Rays pitchers continue to lead the league in fly balls, so their outfield defense has a disproportionate effect on the team, more so than any other in the league.
This should come as no surprise: The Rays’ really bad 3-24 stretch that doomed the 2016 season came during their time without all world defender Kevin Kiermaier patrolling center field.
Numbers bear that out. The league average BABIP on fly balls is .098 and the Rays come in at .090, better than average at denying fly balls falling in for hits.
Over the season, there are three distinct splits where the Rays allowed a .083 BABIP in the outfield from the beginning of the season through May 21, when Kiermaier broke his hand. The BABIP then spiked during his absence as the Rays allowed a .110 BABIP from May 22 to the All-Star break. Since Kiermaier’s return on July 15 the Rays have allowed a .079 BABIP on fly balls. In other words, the Rays allowed more balls to land for hits without Kiermaier than with him.
In the second half of the season, only 24 fly balls have landed in the ball park for hits out of 303 fly balls in play.*
The big thing that sticks out in the second half, though, is the lack of hits to left field.
Corey Dickerson leads the team in innings played in left field and a bulk of that playing time has come in the second half, receiving 29 starts in 54 games The double down the line seen above occurred with Nick Franklin in left, and the single that dropped in front of LF was with Mikie Mahtook in the field.
Only two of 82 fly balls hit to left field have landed for hits, resulting in a .024 BABIP. None have landed with Corey Dickerson playing left field.
Consequently, UZR absolutely loves Dickerson’s defense in LF this year. They credit him with +6.8 runs in 473 innings or +21.6 UZR/150. The lack of fly balls landing likely plays a massive role as one would expect roughly four to fall during his time there. Instead he’s 42-for-42 in flyball opportunities.
Of the five doubles that landed between LF and CF, two were during Dickerson’s watch and it is possible that a better defender could get there. Even with limited playing time Dickerson’s +7.2 runs on range in left field leads the league just ahead of Alex Gordon’s +6.2 runs in double the amount of time spent in the field.
Defensive metrics are extremely volatile in small samples. Fielders will suffer the same ebbs and flows as hitters with many fewer plays to make in a season. Maybe more balls are easily caught off Rays pitchers, or the team’s expert defensive positioning can play a role. DRS is more lukewarm, but still rates Dickerson in the positive at +1.
Dickerson is likely somewhere around average as a left fielder, but he might be above average. His arm is definitely a weakness — although it should play in ballparks better than Coors Field did earlier in his career — but due to his quick speed and nearly reckless abandon, he is able to take ambitious paths on liners with atypical success.
I went into this process looking to see what effect Kiermaier has had on the outfield defense, and the overall results were as expected. Kiermaier plays a major role in Dickerson’s success, as he allows for more aggressive positioning by the corner outfielders, but when digging deeper I found something I really wasn’t expecting.
So long as Kevin Kiermaier’s healthy, Corey Dickerson might be your 2017 Rays left fielder.
*The Rays’ 303 fly balls allowed in play trails only the Red Sox, who have allowed 306, but their athletic outfield has allowed a BABIP of .134. Fenway Park does play a factor in their inflated BABIP.