockallowed a lower BABIP than did Dayton. If you expand that list to include the last five seasons (2011-2016), we get 2,931 pitcher seasons with at least 20 innings pitched. Of them, just 28 allowed a lower BABIP than did Dayton in 2016.

On the other hand, his 15.0% swinging-strike rate (SwStr%) ranked 26th of the 511 pitchers who tossed at least 20 innings last year. The two pitchers directly above Dayton on that list? Kimbrel and Roberto Osuna. Among the pitchers just below him? Jeurys Familia, Sergio Romo, and Koji Uehara. That’s some pretty decent company. In addition, Dayton’s 14.3% infield-fly percentage was well above the league average of 9.7%. He didn’t generate very many ground balls, but he had the luxury of playing behind a great outfield defense. LA’s outfielders logged a 10.2 UZR in 2016, good for 10th best in the majors and second best in the NL. Their +24 DRS was sixth best in baseball and also second best in the NL. That’s a recipe for a bulletproof BABIP if I’ve ever heard one.

As for the lack of major-league experience, there’s no getting around that, but it is mitigated by the fact that he had really phenomenal minor-league numbers. In talking to Jared Cross about Dayton’s Steamer projection, Cross notes that Dayton’s MiLB work last season was equivalent to a 2.14 kwERA in MLB. When you combine the minor- and major-league work, you have 78 superb innings on the docket. And obviously 78 is more than 26.

Jeff Sullivan also made this point in a piece back in August, just after Dayton made his major-league debut. He combined minor- and major-league numbers to put together a K% and K%-BB% leaderboard, on which Dayton appeared at the top. With more major-league time under his belt by the end of the season, he would indeed finish the season at the top of those leaderboards at strictly the major-league level (sixth in K%, fifth in K%-BB%), but I also wanted to look at these leaderboards broken out with just left-handed pitchers. Observe:

2016 K%-BB% Leaders, Left-Handed Pitchers
Name IP K% BB% K-BB%
Andrew Miller 74.1 44.7% 3.3% 41.5%
Grant Dayton 26.1 38.6% 5.9% 32.7%
Aroldis Chapman 58.0 40.5% 8.1% 32.4%
Dario Alvarez 26.2 36.3% 6.2% 30.1%
Clayton Kershaw 149.0 31.6% 2.0% 29.6%
Sean Doolittle 39.0 29.0% 5.2% 23.9%
Brett Cecil 36.2 28.7% 5.1% 23.6%
Zach Britton 67.0 29.1% 7.1% 22.1%
Rich Hill 110.1 29.4% 7.5% 21.9%
Madison Bumgarner 226.2 27.5% 5.9% 21.6%
Minimum 20 innings pitched

Better than Aroldis Chapman is pretty good, in case you were curious.

Again, I’m not saying Dayton is officially now one of the best 10 relievers in baseball. There are another seven pitchers who clock in at 1.4 WAR, literally a hair below 1.5. Let’s add them to our table.

Relief Pitchers, Projected for 1.4+ WAR
Player Team WAR
Andrew Miller Cleveland 2.7
Aroldis Chapman Yankees 2.5
Dellin Betances Yankees 2.4
Kenley Jansen Dodgers 2.4
Zach Britton Orioles 2.1
Edwin Diaz Mariners 1.7
Wade Davis Cubs 1.7
Ken Giles Astros 1.7
Grant Dayton Dodgers 1.6
Craig Kimbrel Red Sox 1.5
Sean Doolittle Athletics 1.4
Roberto Osuna Blue Jays 1.4
Seung Hwan Oh Cardinals 1.4
Shawn Kelley Nationals 1.4
Adam Ottavino Rockies 1.4
Kelvin Herrera Royals 1.4
Nate Jones White Sox 1.4
SOURCE: FanGraphs Depth Charts

Even with these pitchers added to the mix, we can say that Grant Dayton is projected to be one of the five best relievers in the National League this season, at least by Steamer. We’ll see how ZiPS stacks him up against his peers when all those have been zipped into the projections, but in the Dodgers ZiPS projections, Dayton came out well: best reliever on the Dodgers after Jansen, 73 ERA- and FIP- (the 73 FIP- would be identical to his 2016 FIP-) and slightly better K% and BB% projections than Steamer gives him. In other words, there are no major disagreements on Dayton between the two systems.

Grant Dayton is a 29-year-old reliever who has faced only 119 batters in the major leagues — and he has done so with a fastball that averages 92 and tops out a hair below 95. That’s not typically the type of pitcher one would guess is elite. And yet, here we are, staring his excellent projections in the face, without much evidence to cast aspersions on it other than the fact that he hasn’t yet pitched through a whole major-league season. He’s about to though, and if he’s as good as the projections say, you’ll be hearing his name a lot more in the future.





Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com 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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CC AFC
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CC AFC

Is Grant Dayton…Joe Flacco?

nenright
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nenright

Is Joe Flacco Grant Dayton?

Richard Nixon
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Richard Nixon

They’ve never been seen in the same room…. so I’d lean towards yes.