In 2020, Dylan Coleman was acquired by Kansas City as a player to be named later in the deal that sent Trevor Rosenthal to San Diego. The Missouri State product was something of a lottery ticket, having put up decent numbers in the low minors but showed command issues and missed lots of time due to injury. In his first season in the Royals organization, Coleman surpassed all expectations. The 6’5” righty posted a 3.28 ERA between AA and AAA with even better peripherals, striking out 93 batters and walking 22 in 57.2 innings between the levels. This performance earned him a cup of coffee in the majors late in the season, where he impressed with 6.1 excellent innings in relief.
Coleman entered 2022 with higher expectations than he had in previous seasons. Royals Farm Report ranked him as the 18th best prospect in the system, writing:
At present, Coleman will sit 97-99 and hit 100-101. His slider is an absolutely electric secondary offering, due in part to how hard he throws the damn thing, but there seems to be some deception created by his delivery as well. Put it all together and you’ve got a guy that could legitimately be this team’s closer as early as this 2022 season.
Coleman was one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in baseball in his limited action in 2021 and was expected to play a role for the Royals this season. While the numbers don’t immediately jump off the page, Coleman was both healthy and effective this season, finishing 2022 with a 2.78 ERA and 3.88 FIP in 68 innings pitched.
Coleman was one of Mike Matheny’s go-to bullpen arms this season. His 68 appearances and 68.0 innings pitched both trailed only Scott Barlow among Royals pitchers. Using Coleman was generally a sensible move as his 2.78 ERA was higher only than Barlow and Gabe Speier among Royals relievers that threw at least ten innings. He also showed the ability to work multiple innings out of the pen, recording at least four outs in nine of his appearances.
Coleman was serviceable but dusty in the first half. At the All-Star break, he carried a 3.13 ERA and 4.88 FIP in 37.1 innings. Him being a rookie with an injury history, it was fair to expect him to wear down towards the end of the season. But he did the opposite. Coleman was lights out in the second half, improving in nearly every stat and pitching to a sterling 2.35 ERA and 2.66 FIP.
He was a strikeout machine in the minors and showed the ability to miss bats at the highest level as well. While his 24.6% K rate isn’t elite, it’s above the major league average for relievers of 23.6%. What I find interesting is how he got those strikeouts. Despite his explosive stuff, Coleman struggled getting hitters to chase, with his 26.9% chase rate placing him in the 26th percentile of pitchers. However, hitters had a very hard time putting strikes in play against him. Among 152 qualified relievers this year, Coleman’s zone contact rate of 78.3% was 18th lowest in the majors. Thanks to this, Coleman placed in the 86th percentile in whiff rate despite the lack of chases. He was the epitome of “here it is, try and hit it.”
Coleman is purely a two-pitch guy. Just over half of his pitches were his four-seam fastball. His fastball displays elite characteristics, with velo in the 95th percentile (97.5 mph) and spin rates in the 93rd percentile (2447 rpm). The fastball was a pretty effective pitch for him, but the real weapon here is the slider. Coleman throws a frisbee of a slider with well above-average horizontal break and below-average vertical break. The slider was an excellent put-away pitch with a 43.5% whiff rate and a .264 xwOBA against.
Given its movement profile, Coleman’s slider could be classified as a sweeper. This isn’t a new pitch, but it has been en vogue lately. It’s an interesting pitch with some notable advantages and drawbacks. On the plus side, it’s an excellent pitch for inducing soft contact in the air. On the other hand, it tends to get hit hard by opposite-handed batters.
In Coleman’s case, he managed to get the best of both worlds. On its face, the .247 BABIP against that he ran this season seems fluky. However, there’s a clear reason he was able to run such a low BABIP: Coleman tended to give up balls in the air (57.5% of balls in play against) that were not hard-hit (90th percentile average exit velo and 61st percentile hard-hit rate). Soft-hit flyballs tend to do little damage. The expected batting average on batted balls with exit velo below 95 mph that Statcast classifies as flyballs or popups is just .090. Meanwhile, Coleman exhibited essentially no platoon split. Lefties hit to a .295 wOBA against Coleman, while righties were .272. Lefties hit for a higher average but also walked less. What’s really surprising is that lefties hit for very little power against Coleman, producing an ISO of .080, much lower than the .134 produced by righties. Power-wise, that’s roughly the difference between Miguel Rojas and José Abreu.
I was very high on Dylan Coleman entering the season and with how much he showed this season, that optimism was justified.
Not everything was sunshine and roses for Coleman, however. Take a cursory glance at his Savant rankings and his weakness sticks out like a sore thumb:
That walk rate is unsightly. On a Royals staff that walked entirely too many batters, Coleman fit right in. His heat maps paint the picture of a pitcher that has no idea where the ball is going after he throws it:
That is scattershot command at best. The good news is this is all dragged down by his first half. After walking 16.8% of batters faced in the first half, Coleman slashed his walk rate to 7.4% in the second half. I’m having a hard time finding negatives to write here because everything Coleman was doing poorly early in the season improved as he got more big league innings. Seriously, look at this turnaround:
Dylan Coleman: A tale of two halves
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Since I can’t find much bad here, I’ll instead pivot to investigate how Coleman can take the next step and further improve. To do this, we’ll need to take a bit of a detour and discuss pitch design.
If you’ve been following baseball over the last few years, you’ve likely heard something about spin rates. Spin rates have a tremendous impact on the movement of a pitch and, therefore, a pitch’s effectiveness. But not all spin is created equal. Imagine Patrick Mahomes throwing a perfect spiral: the ball is spinning, yet it’s not moving laterally. This type of spin would be called inactive spin. Active spin is the spin that contributes to movement.
I mentioned earlier the elite characteristics of Coleman’s four-seam fastball. It’s remarkably similar to that of Gerrit Cole, who averaged 97.8 mph on his four-seamer this year with a spin rate of 2428 rpm. They’re also similar in terms of extension, with Coleman placing in the 69th percentile and Cole in the 60th. Yet despite the similarities, these two have not gotten the same results. Cole had a .299 xwOBA and 28.9% whiff rate against his four-seamer this season, while Coleman had a .338 xwOBA and 23.6% whiff rate against his.
Part of that is location, as Cole has much better command of his pitches than Coleman. But movement is another big factor. Cole’s four-seamer showed some horizontal run with 10.4 inches of lateral break, comfortably above average for four-seamers with similar velocity thrown by pitchers with similar extension. Coleman, however, averaged just 4.8 inches of horizontal movement, which is well below average. More crucially, Cole averaged 10.5 inches of vertical drop. This is much less than most four-seamers drop on their way to home plate, which creates that “rising” effect that causes hitters to swing under the ball. Coleman’s fastball dropped 15.2 inches on the way to home plate. His fastball doesn’t have ride, so to speak. The result? Cole was able to get batters to chase fastballs up and out of the zone more often than Coleman, as well as getting more whiffs on such swings.
Similar velocity, similar spin rates, similar extension. So why did Cole’s fastball perform so differently than Coleman’s? Cole achieved 97.5% active spin on his four-seamer. This means 97.5% of spin contributed to movement, very few of his 2428 rpm were wasted. Just look at the consistency with his spin and movement profiles:
Meanwhile, Coleman managed just 80.5% active spin with his four-seamer. While he demonstrated elite spin rates, a lot of those rpm were not contributing to movement. Coleman’s spin and movement profiles were far less consistent than Cole’s:
Aside from continued refinement of his command, this is the biggest path to improvement I see for Coleman. He already has the velo and spin rates to throw an elite four-seam fastball, but he needs to find a way to utilize that spin more efficiently. If he can get more backspin on the baseball to improve his fastball’s carry, he could make that four-seamer a legit weapon.
In summary, Coleman had quite the rookie season: a poor first half characterized by lack of control, followed by a flat-out dominant second half. He made exactly the types of improvements throughout the season one would hope to see from a rookie. I’m not ready to declare him one of the game’s elite relievers yet due to his age (he turned 26 last month) and the volatility inherent in the position, but Coleman should give the Royals strong innings out of the bullpen for at least the next few years. In my opinion, Dylan Coleman deserves a B for his 2022 season, and perhaps even an A if you believe his second-half improvements were legit.
What grade would you give Dylan Coleman for his 2022 season?
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