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February 16, 2017

Rubbing Mud

Corey Dickerson is Weird

by Matthew Trueblood


No batter should swing at every pitch they see. That would be preposterous. Relatively few batters should swing even half the time. For most guys, patience and plate discipline are hard-won, valuable skills, the backbone of a successful approach. It would be so cool, though, if we could find a player who should swing at everything.

Imagine such a player. He’d have to be so prone to strikeouts that he could trade any chance of walks for the extra hacks and chances to make contact. He’d also need to have good power, to make up for his inevitably tepid on-base percentage. He’d also have to be unbelievably good at hitting pitchers’ pitches, even ones pretty far outside the strike zone, and hitting them hard—or at least, he’d need to be close to as good at that as he was at hitting pitches within the traditional hitting zone.

Imagine what he might do for pace of play. Imagine the fun of so many balls put in play, with authority. The creature we’re envisioning doesn’t exist, but he’d be fun to watch.

Corey Dickerson should, maybe, swing at every pitch he sees. At the very least, he should swing earlier and more often than any other hitter in baseball. In a very specific, marginally valuable way Dickerson breaks baseball. In a certain, maybe unimportant sense he’s the best bad-ball hitter of the PITCHf/x era. He’s a poor man’s Vladimir Guerrero.

Let’s start with a bit about Dickerson’s swing, which is a treat. (I spoke to BP alumnus Ryan Parker about this, as I’m a wannabe when it comes to mechanical scouting. Ryan really knows his stuff, and you should check him out.) Dickerson has a fairly high leg kick, but it’s a flowing sort of movement, very rhythmic, and a bit less aggressive than some other (and some of them better) hitters’ strides. He ratchets his front shoulder up as he starts his swing more than he brings the back one down, so he creates some natural lift in his swing before it even gets going.

The swing itself is a long-armed, speed-over-subtlety sweep, ending in a one-handed finish long on flourish. Physically, he’s a hitter who seeks damage. The long, elegant swing is built to get the ball in the air at a high exit velocity. It is not built to be adjusted midcourse, or to have its speed and violence modulated to generate contact. He tries to do this on just about every swing.

Unsurprisingly, Dickerson has struck out at an above-average rate for his career. In his first four big-league seasons, he’s fanned 22.5 percent of the time, and in 2016 the figure was a career-high 24.5 percent. Dickerson makes contact on a pretty low percentage of his total swings. He also swings at an alarmingly high percentage of the pitches he sees outside the strike zone. In 2016, he swung at 45.2 percent of those pitches, the highest chase rate in baseball.

Here’s where things get weird. I already told you that Dickerson swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the zone than any other hitter (of the 302 who saw at least 1,000 pitches for the season). I’ll also tell you that he was in the 86th percentile for swing rate within the strike zone. It’s not the highest in baseball, but you get it. He swings a lot, at strikes and at balls.

Of those 302 batters, Dickerson had the eighth-lowest contact rate on swings at pitches inside the strike zone. He made contact just 73.8 percent of the time on such swings. He’s right in league with Khris Davis (his top PECOTA comp for this season, by the way), Chris Davis, Chris Carter, and Keon Broxton in that regard.

Here’s the best way I can frame what comes next. I took the seven batters who whiffed more often than Dickerson did on swings inside the zone, and the seven batters just below him on that leaderboard, and averaged those 14 players’ contact rates on swings at pitches outside the zone. It was 46.8 percent. If you whiff as much as Dickerson does on pitches in the zone, you’re literally more likely to miss than to make contact when you chase something outside the zone. That makes some sense, if you think about it. Guys with long swings, with holes in their swings, guys who trade contact for power, they tend to have grooved swings.

To adjust and put good wood on the ball when it’s outside the zone requires such good bat control that anyone who consistently does it will have a much higher contact rate on pitches within the zone than guys like Dickerson have. That is only true, however, if you’re not Dickerson. His contact rate on swings at pitches outside the zone in 2016 was 67.4 percent. A player who is more likely to whiff on a pitch in the zone than 97 percent of his peers is also more likely to make contact on a pitch outside the zone than 75 percent of them.

The sheer difference in contact rate based on the location of the pitch is not unprecedented. There have been 2,341 player seasons during the PITCHf/x era in which a batter saw at least 1,200 pitches. Dickerson has crossed that threshold twice (2014 and 2016). Ranking those player seasons by out-of-zone contact rate as a percentage of in-zone contact rate (O-Contact%/Z-Contact%), Dickerson lands 25th and 27th on the list, so other guys have been better at making as much contact outside the zone as within it. Here are the names of the guys who have topped Dickerson’s two campaigns:

This is a list of elite contact hitters and pests. Some had good power, but mostly, they excelled at putting the bat to the ball no matter where it was pitched. You can go 100 player seasons down this particular leaderboard and find only three entries for in-zone contact rate lower than 81.2 percent: Dickerson (twice: 73.8, 77.2) and Miguel Montero (78.9 in 2010). You can also go 100 player seasons down this leaderboard and find only two players (Sandoval and, for one lonely season, Jose Lopez) who chased balls nearly as often as Dickerson has in his career.

This is an easy phenomenon to explain, but an impossible one to explain away. Dickerson makes contact more than 91 percent as often on swings at pitches outside the strike zone as on swings at pitches inside it. That shouldn’t be possible for a player who swings so often, and so indiscriminately. It shouldn’t be possible for a player who hits the ball hard but whiffs a lot. It makes sense that some preternaturally gifted hand-eye hackers could put good wood on bad balls despite swinging a lot. It makes sense that patient, grind-it-out guys who rarely and only slightly expand their zone could consistently reach pitches a few inches outside the zone as well as they reach the ones that just catch the corner. To be prone to swings and misses, to consistently chase pitches well outside the zone, and to still make contact just as consistently on ankle-high breaking balls as on waist-high fastballs, however, seems to require Dickerson DNA.

As soon as I began to see what was happening here, I started blazing a trail through the online archive of video of Dickerson. I’ve watched a majority of the highlights on file for him on YouTube and on Baseball Savant by now and I’ve watched some Rays games from 2016 straight through just to see Dickerson hit. It’s the damnedest thing. I’ve seen him hit eye-high pitches out of the park on a hard line to right (against the Yankees last year), and on a majestic parabola to dead center (in 2015, in Milwaukee), and I’ve watched him hit that pitch into the left-field corner for a line-drive double, too.

I’ve watched him hit back-foot sliders that were well-executed, pulled down the line (in 2014, off Jake Arrieta in Colorado) without a hint of the hook the right fielder anticipated, for an easy double; and to left-center (in 2016, in Tampa), with a weird slice and more exit velocity than Adam Jones could account for, for another double that glanced off the glove.

I’ve also seen him whiff a lot on fastballs right down the middle—though he can get hold of such pitches and hit them 450 feet, when he hits them. He has power to all fields, and he can hit almost any pitch hard to almost any place on the diamond. He also swings and misses too much.

I mentioned that Dickerson should, arguably, swing at every pitch he sees. You can start to understand why I would say that. A guy who whiffs a lot benefits more than most from staying out of two-strike situations, so swinging early in the count has value. A guy who can hit even bad pitches hard benefits less than most from taking those pitches and trying to grind out a walk. Most players hit the ball so much more frequently (and so much better) when it’s in the strike zone that they should force pitchers to pitch into that space. Dickerson only suffers by standing and waiting, because if he watches a fringy strike go by he’s missed an opportunity to get a hit.

Here are some numbers to illustrate the hyperbole. In his career, Dickerson has 1,473 plate appearances. Of those, 376 have ended on either the first or the second pitch. He’s hit .364, with a .730 slugging average in those plate appearances. In 1,097 plate appearances lasting at least three pitches, he’s hit .247/.313/.427. Lest you think he benefited too much from Coors Field to trust the viability of such aggressiveness, he hit .331 and slugged .725 with the Rays last year in 144 plate appearances that ended on the first or second pitch. (In 404 other trips, he batted .212/.277/.370.)

It’s very hard for a modern left-handed batter who strikes out a lot and walks only a little to hit for enough power and in-play average to sustain excellence at the plate. Dickerson wasn’t all that good last season, despite having the platoon advantage in nearly 80 percent of his plate appearances. It’s possible that, while pretty evidently a real, meaningful, and unique characteristic, Dickerson’s unusually unbifurcated ability to handle good and bad pitches has little value. He might be better if he were more conventional, whiffing a bit more on bad pitches, hitting more good ones, laying off a few would-be whiffs in order to draw more walks. If he were that way, though, he’d also be just another boring platoon outfield bat. The world is more fun because Dickerson is who he is.

Thanks to Rays fan Yancy Eaton, who watched Dickerson as much as I should have last year and asked what I thought of him.

Matthew Trueblood is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

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