Contrary to what you probably thought from the title of the article, I'm not going to start off with a joke about how Delino DeShields, Jr. has acquired a special set of skills, Liam Neeson-style from Taken. Whether it's because this author isn't clever enough to create a joke out of it, or because it just wouldn't be funny anyway, well, you can be the judge.
There is an old adage in baseball, though, that goes something like: "You can't steal first base." It's meant as a pejorative towards a speedy baserunner that is completely unable to use his speed on the basepaths because he's inept at getting on-base. Whether by correlation or coincidence, most fast baserunners tend to sport low walk rates at the plate, which will be shown below. However, Delino DeShields, Jr. is looking to buck that trend.
First, let's provide some background on DeShields, Jr. His father, Delino DeShields, also played in the MLB and was quite a fine player in his own right. But just a mention of his name will invoke groans, spontaneous crying, and even fainting amongst Dodger fans, as DeShields, Sr. is best known for being traded for arguably the most dominant pitcher in the history of baseball — Pedro Martinez.
The junior DeShields inherited his pop's athletic abilities, including his prolific speed, and was selected eighth overall in the 2010 draft by the Houston Astros. Senior's 463 career stolen bases actually put him in the top 60 all time, and believe it or not, Deshields, Jr. has the potential for more. DeShields, Jr. stole over 100 bases (OK, fine; 101 to be exact) in a single season in the minors, but it was overshadowed due to Billy Hamilton stealing 165 and breaking the record that same year.
DeShields followed up his 101-steal season with an even better season, slashing .317/.405/.468 and strengthening his case as a top prospect. However, DeShields seemed to hit a wall at AA in 2014, slashing just .236/.346/.360 and recording a 22.1 percent strikeout rate. At the end of the season, Houston elected not to add DeShields to the 40-man roster, thereby exposing him to the Rule 5 draft.
Even with his career-low season, it was a very questionable decision at the time, and looking back in hindsight, it remains quite the head-scratcher from the Astros' perspective. DeShields was only four years removed from being a top ten overall pick, and his stock really hadn't dropped that much. Keep in mind that he was just coming off a season in which he was a 21-year-old playing every day in AA, and he had just strung together two phenomenal seasons before that. In addition, he maintained a very strong 12 percent walk rate, and because Double-A is so much more of a pitchers' league than Hi-A, his "depressed" slash line was actually still good for a 108 wRC+. He also maintained his elite baserunning, posting his third straight 50+ SB season and improving his basestealing efficiency from the year prior. Therefore, it wasn't surprising to see the Rangers select DeShields in the Rule 5 draft following the 2014 season, and it was equally unsurprising to see DeShields thrive in the Majors this season, playing big innings as a rookie for a contending Rangers team.
Now, you could have learned all of that by looking at DeShields' B-Ref page and reading his Wikipedia writeup. What makes DeShields special enough that I would write an article about just him? If you guessed that I'm a relative of his, you'd be incorrect! If you guessed that I was bribed by his agent to write this glowing perspective of him, well, let's just say that I'm not at liberty to disclose that information with you. Seriously, though, take a look at this — a list of the players with the lowest O-Swing% last season (min. 450 PAs), per Pitch F/X:
|Delino DeShields, Jr.||1||17.9%||56.3%||50.0%||86.9%||51.0%|
Yes, that is DeShields at the top of the list — number one in all of baseball last season in not chasing pitches out of the zone. Why is O-Swing% so important? Well, it could very well be the single-most telling statistic for a hitter's plate discipline. Besides the fact that it correlates strongly with walk rate, it also includes other elements that walk rate doesn't.
For example, Bryce Harper probably has above-average plate discipline, but is it elite? If you looked strictly at his walk rate, which was second in all of baseball, you'd say yes, absolutely. But besides the obvious factor that it takes intentional walks into account, you also have to realize that it takes his prodigious power into account as well. Pitchers will be much more scared to give Harper a hittable pitch, so fewer pitches in the zone means more walks. DeShields, however, was the best hitter in the MLB last season in refraining from swinging at pitches he shouldn't be swinging at. That's an incredibly valuable skill. Look at the other nine members on the list. They're all known as deans of plate discipline, and DeShields trumps them all.
There are a lot more interesting tidbits to unpack from this table, though. DeShields' Z-Swing% is lower than every other player on the list minus Gardner, so part of his obscenely low chase rate is that he's just not raring to swing at as many pitches as the average hitter. This is a good reason why it'd be irresponsible to just look at the first column and declare that DeShields has the best plate discipline in baseball, and it's something that I feel compelled to note.
His O-Contact% is also the lowest on this list, and much lower than many of the others'. This is actually a surprisingly good thing, as it will help keep his BABIP inflated. Why? You don't want your hitters making a lot of contact on pitches outside of the zone; it's almost always weak contact and usually results in outs.
Obviously, this isn't batting count-neutral, though; you would rather have a hitter make contact on a pitch out of the zone with two strikes because putting the ball in play or fouling it off is better than striking out. This would explain DeShields' K rates, which have been on the higher side for his entire career, especially for a batter with little power. But in general, this low O-Contact% should serve DeShields well in assuring that his contact is quality contact more times than not. DeShields' contact rate on pitches in the zone seems pretty normal with the other hitters.
The last column seems to indicate a confirmation in a commonly-held belief around baseball — pitchers will challenge low-power speedsters, both because they aren't scared the hitter will do damage and because they don't want to give a fast baserunner a free pass.
Now, we have confirmed that DeShields has elite plate discipline. But is it unique and special? Here is DeShields compared with the seven players that stole at least 30 bags last season (for reference, DeShields had 25 SBs in 121 games):
|Delino Deshields, Jr.||1||17.9%||56.3%||50.0%||86.9%||51.0%||10.8%|
*Note that there were 176 players that recorded at least 450 PAs last season, and that "MLB Rank" refers to O-Swing%.
Looking at the comparison between DeShields and the other speedsters around the league, it's clear that DeShields is indeed special. None of the other basestealers placed in the top 50 in terms of lowest chase rate, and none of the others eclipsed a walk rate of even eight percent. Five of the seven were in the bottom half of baseball in chase rate, while Altuve, Gordon, and Marte were all in the bottom 25. Meanwhile, DeShields sits there with the best chase rate in baseball and a gaudy walk rate of almost 11%.
Don't lie; you're one of those 'TL;DR' people who skipped to the bottom and just started reading now. It's OK, buddy, we all do it.
What have we learned from all of this? In summary, DeShields combines elite speed with elite plate discipline, which is an incredibly deadly combination. It's possible that no other player in baseball possesses this combination, and DeShields has both in spades.
What does this mean for Rangers fans and fantasy baseball players alike, in terms of DeShields' SB totals? Well, it obviously depends on opportunity more than anything; DeShields receiving a bench role or getting stuck in the nine hole in the order may put a damper on his baserunning opportunities. And in terms of total value as a player, Fangraphs' UZR really was not a fan of his defense, while there are question marks on whether DeShields will hit enough to be a Major League starter.
However, DeShields has all the ingredients necessary to post gargantuan stolen base totals for years to come. There is a not-unrealistic scenario in which DeShields leads the Majors in swipes this season, and there could be even more stolen base crowns on the horizon for this promising young burner.
. . .
Austin Yamada is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.