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Rays Debate: Brendan McKay, Corey Dickerson, and the designated hitter

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The DRB staff (but mostly JT and Mat) debate a variety of baseball topics

MILB: SEP 28 Florida Instructional League - FIL Braves at FIL Rays
SEP 28: 2017 first round pick Brendan McKay of the Rays at bat during the Florida Instructional League (FIL) game
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

DRaysBay is currently blessed with two of the most thoughtful and strongly-opinionated writers in the biz: JT Morgan and Mat Germain. DRB is also fortunate in that they very often hold opposing views. It makes for great content behind the scenes in our masthead message board, which helps spur many article ideas for the rest of us. We have decided to start sharing some of these debates, as we feel the readers of DRB are likely just as split on some of these topics. Today’s topic began as a discussion of whether Brendan McKay will be able to both pitch and hit and spun into a discussion of the DH as a whole. Let us know what you think of the series; personally, we love reading these two debate Rays topics on a daily basis.

Jim Turvey: What’s the consensus here, do people want McKay to pitch or hit? Which do they think is more likely? How low are the odds he somehow pulls the double at the MLB level?

JT Morgan: I think it’s much more likely he’s a pitcher. I think he could be a very good #2/3 within two years if he stays on the mound. Hitting could work out, but I’m not a real believer that he’ll be better there than on the mound. There’s a non-zero chance he does both, but I don’t think it’s that high.

Danny Russell: Pitch.

Jim Turvey: Cool, that’s kind of what I thought, but a RotoGraphs piece just said it thought him more likely to hit. Seems like his ceiling is way higher as a starter than as a first baseman.

JT Morgan: The Rays want him to hit, but I think that’s just more that they want that to work out than they really believe that’s what he’ll do.

Mat Germain: BOTH.

Pitch/DH. If he can make it work imagine what that would mean to the cash strapped Rays (pun alert).

JT Morgan: I still wish we were in the NL. I think it would be much more effective there.

John Ford: Pitch/PH

Mat Germain: Pitch - Rest - DH - DH - Rest - Pitch

JT Morgan: A league average bat instead of a -21 wRC+ hitter would be a such a bigger advantage.

John Ford: I think he can really lengthen your bench, but I don’t have a lot of hope for for him doing both regularly at the big league level.

JT Morgan: That’s really the problem. If he DHs 40 percent of the games it doesn’t really give you a lot more flexibility in your roster. As a pitcher in the NL you could already get almost half of those PA while destroying a -21 wRC+ average hitter. You also could PH almost daily and get close to the same PA.

What is the breakeven point you would want where you want him DHing on the offdays, but not being an everyday bat? Probably somewhere in the 120 wRC+ range?

I think it’s a fun thing to dream about, but I really don’t know how practical it will be.

We’ll see with Otani this year.

Jim Turvey: It’s cool that the Rays can get a little preview with Ohtani.

John Ford: What if he’s a full time DH/reliever? Is that even plausible?

Adam Sanford: Probably too much prep time.

John Ford: (Or 1B/reliever)

Adam Sanford: That would take too much prep time, he would have to know detailed scouting reports of each hitter and pitcher for a given team.

Double the amount of homework of a normal player.

JT Morgan: RP won’t work.

Would have to be at first base otherwise every time you use him you’d lose your DH. At first base the logistics get much more difficult. You also lose your DH unless you have the pitcher he’s replacing play first base. Or you have a bench guy come into play first base for the pitcher, then you have to replace one when you switch pitchers.

The biggest reason I don’t think he does both besides it being incredibly difficult is that you need him to be in a goldilocks zone with the zone. You need him good enough that you don’t mind the extra injury risk, but not good enough that you don’t want the bat 100 percent of the games instead of 40 percent.

McKay on a NL team it’s easy to see how he is a 5 WAR player. A 3 WAR pitcher is a pretty reasonable projection. In the NL, if he’s a 100 wRC+ bat getting about 100 PA as a pitcher and 100 PA as PH gets you around 2 WAR over his pitching.

In the AL, in order to be worth 4 WAR in about 300 PA (starting about 40 percent of the games at DH) you would need to hit 140-150 wRC+. Now, if he’s putting up a 140-150 wRC+, there’s no way you’re not having him hit every day.

There’s an argument that DH are way undervalued by WAR, but you still probably need at least a 130 wRC+ bat.

Mat Germain: Ask the Red Sox. Or the Mariners. DH can be a huge influence.

JT Morgan: I didn’t say they can’t. I’m just saying if they’re hitting like that you don’t want to limit it to 40 percent of the PA.

So you need him to be a very good bat, but not elite.

Mat Germain: To me, that player should be a major force in the lineup and provide a chance to rest players.

What’s great about McKay taking 40 percent is that Rays can still rest players over three other games. And he could get as much as 60 percent depending on how days off work out.

JT Morgan: There is some value on that, but I’m just working the hypothetical there.

He needs to be good, but not great with the bat. Otherwise you want the bat in the lineup everyday. It’s not impossible outcome for McKay on either side, but I just think it’s unlikely to land in the middle zone.

Having time off to recover is just so much more practical in college. I’ll have to see how he handles the grind. Longer seasons. Not having 2-4 off days a week.

MILB: SEP 28 Florida Instructional League - FIL Braves at FIL Rays
SEP 28: 2017 first round pick Brendan McKay of the Rays lines a pitch to the outfield for a single during the Florida Instructional League (FIL) game
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One interesting thing on DHs last year: they barely outhit SS in the AL 99 to 95 wRC+.

The only positions that hit worse than DHs in the AL last year were C (90 wRC+), SS (95), and LF (97).

Mat Germain: That is weird - could the whole rest thing be part of it? As in a permanent DH (which few have) is more effective yet rarely used?

JT Morgan: The Astros who had the best offense in baseball in the last 100 years had the second worst DH production (78 wRC+). Orioles were worse at 77.

Mat Germain: Ortiz and Edgar were able to get comfy there, and they were two of the best all time. Frank Thomas is another.

JT Morgan: Ya losing Ortiz that propped up value of the positional average hurt, but you need really elite hitters to bring that kind of value.

At the same time if that player can play a position they will let them.

Danny Russell: Does this add to the evidence that Designated Hitting is a skill?

JT Morgan: Yes. Some players are able to adjust and do well. The problem really is hardly anybody gets a real sample size, so it’s hard to really test on a player by player basis.

From prior work the average player hits about 10 wRC+ worse when DHing vs playing the field.

Danny Russell: How does that bare out for Corey Dickerson?

JT Morgan: He doesn’t really have a great sample. It’s only about 500 PA or so over the past two years. This year he crushed it as a DH, but that also was part of when he was just running hot in the first half.

Last year he hit much better in left field, but it was almost all because he ran good vs. LHP when in left field. Versus RHP it was pretty close.

At DH: 487 PA, .267/.308/.519 117 wRC+
At LF: 658 PA, .267/.316/.461 106 wRC+

Just during the last two years with the Rays.

So the difference really is about .050 of ISO.

2017:

DH: 240 PA, .319/.354/.580 146 wRC+
LF: 378 PA, .261/.308/.438 97 wRC+

2016:

DH: 247 PA, .216/.263/.459 89 wRC+
LF: 280 PA, .275/.326/.492 118 wRC+

Mat Germain: It’s interesting.

JT Morgan: I think it’s interesting, but I don’t really think it tells us anything.

Did he get more used to DHing? Possibly.

Did he just run incredibly hot during the first half of 2017 when he mostly was the DH? Yes.

Was he much worse than you would expect as a DH in 2016? Yes.

In 2017, Dickerson got only 38 PA as a DH in the second half. After Rasmus retired he was mostly just a left fielder.

Danny Russell: So what we’re really looking at there are the differences between his first and second halves.

JT Morgan: For 2017, yes. Mostly for 2016 too, though it wasn’t nearly as pronounced in 2016.

Mat Germain: What it seems to point to is: the more the player alternates between field and DH, the worst off the DH performance.

JT Morgan: I’m not sure that’s what it’s saying, but I do think you have to get used to how to handle the downtime so there might be some lessening of the DH penalty the more often you’ve DHed in the past.

In reality though, 500-600 PA is a pretty small sample and has a ton of noise in it much less splitting into even smaller samples.

Mat Germain: In 2015 Kendrys Morales spent the least amount of time on the field of his career, and he had a career year.

JT Morgan: I’m sure you could find specific examples for each.

Mat Germain: 2009 was nice as well, I’m more comparing years he spent DHing a lot.

Darby Robinson: I wonder if the data isn’t skewed by the fact that guys that rotate between DH and the field often are probably bench guys and aren’t super great to begin with.

Mat Germain: Good point Darby, and so many don’t really want to DH only.

JT Morgan: There just aren’t a lot of guys who have gotten a reasonable sample as a DH and in the field to even compare. Morales used to be really great as a first baseman. Then the celebration happened.

If you ask any player they would say no. Especially at the beginning of the transition.

Maybe after you’ve done it for half a decade or more you could get the truly great hitters like Ortiz, Edgar, and Thomas to agree to it, but it takes a lot of time.

Darby Robinson: Yeah, I do wonder if it’s more mentally draining for younger players, since if you get “stuck” as a DH, it limits the teams you can go to, and your future prospects.

But older guys like Edgar, Ortiz, or Morales, are just ready to hit, and will get that chance no matter what.

JT Morgan: That and putting a lot of pressure on your at bats since it’s all you do and get your four or so a game.

Darby Robinson: Plus DH’ing gives them a bit more rest.

JT Morgan: I think it’s why you’ll never really see young guys at the position as an everyday guy.

Dickerson is as close to a young guy who has taken the role, but injuries have forced him into the outfield both seasons.

He’s also a reasonably ok defensive left fielder.

Danny Russell: He’s certainly a better defender than his reputation, but to Darby’s point, Dickerson already can DH on a consistent basis. That has value. The lesson of Pat Burrell.

So, what’re your thoughts on: McKay, the DH as a whole, and which member of the Rays chat is off their rocker? Leave us some thoughts.