Alex Dickerson could be the perfect example of the old saying that “baseball is a game of adjustments.” The Indiana University product has proven in his first two full years in the minor leagues that it is not how you start, but rather how you finish. If you give Dickerson time to get comfortable in the league and learn how the pitchers are attacking him, he has proven time and again he can make the necessary adjustments and stay mentally tough throughout the grind of the minor league schedule.
In both 2012 and 2013, Dickerson got off to an awful start in April. In April 2012 in high-A Bradenton, Dickerson hit for a slash line of .256/.319/.349 with 2 home runs in 86 at-bats. April 2013 was even worse for Dickerson in AA Altoona as he hit .185/.241/.346 with 2 home runs in 81 at-bats.
“I just needed the time to make the adjustments,” Dickerson said about his slow starts in 2012 and 2013. “You don’t want to start out batting .190 for two months, it is what is. I got here (to Altoona) and my swing never felt right. I knew it was just a matter of time before it clicked. Averages are where they are for a reason, they’re averages. Sometimes it’s going to get really bad for a long time, sometimes it’s really good for a long time. You would like to keep it as consistent as possible but sometimes it just doesn’t work out like that.”
What is so ironic about Dickerson’s numbers is that he starts off with a bad month of April, an improved month of May, a good June, an amazing July, and a drop in August/September. Not for just one season; both 2012 and 2013 have played out that way. Here is a look at how Dickerson’s June and July stats have mirrored each other the last two years:
June 2012 (A+) .316/.369/.537, 4 HR, 95 at-bats
June 2013 (AA) .300/.350/.567, 5 HR, 90 at-bats
July 2012 (A+) .318/.379/.545, 4 HR, 110 at-bats
July 2013 (AA) .413/.440/.683, 6 HR, 104 at-bats
“Just a little bit of everything, getting used to the league,” Dickerson said about the improvements in June and July. “You start to get a feel for where people are going to pitch you, how they are going to pitch to you. A big portion of it was figuring out my swing, where it needed to be in order to make those adjustments. Once you get that down, now you can worry about what they are doing and make reactions based on that.”
“Experience,” Altoona Curve manager Carlos Garcia said about Dickerson’s success in June and July. “He started cold in the Florida State League (in 2012). As the season progressed he believed that he could hit and he put a good season together down there. This year is no different. Just different league, different pitching. He started getting comfortable, making adjustments at the plate. He believed that he would be able to put good numbers up if he gave quality at-bats every night and things came together for him.”
No Platoon Needed
Pittsburgh Pirate fans know all about platoons, with Gaby Sanchez playing first base instead of Garrett Jones when facing a left-handed pitcher. Also, Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer getting recent spot starts at second base for Neil Walker. Being able to hit left-handed pitching as a left-handed batter is a special skill coveted by general managers. That could be one less roster spot for a guy that specializes in hitting left-handed pitching, which only accounted for 29% of the plate appearances in the major leagues this year. Hitters that are neutral against both left and right handed pitching is desired. Count Dickerson as one of those hitters.
Throughout Dickerson’s career, the left-handed hitter has always handled left-handed pitching very well, even hitting for a higher batting average. The power numbers are down versus southpaws, but Dickerson has proven he can hold his own with the limited same size against left-handers. Below are Dickerson’s numbers against left and right-handed pitching as a professional.
2011 vs LHP .333/.372/.564, 1 HR, 39 at-bats
2011 vs RHP .306/.400/.468, 2 HR, 111 at-bats
2012 vs LHP .310/.368/.437, 4 HR, 174 at-bats
2012 vs RHP .287/.344/.459, 9 HR, 314 at-bats
2013 vs LHP .298/.346/.404, 0 HR, 141 at-bats
2013 vs RHP .284/.333/.535, 17 HR, 310 at-bats
In 2013, his power numbers were down versus LHP, but a .751 OPS is pretty good. You could pick and choose what left-handers would be a good matchup for Dickerson to be in the lineup, giving him a rest versus a lefty that has a certain repertoire that could dominate him. Still, it’s not automatic that Dickerson would not be in the lineup against a lefty like it has been for Jones in 2013.
“I’ve always had a higher average lefty on lefty,” Dickerson said. “I actually switched-hit as a freshman in high school and figured I didn’t have to do it anymore because my average was always higher. I don’t have as many home runs and I’ll have more K’s. I just think they are easier to predict at every level. They’re going to give you that slider low and away. I know how to stay on that pitch so I can give myself a chance. Lefties, they still sit out there (outside) for the most part.”
Adjustment to AA
Some evaluators and scouts say the biggest jump a baseball player makes is from playing any level of A-ball to double-A. Better command of pitches, better “stuff” from the pitchers, more patience at the plate, ability to hit pitchers’ mistakes, and more tools across the board. All of the above skills make AA a proving ground for prospects in any organization.
For Dickerson, April was a month of adjustments. He had to play in less than ideal weather conditions in the Eastern League and adjust to better and more advanced pitching. In 2012, he played in the Florida State League and did not have to worry about cold weather. Dickerson did not use weather as an excuse, it was a difference in how pitchers attacked him and the higher quality of “stuff” compared to the FSL in 2012.
“Seeing righties at this level (AA) is a new step for me because they are more willing to pound in,” Dickerson said about the biggest difference between Bradenton and Altoona. “They’re better at it so it took me a while to be able to lay off of those pitches and get more of my pitches out over the plate. That was probably the biggest thing. Your number one pitcher in Bradenton, there’s five of them you’re facing (in Altoona). You’re facing them every day for the most part. It’s just what you kind of get used to. You got to get used to the fact that they’re going to be working with more stuff, more challenging and advanced stuff. It’s just going to take a little time to get used to it.”
Dickerson made the adjustments in May and saw the fruits of his labor in June with a solid month. Things really came together in July, when he led the Eastern League in average (.413, 43-104), runs scored (23), hits (43), extra-base hits (16), total bases (71), RBI (27), slugging percentage (.683) and OPS (1.123). Dickerson was named Eastern League’s Player of the Week twice in the month and was named the Player of the Month. Included in that was an 8-RBI game on July 26 when he went 3-for-6 with two doubles and a home run, tying the Curve record for most RBI in a game with Alex Presley. For an encore, Dickerson went 4-for-4 the next day with four singles and three runs scored.
In all, Dickerson finished top-10 in the following offensive categories of the Eastern League: doubles (36, 2nd), total bases (223, 5th), slugging percentage (.494, tied-2nd), batting average (.288, 9th), and on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) (.832, 8th).
Dickerson was rewarded on September 1 with the Eastern League Rookie of the Year award, becoming the second Curve player in the team’s 15-year history to win the award. The first was Starling Marte in 2011. The Pirates’ 2011 3rd round pick was also named the team’s MVP. The outfielder finished with 17 home runs, 36 doubles, and 10 stolen bases.
“Especially from where I came from, it’s really nice to look back at the end and achieve an award like that,” Dickerson said about overcoming a rough start in 2013. “It’s an honor to achieve [awards] and just shows that if you just put the work in it will turn around.”
“He put a good season together,” Garcia said. “It’s definitely one of those cases as long as the season goes, the better he got. He made adjustments playing in the field and at the plate.”
First Base or Outfield?
The big discussion with Dickerson has been what position he profiles the best at, first base or corner outfield? I talked to a scout that said he would put Dickerson at first base because of the lack of range and fluidity in the outfield for such a big guy (6-foot-3, 232 pounds). It does not hurt to have outfield experience, especially playing for a National League team that uses double switches and versatility is a virtue and could be the difference between making a roster or being sent down to AAA.
Having that versatility is important. Right field, Dickerson’s 2013 primary position, is more physically demanding than first base on the defensive spectrum, thus a tougher position to fill and play. Garrett Jones gives the Pirates an option at first base and right field. I believe Dickerson provides that same versatility, which isn’t a bad skill to have. While playing first base every game in 2012, Dickerson committed 17 errors. In 2013 while playing right field and left field only, he committed just one error. Dickerson is more comfortable in the outfield as a result.
“I played it my whole life up until pro ball, so I actually am more comfortable out there,” Dickerson said about his comfort level in the outfield. “I’ve gotten better faster. I’ll play wherever they tell me to play, I’m able to do both. Outfield is definitely my primary one, especially growing up there, but I can play first or outfield anytime I’m called upon.”
With the Pirates having a flood of prospects in the outfield (Gregory Polanco, Barrett Barnes, Josh Bell, Austin Meadows) and a dearth of prospects at first base, Dickerson would be best suited for first base in the future.
If first base is indeed Dickerson’s position in the future, more production will be expected out of that position. He wasn’t seen as a big power guy in 2012 with only 13 home runs as a first baseman, but he hit 17 home runs in the Eastern League (better pitching, bigger ballparks) in 2013. Dickerson uses the entire field and hits the ball where it is pitched, a skill that is mostly slump-proof. He uses level swings that allow the bat head to stay in the hitting zone a long time, staying through the ball as long as possible.
“Being able to use the whole field, it’s huge for any hitter and he’s no different,” Garcia said about Dickerson’s ability to spray the field. “I think every good hitter tries to stay through the ball. The work he’s done in the batting cages to make sure his bat was staying in the strike zone as long as he could.”
Garcia believes Dickerson could become more of a power threat in the future.
“I mean he already showed that he can hit the long ball. For the most part that’s just one of the things as a hitter that is the last thing to develop because you know how they’re going to pitch you. You know what kind of pitches you hit in what counts and you start analyzing the guy who’s going to face you and that’s the reason why you become a more selective hitter.”
Dickerson is fine with being the hitter he is and is indifferent to the talk that he needs to hit more home runs. He says it is all about producing runs, which he has done in the minors.
“That’s all that really matters in the long run,” Dickerson said about being a run producer. “The home runs come and go. To play in a park like this (Peoples Natural Gas Field), you’re not going to have as many as a guy that’s playing in Harrisburg or something. You just got to live with that. You got to do what you can do every day to produce and generally that’s going to be doubles in the gaps and line drives. You got to pick your spots, I have enough power to hit a lot of home runs, but sometimes you don’t really need to use it.”
Dickerson is a doubles-machine and that could lead to increased power in the future. Since Dickerson was drafted out of college, there was limited upside since you didn’t have control of him his three years of college when he could have been in your farm system developing in your environment (coaching, training). With a college position player, you have a good idea of what he will become in the future, having been through grueling college seasons with proven production. Dickerson has proven himself in college and in the Pirates farm system. Chances are he will still produce throughout his career, especially offensively.
I personally saw Dickerson hit two home runs this year, a fastball he hit easily over the 375 foot sign in right-center and a hanging changeup he punished that landed near the Skyliner, the roller coaster that is located outside the right field fence in Altoona. Projecting 20 home runs would be a fair assessment of how Dickerson projects at the big league level.
Dickerson was promoted to AAA Indianapolis on September 2 but wasn’t activated for the playoff series. Dickerson has a good chance to start the 2014 season in Indianapolis since he spent full seasons in high-A and AA the last two years and has shown good progress along the way.
There is no getting around it, Dickerson’s value clearly lies with his bat. He has a pedigree that goes back to college at Indiana. In 2010, he won the Big Ten triple crown and was the conference’s Player of the Year as a sophomore, hitting .419 with 24 home runs and 75 RBI with the old college bats. Batting a back injury and the new BBCOR bats, his numbers fell to .367 with 9 home runs and 49 RBI in 2011. In 2012 with the Bradenton Marauders, he was named the Florida State League’s Player of the Year after hitting .295/.353/.451 with 13 homers in 488 at-bats.
An area of improvement will be his walk to strikeout ratio (27:89 in 2013, 39:93 in 2012). Dickerson, however, does not take stock into going up to the plate being passive instead of aggressive.
“It’s stuff you kind of look at, but quite frankly I’m never going to be a guy that walks to the (batter’s) box trying to walk,” Dickerson said about his approach. “The only thing I really want to work on through the offseason is just making sure I’m getting my pitch every time. The walks will come if they’re not coming at you and you’re not chasing as much, but quite frankly if I’m going up there trying to walk, I’m probably going to be missing out on pitches I want to hit. That’s something that looks glaringly obvious this year (walk to strikeout ratio), but for the most part when I going at my best, I wasn’t walking. That was because I was hitting the pitches I wanted early. Once I stopped seeing them, I’d hoped to start walking more but as long as they’re still there (pitches in the zone), I keep looking to swing at them.”
On September 1, Dickerson homered on the first pitch he saw in the game. In the next at-bat, the pitcher nibbled off the plate away and Dickerson did not swing at the borderline pitches, taking a five-pitch walk. Looking at the numbers below, Dickerson’s plate discipline has eroded each year with the better and advanced pitching he is facing each and every night:
2011 A-Short Season: 9.2 BB%, 16.2 K%, .393 OBP, .493 SLG, .886 OPS, .180 ISO, 16 2B, 173 PA
2012 A+: 7.2 BB%, 17.2 K%, .353 OBP, .451 SLG, .803 OPS, .156 ISO, 31 2B, 541 PA
2013 AA: 5.5 BB%, 18.1 K%, .337 OBP, .494 SLG, .832 OPS, .206 ISO, 36 2B, 491 PA
That would be cause for concern having low walk totals, but his doubles, home runs, slugging, and isolated power have also gone up. You can’t turn all hitters into cookie cutters. Each player has their own distinctive traits and respective strengths and weaknesses. Each should be treated differently as a result.
Dickerson will move on this off-season to play in the prestigious Arizona Fall League with the Scottsdale Scorpions. There, he will be challenged by some of the best pitching prospects in baseball and we’ll see how he responds and performs. It would not be a surprise if he started off slow and adjusted well throughout the fall and ended up with more than respectable numbers. It’s the Dickerson way.