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Hot take: Rays should consider selling high on Corey Dickerson

Well, maybe not, but his current performance is probably not sustainable

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Through Friday’s games, there have been only eight players (seven hitters and Chris Sale) who have been worth more to their team in 2017 than Corey Dickerson (by fWAR). He’s been the Rays’ breakout performer of the season, posting a .342/.385/.603 slash line that equates to a wRC+ of 166 - or 66 percent better than league average.

Dickerson has set the tone for the club all season, hitting .389/.421/.861 as the first batter of the game, which has helped power the Rays to the best first-inning offense in the American League this season. He’s under team control for another two seasons after this one, and while he’s set for a raise in arbitration, the contract should still be a reasonable one for the Rays in upcoming seasons.

So why the hot take headline? Is this article secretly being written by a 17-year-old in Macedonia?

Not quite. The purpose is to start a debate and attempt to get a feel for where the general Rays public sits.

Coming back to earth?

Even the biggest Dickerson fans will admit that he’s not going to keep quite this level of production for the entire season. His wRC+ of 166 would be 65 points higher than last season and 26 points higher than any other season in his career. His .396 BABIP would be the highest mark for any qualified hitter since Ichiro in 2004, and Dickerson doesn’t have the bat control or speed out of the batter’s box that Suzuki had - not even close.

Those points are not meant as a slight, however. Any player atop the WAR leaderboards right now is likely to be enjoying a good amount of BABIP or HR/FB luck. Aaron Judge has a BABIP over .400 despite being roughly the size of Andre the Giant, and nearly one-third of Mike Trout’s fly balls were leaving the yard before his thumb injury.

Poor plate discipline

All that said, Dickerson might be due for a bit more of a fall off than some of the other top performers in 2017. Of the top 25 in wRC+, Dickerson has the worst walk rate of all (5.1 percent). In fact, only Matt Kemp (5.4 percent) is even really close, with the vast majority of the group over ten percent. Dickerson also currently has the highest swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone (46.8 percent) of any qualified hitter in 2017 - and by a good margin. Salvador Perez is in second nearly three percent behind Dickerson.

“But that’s just Corey Dickerson,” you might say. “He’s never been one to be shy outside the zone, and it hasn’t hurt him in the past.” And there’s some merit to that. Here’s Dickerson’s BABIP heat chart for 2017, per Brooks Baseball:

At first glance, it looks totally unsustainable. He has nearly as much red outside the strike zone as within the strike zone. Then again, here’s his career BABIP heat chart:

It doesn’t look all that much different. He’s always been excellent on pitches high and outside, and this is, after all, the player who was able to do this within the past week:

But it’s not just the plate discipline that seems troubling, there’s also the fact that he doesn’t seem to be hitting the ball hard enough to sustain the rates he currently possesses. His line drive rate of 21.1 percent is only slightly above league average, and it is actually lower than his career rate. The move from Coors to the Trop can explain some of that, but that’s just the point, he isn’t going to be able to maintain a BABIP similar to what he had in Coors Field (.367 in 2014) while playing in Tampa Bay.

Statcast hate

If we go over to the Statcast data, Dickerson looks primed to see as precipitous a fall as any player in the league. His current wOBA of .421 outpaces his expected wOBA (or xwOBA) by .093, highest among hitters with at least 150 at bats this 2017 season. Only Zack Cozart and Xander Bogaerts have outperformed wOBA by nearly as much according to Statcast, and Dickerson’s xwOBA of .328 is more in the range of hitters like Adam Jones and Carlos Gomez than hitters like Buster Posey and Joey Votto who are up in the rarified .420 wOBA range.

Two big factors

Now xwOBA seems especially harsh on Dickerson. A fair amount of Dickerson’s improvement can be pinned to two big factors (head nod to fellow DRB writer JT Morgan for these insights): improvement against left-handed pitchers and a drop in infield fly ball rate.

Dickerson is sporting a 178 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers this season, a vast improvement over his career wRC+ of 88 against southpaws. Now there may be legitimate improvements being made against lefties from Dickerson - he’s in his age-28 season, and he’s clearly earned Cash’s trust against lefties. But given his 56.3 percent ground ball rate against lefties and his corresponding .489 BABIP against lefties, he’s certainly going to come back to earth a bit in same-handed matchups.

The infield pop ups are more interesting. Dickerson has a career pop-up rate of 11.7 percent, a good two percent above the league rate over that time. The pop ups have hurt him at times, and it’s not surprising that he’s having such a strong season while posting a 6.3 percent infield pop up rate this season - by far a career best. If you buy the improvement, that could be a definite factor in him posting a career-best wRC+ - I’m just not sure I buy it.

As noted earlier, there really hasn’t been much of an improvement in Dickerson’s batted ball profile, and those two seem inextricably tied. Just by common sense alone, it makes sense that the more a hitter is willing to expand the zone, the more likely he is to have a higher percentage of pop ups (especially when the batter loves pitches up in the zone as much as Dickerson does). The numbers back it up as well. Here are some of the names within the top 15 in infield pop up rates in 2017: Byron Buxton, Rougned Odor, Jonathan Schoop, Ryan Schimpf, and Joey Gallo. That’s a veritable who’s who of poor plate discipline profiles, and while I haven’t run the exact correlation, the leaderboard similarity and common sense angle are enough for the time being.

Back to the question at hand

So now we finally arrive to the question suggested by the title: would it make sense (or even possible) to sell high on Dickerson? Even if you don’t totally buy my claim that he is due for some regression, I invite you to come along for the ride.

The first issue with selling Dickerson is finding the market for him. Many Rays fans believe Dickerson to be an above-average defensive left fielder, but his reputation around the league is as a DH (just see the All-Star ballot). That could still draw some interest, as there are a couple teams in the playoff picture (Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers) who could use an upgrade at the position, but the term “DH” is highly stigmatized when it comes to trade value. In part thanks to the rise of WAR in the public conscience, DHs have probably never had lower currency than they do now, despite the fact that a bad DH can be big a drag on a lineup. If Dickerson is thought of as a left fielder, that might bring the Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins (if they consider themselves buyers) into the mix, but those teams may well not see Dickerson as a full-time left fielder.

There’s also the matter of what type of return the Rays could get. Their minor league system is quite strong these days and doesn’t have many weak spots. The biggest area of need for the team right now might be a couple of bullpen arms, but if you’re trying to sell the Rays fanbase on flipping their best hitter in 2017 for a couple of bullpen arms, you’d have a full-scale mutiny on your hands.

And that’s the rub. Right now, Dickerson almost certainly has more value for the Rays on their roster (even if he is closer to a true talent 120 wRC+) than he does on the trade market. The team is currently sitting just a game and a half behind the second wild card and to even suggest here that the Rays sell their top bat is an idea that will probably tick off a lot of fans (and readers). But that is still the default setting for the Rays, and that’s not always a bad thing. If the Rays were to be approached by a team offering a solid return for Dickerson, they’d have to at least think about it even in the midst of what has been a breakout season. It seems callous to talk trade with Dickerson currently playing out of his mind, but there will be a drop off some time in 2017, and the 28-year-old may never have a higher possible return than right now.