This is the first in a series of essays involving members of the 2013-2016 Royals with a wider lens than usual.
The National Basketball League held its 69th draft on June 23rd. There are 60 draft positions, and since the league consists of 32 teams, not every team will even average two players. In comparison, the National Football League draft has grown into a behemoth of an event, an unwieldy enterprise that somehow manages to extremely commercialize what is really just a purely functional device for divvying out amateur talent. The 81st version of the draft happened over three days from April 28 to April 30. Over seven rounds, the 30 NFL teams picked a combined 253 players. Indeed, the last player is officially deemed 'Mr. Irrelevant.' It's the kind of pseudo-honor that is equal parts insult and time in the sun.
Because sports are cruel, being Mr. Irrelevant involves fanfare and a very special award, the 'Lowsman Trophy.'
Look at this poor, poor football player doing something terribly wrong. He knows it, too.
That's the face of someone who wants to be somewhere else very badly.
The depicted winner, Chandler Harnish, was a quarterback drafted by the Indianapolis Colts. Harnish has not played a single minute in an NFL game, and never will. Sports at their highest levels are some of the most competitive entities in the world. When raw, genetically decided athleticism is a huge factor, no amount of studiousness, intellectual prowess, hard work, or feel for the game can truly compensate when there are individuals who have unparalleled athleticism and those aforementioned qualities. If you're not good enough to be drafted in front of a few hundred other individuals in your age range and experience level, how on earth are you going to compete with the best of the best already at the top?
Enter the Major League Baseball draft. The 2016 MLB Draft took place from June 9-11, three days just like the NFL version. But the MLB draft is a very different animal. The MLB draft includes high school, college, and independent league players. It isn't uncommon for a player to be drafted, decline to sign to go to college, and be drafted again out of college. Though baseball's positional specialization also allows players a way to not directly compete with every other player available, the numbers just can't be ignored. In 2016, there were 1,206 players drafted over 40 rounds.
The 2006 MLB draft occurred on June 6 and 7 when your average fan's interest in the draft was somewhere between soggy hot dogs and rotten apples. Later, Major League Baseball operated its draft at 40 rounds, but the 2006 MLB draft featured a full 50 rounds. There were ultimately 1,502 players drafted. The top of the draft featured fantastic talent, as three future Cy Young winners were drafted within the first 11 picks--Tim Lincecum, Max Scherzer, and Clayton Kershaw. The bottom picks, as always, tended to not exactly be quite that good. One of those picks was Gary Taylor, an outfielder out of Holmes Community College in Ridgeland, Mississipi. Taylor was drafted 1474th by the St. Louis Cardinals. Taylor never played a single inning of professional baseball in either the independent leagues, minors, or otherwise.
Drafted 1475th to kick off the 50th round was a 21 year-old outfielder out of Southwest Mississippi Community College from McComb, Mississippi. This player never graced a Top 100 prospect list and toiled five years in the minors before getting a September call-up at age 26. After spending years and years in an organization so far in the trash bin that a 90 loss season was seen as progress, this player scored the go-ahead run in the 12th inning of the deciding game of the World Series for that same organization almost ten years after being drafted.
That player, of course, is Jarrod Dyson.
Prospects like Dyson are a dime a dozen, players with oodles of a single tool that dazzle at lower levels but don't have the skills or athleticism necessary to advance with more well-rounded players. For Dyson, that tool is his speed. Pure, blazing velocity on the basepaths is not something that can be taught--either you're fast or you aren't.
But players like Dyson aren't so common, and Dyson's development into a complete baseball player is one of the oft-overlooked miracles in the resurgent Royals. At best, players with Dyson's tools turn into Terrance Gore: speed demons on the dirt, able to swipe bases at will in hilariously easy fashion, but unable to impose their will on pitchers or get to the bag in the first place. At worst, the fast players flame out quickly. Base stealing is an art, and the best base stealers are not always the fastest base runners. Take Paulo Orlando, for instance. Orlando was a member of the Brazillian Junior Olympic Team before entering baseball; his reported 200m time was 21 seconds, a time that would have even beat a handful of men at the 2012 London Olympic Games. Even considering that he's lost a few steps over the years, Orlando only owns eight stolen bases at the Major League level and has been thrown out four times.
Dyson's ability to leverage his pure speed to his advantage has indeed been the big difference. Dyson is fifth all-time in stolen base percentage (minimum of 100 stolen bases). All-time. He's played over half the Royals' games every year since 2012, and since then he's has:
- Ranked eighth in stolen bases with 138 among all players w/ 1000+ plate appearances
- Ranked fifth in total baserunning value at 26.4 runs above average among all players w/ 1000+ plate appearances
Everybody gets the value of stolen bases, but baserunning is a little harder to quantify and rap your head around. Going first to third or scoring from second on a sharply-hit single to a shallow outfield won't bring you lots of fame, but there is immense value in creating offense through smartly aggressive baserunning. Perhaps my favorite Jarrod Dyson moment ever came in a tie game in 2011, when Dyson literally scores on a popup to deep shortstop:
Speed also lends a hand to the other half of being a position player: defense. Baseball's best defenders are quick, making snap decisions and adjustments alongside sprinting what seem like miles to snag balls in the first place.
Again, speed is not a direct path to excellent defense. Speed doesn't help you take good routes on fly balls, or to know when and how to jump, or to tell you where to throw the ball after catching it, or how to communicate well with teammates rushing at you and still make the play. Alex Gordon is not nearly as fast as Dyson, but his string of Gold Gloves has been built on golden instinct, perfect routes on fly balls, and brilliant throws to runners who dare advance on the basepaths.
Dyson is one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball, and has been for years. Since 2012, he has
- Ranked eighth in Defensive Runs Saved at +48 runs among outfielders with 1000+ outfield innings
- Ranked fifth in Ultimate Zone Rating at +50.3 runs among outfielders with 1000+ outfield innings
- Ranked 24th in outfield assists with 30 among outfielders with 1000+ outfield innings
That last point sure looks out of place--24th place? You don't celebrate 24th place, unless the objective is specifically to be 24th place (in which case you should probably compete for something else, because that's just weird). But 24th place in this situation still beats 147 other outfielders. The thing is, in addition to Dyson's absurd range...
(look at the technique in that slide as much as his speed and quick reaction time)
...Dyson has a deceptively strong arm, with a clean and quick glove-to-hand exchange:
Jarrod Dyson is listed at 5' 10" and 165 lbs. He doesn't have the bulk that you so often see in outfielders to help him out on those outfield assists (think Alex Gordon and his biceps), and he doesn't have the long stride that taller outfielders have to cover ground quickly (think Lorenzo Cain's extraordinary gazelle-like glide).
Dyson has achieved the bulk of this after what is oft-considered a baseball player's best years. Dyson will turn 32 this August, and has only played in 46% of his games in his career with his age beginning with a '2' the whole season. He's slowing down a bit--his stolen base success is down a bit this year, for instance--but he remains wildly effective.
Perhaps most stunning about Dyson is his offense. As mentioned above, Dyson is not gifted with raw physical athletic power or size. His offense was never going to be amazing because of it. But too many times, players like Dyson don't cut it because they attempt to be something they aren't, or because their total lack of power and ability to get line drives just destroys what offense they could muster (Terrance Gore).
Dyson, however, has married two offensive ideas: plate discipline and ground balls. You can't beat an infield fly, but you can beat an infield grounder. Other times, you can force errors on defenders rushing to toss the ball to first place. Keeping it on the ground is a good idea for players like Dyson, and he hits ground balls at an almost 60% clip.
Surprisingly, Dyson has also been able to keep an extraordinary plate discipline. Usually, batters who don't pose much of a threat don't walk much because pitchers usually challenge them and win. But with a career .086 ISO, Dyson has enough pop to keep pitchers honest, and with that inch he's taken a mile. Dyson has an 8.4% walk rate for his career. Here are a list of Royals batters who have started in 2016 that don't have a career walk rate that high:
- Alcides Escobar
- Mike Moustakas
- Whit Merrifield
- Omar Infante
- Eric Hosmer
- Salvador Perez
- Lorenzo Cain
- Kendrys Morales
- Paulo Orlando
- Drew Butera
- Brett Eibner
- Tony Cruz
- Reymond Fuentes
If that list looks like it's every single position player except Alex Gordon, well, that's because it's every single position player except Alex Gordon. Dyson, of all people, has the second-highest career walk rate on the team. Walking is not easy, and especially so when nobody will walk you intentionally; it's a skill usually found on sluggers or great hitters. It is not usually found on weak-hitting players at defensively premium positions, and therefore helps Dyson become a viable player.
Dyson is not and will never be an above average hitter. He doesn't hit for enough average, and he doesn't hit for much power. Against fellow left-handed hitters, he is unplayable. For his career, he has hit 17% below average, a triple slash of .255/.321/.341. For most hitters, that number is just not good enough.
For Dyson, it is good enough. Dyson is the rare player who his historically great at multiple facets of the game. Until a few years ago, his brilliance was being lost on a terrible team. But his contributions have helped bring a championship back to Kansas City. His unstoppable feet scored the winning run in New York last year. Someday, we might take both of those things for granted.
We really shouldn't, though. Dyson rose from a position in the draft that does not exist anymore to be an important player on a championship team. That should not be taken for granted.