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Chasing Dyson

How a new crop of young Royals are following Jarrod Dyson’s path to the Show

Khalil Lee, Nick Heath, DJ Burt, and Rudy Martin
DJ Burt | Instagram

On September 24, 2015, Jarrod Dyson patrolled the dugout ceiling. The Kansas City Royals had just clinched their first American League Central pennant since 30 years prior during their 1985 World Series run. The 2015 Royals won the World Series, too, in no small part because of Dyson.

That evening, Dyson pumped up the crowd. He gave high fives to the outstretched palms of ecstatic fans eager to support a Kansas City baseball team that was finally a respectable club.

Dyson wasn’t the only Royal celebrating with the fans. And Dyson was never a core cog of the New Golden Age Royals like Eric Hosmer or Mike Moustakas, even if some statistics suggested he was just as good (if not better).

But Dyson has a special place in Royals history and in the hearts of many Royals fans because guys like him simply don’t get to the big leagues, let alone succeed there. It’s hard enough for a first round pick to do well. For a guy selected in the 50th round after 1,475 other players were selected? That’s unthinkable odds.

Dyson made it. He was fast, yes, he was talented, yes, but he came from a small town in the deep south with barely a five-digit population total, and a game-worn Dyson jersey could comfortably fit your average accountant if it wasn’t actually too small. Dyson is the embodiment of every little boy’s dream: that, someday, you can step up to the plate in a World Series if you work hard enough to get there.

And for a quartet of Royals minor league players—Rudy Martin and teammates Nick Heath, DJ Burt, and Blake Perkins—Dyson isn’t just a nice story. Rather, for them, Dyson’s path represents their best path to the promised land of Major League Baseball. For them, chasing Dyson isn’t only a metaphor, but a dream.

To succeed at the highest levels of professional baseball, you simply have to be able to hit. This is maybe the cruelest thing about baseball, because hitting such a small object going 95 MPH is hard enough even if you know that it’s coming, let alone if said pitcher also has a 92 MPH cutter that breaks just enough to throw you off and a 70 MPH curveball to keep you guessing.

But if you can hit, teams will give you chance after chance. And if you can’t hit, no matter how valuable you are in other areas, you simply won’t be able to accrue enough overall value to stick in the big leagues for a long time.

That’s what makes the Dyson Path to MLB success so intriguing: Dyson never really could hit.

In the minor leagues, the best triple slash he ever posted in any level he was at for more than a few weeks was his age-21 season for the rookie league Arizona Royals. Dyson hit .273/.358/.373, good for a .731 on base plus slugging percentage (OPS) during that stop.

Fortunately for Dyson, the 2000s Royals were a living, breathing Onion article of an organization, and absent of better outfield prospects his path towards promotion was relatively clear. Dyson got his MLB cup of coffee in 2010 in his age-25 season and stuck for good in 2012 in his age-27 season.

Dyson’s strength was, of course, his speed, which he used in a variety of ways. In his years in Kansas City from 2010-2016, Dyson was truly an elite defender. According to Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Dyson saved the ninth-most runs out of any outfielder during that period, and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) rated him as saving the eighth-most runs during the same period. Dyson did this despite playing thousands fewer innings than his peers near the top of the list.

And on the basepaths? Well, base stealing was Dyson’s specialty—his 220 career stolen bases and 85% success rate should speak to that—but Dyson’s speed let him do other ridiculous things, like tagging from third and scoring on a popup to the shortstop:

Dyson ended up being able to hit enough to stick, just barely; he was plenty competent against right-handed pitching, but against left-handed pitchers, Dyson turned into one of the worst hitters in professional baseball. Ultimately, that particular weakness did not fell him. In the 2017/2018 offseason, he signed a two-year, $7.5 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and his career earnings eclipsed $10 million this year.

But the Dyson Path is narrow. Have to hit just enough. Low power. Elite fielder. Elite baserunner. Hard worker to overcome the system that doesn’t value that specific skillset. Not everybody can fit those bills. Not every minor league system has a guy like that.

Enter one Rudy Martin.

If you didn’t know you were reading the following about Martin, you might mistake it for Dyson. Listed at 5’7”, 155 lbs. Hits left-handed. From a smaller town in Mississippi. Outfielder. African American. The similarities are not lost on the 22-year-old playing in High-A Wilmington.

“My whole career I’ve been modeled after Jarrod Dyson,” says Martin in an email. “He’s a player that gives 100% both offensively and defensively. I’ve tried to model my defensive game and baserunning game behind him because that is exactly how the Royal Way is.”

Of the four Royals’ minor leaguers trying to follow the Dyson Path, Martin is perhaps the most like him, following the small/lefty/outfield/late round combo to a T. Selected in the 25th round of the 2014 draft after 753 other players, the Royals offered Martin a $160,000 signing bonus, $60,000 over the $100,000 slot amount for that round. The Royals wanted Martin. Martin could have decided to go to college, perhaps seeing if he could increase his stock, get drafted higher, and nab a larger signing bonus. He did not. Martin wanted to play.

Growing up, Martin looked up to Michael Bourn, the six-team, 11-year MLB veteran, two-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner. “He is exactly the type of player that I am,” Martin says. “He could steal bags, play defense, get infield hits, and drive the ball in the gap when needed or over the fence.”

That type of versatility is what made Bourn so valuable and such a hot commodity. Bourn was traded in the middle of the season on three separate occasions. Never a good hitter, Bourn nevertheless provided value by getting on base, providing great defense, and swiping bags at will, with 381 career stolen bases accomplished at an 78% clip.

The astonishing thing about Martin is just how much further ahead he is compared to Dyson at their respective ages. In his age-22 season, Martin is sporting a High-A OPS of .699. That beats Dyson’s .626 OPS in his own first trip in Wilmington, and he was in his age-23 season then.

By his own admission, Martin is not a power hitter. His career .136 isolated power (ISO) is below average but certainly not terrible. Rather, Martin possesses a skill that is not particularly Royal-like and what may yet be a big part of his ticket to the big leagues: plate discipline and on base percentage (OBP).

“High OBP means more runs and more runs helps the team win games,” Rudy reasons. “As long as I can keep getting on base and in scoring position as quick as possible, it helps set the team up for runs and wins which is all that matters.”

Martin walks, and walks a lot. His minor league career walk rate is 13.6%, which has translated to an eye-popping OBP of .383. And Martin is right—OBP is the lifeblood of any offense. Fewer outs means more batters to the plate and directly translates to more opportunities for runs, and more runs means more wins.

It’s fair and natural to have doubts about a farm system that, coming into 2018, was ranked at or near the bottom of all minor league systems in talent and depth. The Royals did not have a single player on any publication’s list of the top 100 prospects in baseball, and only at midseason have performances by Seuly Matias and Khalil Lee and the drafting of Brady Singer started to change that.

But Dyson was never a top prospect, and yet his career is wildly more successful than many who make a top 100 list. Whit Merrifield wasn’t, either. Ditto Lorenzo Cain. Greg Holland. Joakim Soria. The list goes on.

For the Royals to succeed, they’re going to need unheralded guys to succeed, and the Dyson Path is a clear way to do so. Fortunately, Martin isn’t the only one. Kansas City has three others on similar paths: Nick Heath, Blake Perkins, and DJ Burt.

Heath was drafted 493rd overall in the 2016 MLB draft. The 24-year-old lefty has played all three outfield spots. Despite a sub-.100 ISO, he has walked 10% of the time in the minors. The Junction City, Kansas-born Heath is currently tearing it up at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, hitting .350/.395/.500 going into Wednesday’s game. He is most likely to debut first.

Perkins has the highest pedigree of these four and the highest upside. The 6’1” switch-hitter is sizewise more Cain than Dyson, and so is following a path in between the two great Royals outfielders. At 21 years of age, Perkins has walked 12.7% of the time in his minor league career. He is currently tearing up High-A Wilmington, where he boasts a 20% walk rate. That’s correct—twenty percent.

Burt rounds out the Dyson chasers. Unlike the others, Burt is an infielder. But like Dyson and the others, Burt has flexibility—including an ability to play shortstop—and is seemingly being groomed to be a utility man. The 22-year-old right hander has a career 12% walk rate in the minors. Burt is playing with Martin and Perkins in Wilmington, and he’s having a fantastic season, hitting 29% better than league average according to weighted runs created plus (wRC+).

Martin, Heath, Perkins, and Burt have combined for 367 stolen bases in their young minor league careers for a combined 76% success rate. Among them, only Perkins has a success rate below 75%. They are not afraid to run. They know their careers depend on it.

The hard fact of life is that most minor leaguers don’t make it to the major leagues. This is no secret. The road to the Show is hard enough for top prospects like Bubba Starling and Billy Beane before him, who despite possessing all the physical tools in the world and who are given repeated chances to succeed are in no way guaranteed success. Baseball is a hard game. It’s harder still for guys like Dyson, like Martin, like Heath, like Perkins, like Burt, who have to prove they are better and worth every single promotion.

That’s what makes it so sweet to root for them, and that’s what makes it so sweet if they succeed. It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball. The game is in many ways a metaphor for the human condition; we encounter so much hardship in life that rooting for the guys grinding it out with no safety net is not only an empathetic response but a sympathetic one.

“What set them apart from me was the mental aspect of it,” Martin writes about the established big league players he watched in spring training. “They had the confidence that they would be safe every time they stole a base, or that they would run down every single ball hit near them.”

Martin is not guaranteed to make it to the big leagues. Neither are his teammates. Dyson’s path to the dream is tantalizing, but it is a rocky road that is less traveled for a reason. Still, Martin believes in himself, and in his dream, despite the odds.

“I definitely think I can do it, because confidence within yourself can take you a long way.”

For those chasing Dyson, that long road ends in Kauffman Stadium and Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. We can only root that it does.