There’s a lot to love about Corey Dickerson’s 2017 season. He was named to his first All-Star Game this season, and deservedly so. He was hitting .312 at the break with 17 homers and 102 RuBIns (runs+RBI). He has been the Rays third-best hitter this season by wRC+, and the team’s fourth-most valuable player overall, by fWAR. He has been a steady presence in the lineup, playing in 115 of the Rays 122 games this season, with 103 of those games coming from one of the top two spots in the lineup.
However, Dickerson has also been a lot colder of late. He is slashing just .214/.256/.365 in the second half, and he has an OPS of .445 in August so far. While some of this can be attributed to the baseball season naturally having its ups and downs, as well as a bit of regression from his crazy-hot start to the season, there’s another possible reason that is a bit scarier for the long-term prognosis on Dickerson.
In the first half of the season, Dickerson was succeeding despite his rather, let’s say, unconventional approach at the plate. Dickerson is currently second among qualified hitters in O-Swing%, a FanGraphs metric that measures how often hitters swing at pitches outside of the strike zone. Dickerson has hacked at 47.3 percent of such pitches this season, trailing only Salvador Perez in all of baseball. He’s been particularly victimized by offspeed pitches, as he has offered at 57.5 and 53.4 percent of slider and curveballs, respectively, in 2017.
For Dickerson, this is all part of an aggressive approach at the plate, not strictly an inability to judge the strike zone. His 58.5 percent overall swing rate ranks third in all of baseball, and Dickerson’s swing-at-anything approach can have some amazing results at times.
However, an article from Eno Sarris at FanGraphs this week showed that Dickerson has the lowest expected exit velocity based on the location of the pitches he has put into play this season. The net takeaway of the article was that it was impressive how well Dickerson is hitting given the situations he is also putting himself into, but I read it in a slightly less flattering light. Imagine what Dickerson could be doing if he simply cut down on a few of those swings on pitches out of the zone.
Now there are obviously several issues with that critique. Dickerson has made it to where he is today (2017 MLB All-Star) with the approach that he currently has at the plate. Changing up who he is as a hitter may have an overall negative result. The idea that he can improve by swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone is always working under the assumption that Dickerson would indeed improve his overall exit velocity (and thus overall production) if he were more selective. This is not a given. Dickerson may well be able to hit pitches outside the zone just as well as pitches in the zone - it’s just not that likely.
The much more likely outcome from Dickerson honing his plate discipline would be a net positive result. If we look at Dickerson’s month-by-month wRC+ figures, there is a very obvious pattern: 169, 160, 121, 84, 15. Each month Dickerson has seen his overall level of production slip. Some of this may be Baseball Randomness, but a good chunk may also be pitchers adjusting to Dickerson. While Dickerson has always had an aggressive approach at the plate (44.4 percent career O-Swing%), this has been his most aggressive season, and also his most successful. The more success you begin to have as a hitter, the more opposing pitchers are going to begin to focus on you and study your approach. Pitchers who see Dickerson is willing to go out of the zone are going to do just that, especially with Dickerson turning into a terrifying hitter in the first half of the season. Dickerson may still be able to do damage outside of the strike zone, but that damage is undoubtedly lessened on pitches in the dirt or over his head.
Dickerson likely doesn’t need a complete overhaul, but rather a few tweaks here and there. It will be interesting to see if he tries to hone his plate discipline at least a little bit to break out of this second-half slump. Being able to make constant adjustments and improvements is what separates players who make one All-Star appearances from those who become yearly staples at the Midsummer Classic. Dickerson seems like he’s a small adjustment away from being the latter. Hopefully he can make it.