The Most Improbable Dodgers Hero

Heading into the season, the Dodgers’ outfield looked remarkably deep, and the big question was how Dave Roberts was going to find enough playing time to keep everyone happy. The starting trio of Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig, and Andre Ethier all looked like solid regulars, but because of the depth, the team was likely to run a bunch of platoons: Scott Van Slyke would share time with Ethier in left, Enrique Hernandez would give Pederson a break against lefties in center, and Carl Crawford would play some days as well, probably at the expense of Puig on days right-handers were on the mound, with Ethier shifting back to right field on those days.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Ethier broke his leg in spring training and has missed the whole season. Crawford played poorly enough to get released. Hernandez and Van Slyke have struggled with injuries and poor performance, and have seen their playing time reallocated to Howie Kendrick and Trayce Thompson, respectively. The team tired of having Puig around, so they traded for Josh Reddick in July.

But despite cycling through a half-dozen internal options and making a deadline acquisition for a former All-Star, the Dodgers are currently being carried by an outfielder that they could not have imagined would be playing a significant role for them this year. Last night, after getting down early in the second game of a double-header, they came from behind to beat the Rockies 10-8 on the strength of a grand slam from rookie Andrew Toles. It would have been more shocking if Toles hadn’t been torching big-league pitching since making his debut in July.

Toles’ story is remarkable, given that he was out of baseball last year. A former third-round pick by the Rays when Andrew Friedman was the GM in Tampa, Toles was released by the team after the 2014 season, and the Dodgers picked him up on a minor-league contract a little less than a year ago. As Kiley McDaniel noted in his 2014 write-up of the Rays’ system, this wasn’t the first time Toles parted ways with his team.

Toles has a checkered past: he was kicked off the team at Tennessee after his freshman year, had lots of makeup whispers around him in his draft year out of Chipola JC (he was a 3rd rounder), then was put on the temporarily inactive by the Rays for two months in the middle of the 2014 season. No one is talking about what the reason was, but the whispers point to problems in his personal life. Toles returned from suspension in August and, while getting back in shape in the GCL, injured his wrist; Rays officials say he looked back to normal physically in instructs. On the field, Toles is electric, with 70 speed, good feel for contact and a true center field fit. He still swings at too many pitches outside the zone, so if he can clean that up and trust his speed to get him on base, he could be an everyday player.

Before this year, Toles hadn’t played above A-ball, and then he took a year off, so it would have been ridiculous for the Dodgers to forecast that he’d be contributing to the big-league team when they signed him last September. They started him back in A-ball to begin this year, and realistically, Toles was probably something like 10th on the team’s center-field depth chart when the year started. He was the kind of guy where, if you said he’d be playing regularly in August, you’d assume the Dodgers season had gone entirely off the rails.

But after his heroics last night, Toles is now hitting .397/.463/.690 through his first 67 big-league at-bats, putting up a ridiculous +1.3 WAR despite drawing just 13 starts so far this year. And given what he’s done in limited action, it might be time to consider giving him some more playing time.

Of course, Toles isn’t going to keep hitting like this; no one would keep hitting like this. But the report on Toles has never been that he’d have to hit his way to the show, as his speed and athleticism have had him profiled as a high-end defensive asset, so if he could hit at all, that would be enough to make him a quality regular. And Toles’ 2016 season was giving plenty of reason to think that Toles might hit enough, even before he started crushing big-league pitching.

Back in July, Chris Mitchell rolled out a new-and-improved methodology for his KATOH forecasting system. The stats-only view of prospects is not how you want to evaluate a player in totality, but it does give us an objective sense of which players at performing in ways that historically have translated well to the big leagues. Because it ignores scouting reports, KATOH often spits out some counterintuitive results — nobody really thinks Dylan Cozens is the No. 2 prospect in baseball — but it is good at highlighting underappreciated players and guys who are flying under the radar for various reasons.

On the top-100 list that Mitchell rolled out with that update, Toles ranked as the No. 43 prospect in baseball. That was solely based on his minor-league performance, as KATOH likes guys who hit for power and make contact while playing premium positions. To put that in perspective, Toles was effectively tied with Gleyber Torres, the prime return the Yankees got for Aroldis Chapman, and only two spots behind Gary Sanchez, who is currently establishing himself as the Yankees’ new franchise catcher. That’s pretty lofty company for a guy who was out of baseball last year.

Of course, Toles has only increased his stock since getting the call to the big leagues. His grand slam last night was his 10th extra-base hit, so he’s showing far more power than expected, but with his strikeout avoidance and speed, even average power could make him a legitimate everyday player, and perhaps someone the Dodgers should be starting more often.

Based on his performance in both the majors and minors, Steamer is projecting Toles as a .274/.314/.403 hitter the rest of the season, which grades out to a 94 wRC+. If the high-end speed allowed him to be a plus defender in the outfield while hitting like that, then Toles would be a quality regular. But given his lack of development time, it’s fair to wonder if perhaps Toles could even outperform that forecast, especially if the Dodgers can help him begin to control the strike zone a bit more regularly.

There’s no way the Dodgers were planning on Toles being a big part of their team when they gave him a minor-league deal last September, but less than a year later, he’s now in a position where he’s pushing Howie Kendrick and Josh Reddick for playing time. There’s no need to rush him into an everyday job at this point, but it might be time to give him a few more starts per week, and if Toles keeps hitting, it’s going to be tough to keep him out of the lineup.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

It was a July baseball game and the Dodgers sent a man named Andrew Toles to bat. From the first time I saw him, I told my family “Forget Kershaw, Andrew Toles is my new favorite player.” I only said this because he had a cool beard and no other reason.

Two months later: wRC+: 204

Andrew Toles. The Man. The Myth. The Legend.