One of my favorite things about baseball is following prospects. It’s fun to follow guys like Jonathan Gray or Nolan Arenado up through the minor leagues, tracking how they perform as they move from one level to another, eventually gaining some national attention. And when they finally come up to the big league roster, there is this first-date type tension as you watch and wait to see if this was worth getting dressed up for. Sometimes it’s a disappointment, but it’s those times when it’s not–when you get a rookie campaign like Troy Tulowitzki or Mike Trout–that makes it worth all the effort and energy.
But sometimes it isn’t about the prospects that everyone likes. Sometimes there are players who sneak up on you, quietly performing at every level, earning promotion after promotion until, suddenly, he earns a call-up to the show. This is kind of like that girl you were always really good friends with until, one day, you realize you’re in love.
I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m falling for Corey Dickerson.
Corey Dickerson was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the 8th round of the 2010 amateur draft (he was also drafted in the 29th round in the 2009 draft, but apparently went back to school). He never made it onto Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects; he wasn’t even in their Top 10 Rockies Prospect lists. Ever. However in his Minor League career, all he did was hit (.322/.380/.601 with 78 HR and 43 SB in 380 games over 5 seasons and 5 levels). He slowly worked his way up the organizational ladder until he earned his call-up to the Major Leagues on June 22, 2013, when he went 2-for-4 with 1 RBI. He finished 2013 with a good-not-great triple slash of .263/.316/.459 with 5 HR and 2 SB in 213 plate appearances.
Corey Dickerson has come on strong this year. Originally thought to be the odd one out in a crowded Rockies outfield out of Spring Training due to a lack of experience and prospect pedigree, Corey thrived in limited playing time before injuries to Michael Cuddyer then Carlos Gonzalez then Cuddyer again pushed him into the everyday lineup. He has seized the opportunity with authority.(all statistics going into Saturday, June 14)
The raw numbers are very impressive, indeed. In fact, according to wRC+, Corey has been the most valuable offensive piece not named Troy Tulowitzki. The question remains, however, how an 8th round pick with no prospect pedigree to speak of has done so well with his opportunity. Perhaps more importantly, however, is how long can the Rockies expect this to continue?
How Corey Dickerson Did It
The numbers tell us what Corey has been able to do to this point in the season. To get a better idea of how he has done it, I decided to take a look at his spray charts and heat maps. First, to see how and where his hits have come, a spray chart:
Corey has been adept at spreading the ball to all fields, which is an important skill in an era where defensive shifts are becoming more and more commonplace. Pay special attention to those red squares, which indicate home runs. Even when he is flashing some power he is still spreading the ball to all fields.
However, looking at this made me curious. How can he be launching so many extra base hits the other way? I decided to check how Corey has been pitched using heat maps from ESPN Stats and Info. The results were telling:
As you can see, Corey has been crushing the ball on the outer half of the plate. Usually the book on young lefty hitters is to give them soft stuff away so they’re unable really turn on those inside pitches (see: Gonzalez, Carlos). So far, he has made the most of this approach by “going with the pitch,” to the tune of a .483/.569/.833 line on pitches in the outer-half of the zone in 72 plate appearances. I wouldn’t be surprised if teams soon wised up and began challenging him on the inner half of the zone where he has (comparatively) struggled (.197 BA). They’ll have to be careful, however, as he has still managed a .459 SLG on pitches on the inner half with 4 HR and a .262 ISO (Isolated Slugging measures how good a player is at hitting for extra bases, with anything above .200 considered great). In any case, a pillar of Corey’s success to this point has been spreading the ball around the field, mostly by taking what pitchers give him, a skill that the Rockies can hope will be repeatable.
Of course, according to the National Statute of Baseball Analysis of 1996, we are not allowed to talk about an encouraging offensive performance from a Rockies player without discussing Coors Field. I would hope most would look at park-adjusted statistics like wRC+ in the chart above and say “Oh, well if his wRC+ is 172 then I suppose he has been good even without Coors.” But we don’t live in a perfect world yet, so I’ll soldier on.
Look, it’s no secret that Coors Field tends to boost offensive production (the Rockies have had the largest Park Factor* according to Fangraphs over the past few years). But to paint over the production of a player by simply calling them a “Coors Creation” lacks the subtlety and nuance more befitting modern baseball analysis. After all, we don’t often hear about how the Madison Bumgarner is an “AT&T Park Production” (even though the Giants had the lowest Park Factor in 2013) or how Babe Ruth should be penalized for hitting all those home runs to the short porch in Yankee Stadium. Yes, Coors is different. But they still have to play the game so let’s let it go for a while, please?
*Park Factor tells us what sort of impact the playing field has on the games played there. Larger numbers indicate a park that boosts offense while lower numbers indicate one that suppresses offense. A Park Factor of 100 indicates a mostly neutral park.
Okay, rant over.
First, I present you with Corey’s raw home/road splits and see for yourself:
It almost goes without saying that we are still dealing with small sample sizes here. It should be noted that almost all players hit better at home than they do on the road, whether it be comfort with your surroundings or the support of the home crowd or something else. But if you play your home games at Coors Field, you’ll see an even bigger boost. That said, these numbers are pretty darn impressive, even when you consider the fact that most of Corey’s numbers on the road come out a little lower that at home–though certainly not as much as many might expect. So far this season we haven’t seen that fabled “Coors Effect” from Corey, as most of these numbers—apart from the batting average—aren’t that far apart. In fact, Corey has hit more home runs on the road than at home. While this isn’t THAT out of the ordinary with these sample sizes, it got me curious. Take a look at these hit charts:
So Corey has pulled his home runs on the road and sent them opposite way at home. This is interesting. Thinking back to our previous heat map, I wondered if he was seeing different pitches and wouldn’t you know it:
I’m not sure what to make of this, but I still think it’s pretty interesting. Corey has, so far, been pitched very differently at home than on the road—and yet it has barely mattered to the overall result. Perhaps pitchers are more leery of his power at Coors Field, or he was quicker to jump on inside pitches on those road games. Maybe there is no explanation and it’s merely statistical noise that will even out over the course of the year but hey what fun is that? Speaking of “rest of the year,” how much can we expect this to continue?
Projections and Regression
First we’ll go over the bad news. The previous table hid a dirty little secret. Corey’s BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls In Play, is pretty spectacularly high at home and pretty high on the road. His overall BABIP of .393 is also very high. League average BABIP is right around .300, though many players make a career hitting well above that. What does this mean for Corey? It is likely that a .393 BABIP is not sustainable, so his numbers will almost certainly come down from their current levels.
On to the good news: based on his career performance, Corey may not have that far to fall. According to Fangraphs his career BABIP of .338 means that he tends to generate a bit more contact than average. That means that while Corey won’t likely continue his Barry Bonds OPS impression for very long, he will still turn out to be a very valuable player for the Rockies going forward. To give us an idea, let’s look at one of the most commonly cited projection systems, ZiPS, available on Fangraphs.
Disclaimer: It’s clear that you can’t predict baseball (especially on a micro level), but many smart people have put many hours of effort into creating the projection systems we have today. Whether or not you personally trust the projections is completely up to you. But if nothing else projection systems can give us an idea of what to expect going forward. What do these expect out of Corey Dickerson?
We’ll look at ZiPS Rest of Season (ROS) projections, as well as their updated projections based on what Corey has done so far.
|Season to date||47||138||8||23||23||4||.393||.339||.406||.645||172|
Remember, these projections take into account what Corey has already done in order to form their projections for the rest of the year. And what we see here is that ZiPS seems to like what Corey has done so far. Remember that wRC+ takes all of a player’s offensive contributions and then compares it to league average. This means that, even with a little regression, he is still projected to be 13% better than the average hitter (wRC+ of 113) the rest of the season If this were to hold true—and it is fairly conservative by design—Corey could end up having an All-Star caliber season. In other words, his underlying skill set is considered strong enough to keep his strong season going.
The elephant in the room, however, is playing time. When All-Star outfielders Carlos Gonzalez (late July) and Michael Cuddyer (possibly August) come back from the disabled list, the roster crunch will resume and playing time may be difficult to come by. I don’t even the conundrum coming Walt Weiss‘s way, and this will likely be the only thing that really limits Corey’s value. Looking to the long-term, with Cuddyer set to become a free-agent at the end of this season, look for the Rockies to part ways with the aging slugger.
You see there’s this kid, Corey. I think this might be the real thing.