The Mariners’ struggles to find a consistent solution at leadoff since the departure of Ichiro Suzuki have been well documented. For much of the past five years, the top spot of the order has been a revolving door of sadness and pain set to a soundtrack of Jason Bay’s creaking knees and Dustin Ackley’s beard hairs rustling in the breeze.
May I now direct your attention to this rather depressing table, which examines the overall production of Mariners leadoff hitters in the post-Ichiro years. The number in parentheses is their league ranking for each statistic.
As you can see, this production, (or lack thereof), leaves something to be desired. The bottom of the barrel was picked clean in 2014, when such notable stalwarts as Austin Jackson, Endy Chavez, James Jones, and Abraham Almonte led the Mariners to league lows in on base percentage, weighted on base average, and wRC+.
The following season there was nowhere left to go but up, which proved only to be nominally true as Mariners fans were treated to the joys of Fun 2015 Ketel Marte, even more Austin Jackson, and, for some reason which I will never understand, 20 games of Logan Morrison: Leadoff Hitter.
Last season, while the walks went up and strikeouts went down, (a major point of emphasis in the Jerry Dipoto regime), leadoff problems generally persisted for the M’s. While Nori Aoki was serviceable (if extremely unsexy) as a leadoff hitter in 2016, his primary counterparts Leonys Martín, and Decidedly Less Fun 2016 Ketel Marte, struggled to get on base with any semblance of reliability, failing to bring any real dynamism to the top of the order.
Now with Aoki and Marte gone, and not a single one of the ten whole players who took a hack from the leadoff spot in 2015 still on the current roster, things will look mighty different in 2017.
When the Mariners snagged Jean Segura from the Diamondbacks on Thanksgiving Eve, the consensus from the punditry seemed to be that the Mariners had found their leadoff hitter for 2017. However, following the acquisition of sparkplug Jarrod Dyson from the Royals, the situation at the top of the order became somewhat more convoluted.
Dyson is a bona fide burner, consistently rated as one of the fastest men in baseball. His Speed Score (Spd) last season was 8.7, which was good for second best in the league among players with at least 150 plate appearances. To put this in perspective, the best Spd rating for any Mariner last season was the 6.2 provided by Leonys Martín, while primary leadoff man Nori Aoiki posted a mere 4.8. After all that, a little change of pace sounds nice.
Jarrod Dyson: Player, however, is something of an anomaly. He has had a below average bat for most of his career (which I will discuss more later on), yet his value has remained relatively high – inflated not only by his blistering speed, but his outstanding defense. And given his origins as sort of a professional pinch runner, Fangraphs recently rated him as the second most atypical baseball player of the past several seasons, behind only Billy “Toothpick Flash” Hamilton.
For more clarity on the Jarrod “That’s What Speed Do” Dyson conundrum, I contacted my uncle, a Kansas City native and diehard Royals fan, to get the inside scoop:
Obviously, not the clubhouse grammarian, Dyson's talent at terrorizing pitchers when on base transcended any English text. A single becomes a double, a double becomes a triple. If there was a flaw at the plate it was that Dyson, like many diminutive players, felt the need to prove his prowess as a line drive gap hitter, [which] led to not the most impressive on base percentage.
But as my uncle confirms, Dyson more than makes up for a middling bat with speed, defense, and his indomitable warrior spirit.
Although he wanted to play more, he never displayed a disruptive attitude and was a clubhouse favorite among his teammates. He played the loudest music, talked the loudest smack, and absolutely loved his fellow Royals. Some say he was part of the glue that held the team together, particularly after losing game seven against the Giants, and dedicating that experience as a positive and motivation to win it all the following year. He was a fan favorite, pure and simple. We'll miss him in KC. The M's got a good one.
These sentiments were echoed by our counterparts at Royals Review, who praised not only his stunning speed and great glove, but his intangible contributions as a clubhouse leader and ever-hungry underdog.
Jerry Dipoto put it this way when the trade was announced:
Jarrod brings us a winning pedigree, along with elite level defense and base running. He joins players like Leonys Martín and Jean Segura in creating a disruptive element on the bases to our offensive game, while also enhancing our ability to prevent runs on defense.
Enamored with his dynamic skill set, Dipoto and Scott Servais have indicated that Dyson will begin spring training and likely start the season as the everyday leadoff man. Which sounds all fine and dandy, until you realize that this is something to this point in his career he has never really done. In fact, before last season, he had never even really been a regular starter.
Dyson is something of a late bloomer, first breaking into the majors at the age of 26, and not becoming a regular contributor until 28. He’ll turn 33 in August. And throughout his relatively brief career in Kansas City, he has yet to really prove himself as anything more than a left-batting platoon option. In the chart below are his career splits:
However, despite this apparent splits issue, Dyson made some positive steps last season. In an expanded role for the Royals, which featured 114 PA leading off, he set career highs in nearly every offensive category including plate appearances, batting average, and on base percentage, while bringing his K% down to a career low and his contact rate up to a career high, amounting to a team best 3.1 fWAR season – all in only 107 games.
Though his bat is likely due for some regression according to most models, he’s still projected as a 1.5-2 WAR player for 2017 – depending, of course, on how much he actually ends up playing.
Which is more or less why we’re having this little chat right now.
The fact of the matter is that Jarrod Dyson: Everyday Leadoff Man is still an unproven commodity.
Of course, Jarrod Dyson is a fast man. And due to his formidable wheels, he will get plenty of pitches to hit at the top of the order considering opposing pitchers will not be inclined to walk him. Indeed, much like a certain covetous rodent of children’s literature, if you give a Jarrod a first base, he will take a second base. And sometimes even a third.
Clearly the Mariners front office is enthralled by his singular speed, and given his offensive improvement last season, believe he has what it takes to be a productive everyday player. But should a middling bat with plus speed be enough to earn him the leadoff spot?
The new school of sabermetrically-inclined lineup crafters has espoused on base percentage over more traditional indicators of leadoff prowess, like speed and stolen bases. Given that your leadoff hitter’s primary job should be to get on base, by any means necessary, in order to set the table for your run producers, and seeing as your leadoff hitter will get more at bats than any other player in your lineup, it seems apparent that one of your best hitters should occupy this spot.
Accordingly, among the most successful leadoff hitters of last season are a handful of OBP-inclined, speed-disinclined folks like Matt Carpenter, Carlos Santana, (not that Carlos Santana, but he’s pretty cool, too), and former Mariner/actual pirate John Jaso – none of whom remotely fit the traditional, speed-first leadoff man mold.
Even human tuna melt and Daniel Vogelbach bosom brother Kyle Schwarber has been floated as likely leadoff man for the Cubs in 2017.
By this logic, Jarrod Dyson, with his .325 career OBP, is not a leadoff hitter. Even his career high mark last year of .340 barely cuts it. (By contrast, Nori Aoki’s OBP last season was .349).
But there’s a silver lining here – taken, of course, with a massive hypertension-inducing grain of salt. If you isolate Dyson’s numbers as a leadoff hitter last season, he was actually pretty solid. Here’s a comparison of his production hitting leadoff versus his production batting 9th, where he took the majority of his 2016 reps:
Granted, 114 leadoff plate appearances is a small sample size. I’ll also add that nearly all of this work came against righties, invoking his other considerably more dubious splits issue. But even so, a .360 OPB is nothing to scoff at. (Interestingly, he was a markedly more successful base stealer from the leadoff spot last season, though more likely than not that’s an aberration).
So to what can we attribute this discrepancy?
Perhaps pitchers are more afraid to walk him when he’s hitting leadoff. Perhaps he feels extra fired up and is looking to do some damage when given the opportunity to shine. Perhaps I’m reading way too much into all of this and need to go take a nap.
But one thing is certain – as an everyday leadoff man, Dyson is going to get plenty of pitches to hit. Opposing hurlers will not be interested in giving him a free pass to first with the heavy artillery of Cano, Cruz, and Seager waiting in the wings. It will be up to him to capitalize.
Fortunately, by all accounts he seems more than up for the challenge. When asked about the possibility of taking over as the full time Mariners leadoff hitter, his answer was decisive:
I’m all for that. I’ve been fighting for that for 10 years…If I’m gonna be at the top of that lineup, then I need to set the tone. I’m looking forward to doing that.
However, there is one more major question mark about Dyson that is yet to be determined – his durability. Whether he can stay healthy for a full season is unclear; he missed 6 weeks last season with a strained right oblique, and has never recorded more than 337 plate appearances in a season. And at 32, he’s not getting any younger.
But if he can stay healthy, and last season’s improvement in plate discipline and corresponding leap in OBP is not a fluke, Jarrod Dyson’s upside gives him the capability to lead off against righties in 2017. During spring training he will be given a fair chance to show what he can do in extended time against lefties, though given his limited career reps against left handed pitching and evident splits issue, the M’s would be better off having him come off the bench, or at least appear towards the bottom of the order, when a southpaw starter is on the mound.
All that being said, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Jarrod Dyson, it’s that you should never count him out. If you do, you’re probably going to get burned.
Next week I’ll be taking a look at the second spot in the order for 2017, and conjecture as to how it will shake down if Dyson solidifies his leadoff role, or if Servais and Dipoto try to work in some other options.
But no matter where he slots in the lineup, with Jarrod Dyson on the roster, the Mariners immediately get faster, rangier, and a heck of a lot more fun.
Vroom vroom. And go M’s.