PITTSBURGH — If you read at all about Corey Dickerson after the Pirates acquired him in a February trade for Daniel Hudson, you probably discovered that most of the baseball world, at that time, thought Dickerson could hit just fine — maybe excepting a late 2017 period of struggles with fastballs.
The issue that almost everyone saw, was a part-time left-fielder and designated hitter moving to the National League and being asked to play in PNC Park’s spacious left field. Here’s a sampling:
“Defensive metrics aren’t exactly bullish on his glovework in the outfield, though he’s graded out as generally average or slightly above-average in left field over the past two seasons after drawing poor marks early in his career with the Rockies.”
“Dickerson isn’t much of a fielder and can be a liability.”
Some of that is probably due to some legitimate knowledge of Dickerson’s defensive ability, the tough nature of PNC Park’s left field, and folks generally looking for a reason to explain why Tampa Bay decided to basically — with apologies to Tristan Gray — give away a productive hitter and an All-Star.
But more of it is probably due to the fact that early in his career, playing in Coors Field, another large outfield, Dickerson got the reputation of being a poor defensive player, and for the most part, those things have a way of sticking. Here’s what was said about Dickerson as a young player in Colorado.
“There has been the idea—in some places even the assumption—that the Rockies would move outfielder Corey Dickerson to first base as early as the 2016 season to take advantage of his bat while hiding his less than stellar glove that’s somewhat exposed in left field.”
“Dickerson is well aware that his glove needs to improve so he can become a more complete player. If he could even become a league average fielder, Dickerson’s value would continue to increase.”
They actually go back even farther, to Dickerson’s minor-league days.
“Dickerson’s physical tools are considered average at best, particularly on defense.”
“At some point people just have to admit that the guy can hit, mediocre tools and middling glove aside.”
So far in 2018, that analysis could hardly have been more wrong. Dickerson’s eight Defensive Runs Saved is not only the best amongst left fielders, he’s the best defensive player in all of Major League Baseball. His four outfield assists also lead the league. In short, Dickerson has been very, very good — the opposite of what many expected.
But why? We’ll get to what makes Dickerson good in a moment, but why was the narrative so badly wrong?
For one, it’s due in a large part to lazy reporting. When a player is traded or otherwise acquired, a beat writer doesn’t have time to spend hours upon hours of watching old game footage to formulate their own opinion of a player. They look at stats, read old scouting reports, maybe talk to a writer from the player’s former team, talk to the new team’s coaches and executives about what they like and move forward.
But unlike offensive stats, defense is hard to quantify. The concept of Defensive Runs Saved and other advanced defensive statistics like Ultimate Zone Rating are difficult for many — even in baseball — to fully grasp. There are also very real questions about the overall utility of those metrics.
So if a player doesn’t have a reputation of being a power hitter, but has had recent success, a story might read “Johnson has never been known for his power, but he has back-to-back 25-homer seasons.” Without a statistical corollary, defense is left to rely on old, and sometimes out-of-date evaluations.
Evaluations of pitchers’ individual pitches suffers a same fate. With inclement weather for most of the beginning of the season, the scouts have been sitting in the press box for most of the season, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard things like “Chad Kuhl throws a curveball now?” or “Where did that Edgar Santana plus slider come from?”
Scouts suffer the same time and distance constraints as journalists, so even from an inside-baseball perspective, there can be surprises when a player walks in the door.
And scouting reports can very quickly get out of date. Players get better. They make structural changes to their game all the time. I’d say the majority of my pieces on this site over the last two years have centered around a change a player made in order to improve their game. Sometimes, they’re big and noticeable, like a curveball that wasn’t there before. Sometimes, it’s just a subtle improvement that slips through obvious notice.
It seems that’s been the case with Dickerson, who made a concerted effort to improve his defense over his final two seasons in Tampa, and if his early results in Pittsburgh are any indication, has been able to.
“It was a knack they gave me coming up,” Dickerson said. “I could hit, but I had arm surgery, labrum surgery, rotator cuff, and never came back the same. I always thought I was fundamentally sound and made all the routine plays and nobody ever gave me credit for it. That’s what I really pride myself on doing and I think really working on it these past few years and wanting to be an all-around player and wanting to be respected for my all-around game, that’s where it came from. Because I think I can be one of the best players if I can practice hard enough on both sides.”
Pirates center fielder and former left fielder Starling Marte has had as good of a view as anyone for Dickerson’s early season success, and he’s been a sounding board for Dickerson, especially when it comes to playing the walls at PNC Park and other NL ballparks he’s less familiar with. Marte has been most impressed by Dickerson’s fundamentals.
“It’s just the read,” Marte said. “We’ve been working with (outfield instructor Kimera Bartee). He puts us in the right position. When they hit it that way, I don’t worry. It’s been easy to play with a guy playing pretty good.”
Hurdle said the Pirates were aware of Dickerson’s scouting report when they traded for him, but they tried not to let it define his existence on the club.
“First and foremost, his overall health has put him in a place for him to be the best defender that he’s been,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “I think, also, that the opportunity to have a conversation and be told early, ‘We want you to come out play left field. We don’t want you to DH and be a part-time player.’
“People can write things down on paper and it sounds good — ya wonder if that’s true. Then, you look at video and that can help you back it up. But when you’re sitting in the ballpark watching a man post up and play, and grind and do things, it becomes real and it becomes more significant. We watched him play and we’ve watched him perform since he’s been here. … He has an intense burning desire to be a ballplayer, as much as anything.”
That’s obviously a critical part to an athlete overcoming an early career label to be a more well-rounded player. In that regard, Dickerson feels he still has work to do.
“I take pride in what I do,” Dickerson said. “I’m going to try to get better at it. I don’t think I’ve reached my potential at all.”