There’s a part of baseball, a special part, that doesn’t really seem to exist in any other sport. A part where the odd can persevere, a place for the abnormal to reside. Success on the baseball field can come from the unathletic and the Adonis alike. David Wells can throw a perfect game, hung over and looking very much like your beer-swilling, Harley-riding, workout-averse uncle. Matt Stairs had a nineteen-year career, the latter half of which existed on the broad shoulders of a man who more resembled a bouncer at a gentleman’s club than a star athlete. Bartolo Colon can hit his first career home run as a 42 year-old overweight pitcher who spent the overwhelming majority of his nineteen seasons in the American League.
And with this eccentricity, this penchant for collecting the odd and the absurd, baseball makes room for players like Jarrod Dyson.
Dyson is fast. That is a skill he possesses, and speed is a desired skill in baseball since stolen bases and large outfields were invented. But he’s also 5’ 9”, weighing in at a spindly 165 lbs. Fast, small, and lean is not the best combination for the baseball field. Rickey Henderson checked in at only 5’ 10”, but he could crush an insolent umpire’s head between his thighs. Billy Hamilton is fast, but he’s 6’ 1”. He looks the part. Dyson never has. It is the reason he went in the 50th round. It is the reason he has never been a real full-time starter. And it is, at least in part, the reason why we love him so damn much.
Underdog stories and baseball go hand in hand. For every Bryce Harper, whose destiny of greatness was etched in bronze before he ever strode onto a major league field, there’s a Mike Sweeney, a 10th round catcher who made the most of his skills. Mike Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round, which they don’t even have in the MLB amateur draft any more. People cherish the sure thing, but fall for the underdog. It has been that way since Doubleday.
Jarrod Dyson is not as great as these players, but he’ll be remembered all the same. And he was better than a side show, because it turns out that Dyson was more than fast; he could play.
Defensively speaking, he’s the third best outfielder. Not from the 2016 roster, but for the entire history of the Royals franchise. He saved more Runs than Carlos Beltran, and did so in 245 fewer games.
By Wins Above Replacement, he slots in at #8, nosing out Johnny Damon (who played in 253 more games), besting the likes of Al Cowens and Jermaine Dye.
Comparing number of games played isn’t a fair assessment, either. Not for Dyson. Of his 550 games played, he started in the outfield in just 369 of those games, and appeared defensively in only 480. That means that 70 times, Dyson entered the game as a pinch hitter/runner, and never played an inning on defense, the thing that he is remarkably good at.
Among outfielders, Dyson has the highest UZR/150 (21.2) in franchise history (min. 1,000 innings), closely followed by Lorenzo Cain (18.5) and then a steep decline to Alex Gordon (12.0) at #3.
He’s sixth in franchise history in stolen bases. Second in stolen base percentage (min. 200 attempts). Thirteenth in triples.
And again, he did all this while starting in just over two seasons worth of games.
There were underrated things about Dyson as well. While his offense wasn’t good, his ability to get on base at a fair enough rate made him passable as an every day player. Used exclusively against right-handed pitchers, he shined. Not only could he get on base at a league-average rate against RHPs, but they couldn’t hold him on first to save their lives. A walk or a single more often than not became a double against them.
Perhaps most underrated, owed mostly to his frame, was the strength of his arm. While not as inherently strong as Gordon or a certain Frenchman, teams had a tendency to think that Dyson couldn’t throw. But he can, and did. Cano. Calhoun. Cowgill. All of them were victims of underestimating Dyson’s throwing arm. It’s one of the reasons why, in 2016, he finished tenth in MLB for outfield assists, despite playing in just 107 games.
And it wasn’t that Dyson was simply fast. He used his speed to perform things that seemed impossible. Scoring from second on a wild pitch. An inside-the-park home run where he had run towards first, slowed to a jog, and then kicked in to gear.
But perhaps no singular play more encompassed what was in store for fans than the one that occurred on April 29th, 2011. The Royals were playing the Twins in a close if unenthusing game. It was 3-3 in the eighth, with Jarrod Dyson standing on third. Alcides Escobar was at the plate. And in a manner most befitting the great Hercules, he hit a weak pop fly to shallow left field. So shallow, in fact, that the shortstop made the catch running out.
Which turned out to be a terrible, terrible mistake.
Every play, every moment since, was seeded in this. This was Dyson’s second major league stint, having played in eighteen games the year before. He ended up only playing in twenty-six games in 2011, but he certainly made an impact.
It is fitting that 2016 is his last with the club. He posted career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging. He led the team in Wins Above Replacement (3.1), besting the likes of Lorenzo Cain (2.4) and Danny Duffy (2.8). And it wasn’t as if he had to try all that hard, seeing as how he played in just 107 games, just four more than Cain.
But that’s what he did. He made the spectacular look easy. The small, slight man from the 50th round. The part-time player who lives fully in our memory, as much for the greatness that was as the greatness that could have been.