In Monday night’s game against Cleveland, the first inning was far from perfect. Chris Archer gave up five runs in the bottom half, and the Rays dug themselves a hole from which they could never quite climb back.
The Rays were, however, able to score a run in the top half of the inning, their 33rd run of the first inning in 2017, a total topped by only one other team in the league (Milwaukee Brewers).
Now to date, the team is hitting .303 in the first inning with 20 extra-base hits - only three teams in baseball top those respective numbers. Although he wasn’t the man to score in the first inning Monday, Corey Dickerson has been the leading cause of that first inning success in 2017.
Dickerson scuffled a bit in 2016, his first season with the Rays. He hit 24 long balls (tied for a career high, despite leaving Coors Field), but he also hit just .245 with a .293 on-base percentage. After posting an OPS+ of 125 during three seasons in Colorado (and OPS+ dings Colorado hitters quite heavily), his OPS+ in his first Tampa Bay season was just 105 - still above average, but not quite where he had been in the past.
Dickerson was shuffled all over the lineup card in 2016, taking at bats at every spot in the lineup except third. He had his highest number of plate appearances in the sixth spot, but that total was just 175. He was never really able to settle in.
Heading into the 2017 season, Rays’ manager Kevin Cash decided on including Dickerson in what he said, at the time, would be a leadoff platoon (depending on lefty/righty starting matchups). Dickerson was hitting well in spring training, and he wanted to reward him.
The results have been glorious.
Dickerson has hit leadoff in 27 of his 34 starts and is mashing the ball in 2017. His wRC+ of 161 ranks 15th in all of baseball, as do his 1.6 fWAR, both of which lead the Rays. His win total places him sixth in the American League, and has even garnered some All-Star attention for the slugger, with Richard Justice ranking Dickerson his top under-the-radar pick for this summer’s festivities.
As the leadoff hitter, Dickerson has particularly shone in the first inning. In his 26 leadoff plate appearances, he is slashing .400/.444/.840 for a ridiculous 1.284 OPS and 219 sOPS+. That final figure (sOPS+) is situational to a particular split, and in this application says that Dickerson has been 119 percent better than the rest of the league when it comes to his success leading off games in 2017. Only Michael Conforto (.412/.524/1.059) has been better by wRC+ than Dickerson in the leadoff spot this season, and only George Springer has more leadoff home runs this season with five (two others are tied with Dickerson at three).
It’s still early in the season, and there is plenty of time for some regression with Dickerson’s outstanding lead off numbers, but so far it appears as though Cash made an excellent decision when elevating the 27-year-old to the leadoff spot this season.
Dickerson may well have settled into a more productive role regardless of where he hit in 2017, but the fact remains that Dickerson has been perfect leading the Rays to their strong early-game success in 2017.
Whether or not the Rays can maintain those leads that Dickerson puts them out to is another question altogether, but for now Cash’s best move of 2017 was to slot Corey Dickerson in the leadoff spot.