For the third straight offseason, BtBS is looking at players where the projections disagree. Check out all the entries here.
Welcome back to Mediating Projections! This week, we’re taking a look at David Dahl. The Rockies outfielder has been a fixture on prospect lists for a few years now — he appeared on The Big Three’s top 100* in each year from 2013–16 — and last season, he finally made good on that potential. As a 22-year-old rookie, he clobbered his way to a .315/.359/.500 triple-slash, which gave him a 111 wRC+ and 1.2 fWAR in only 237 plate appearances.
*Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com, and Baseball America. No, I don’t know why they’re the “big three,” either.
So how will Dahl perform in his first full campaign? That’s where we come to the disagreement:
ZiPS expects Dahl to play at an average level in every regard, with an average bat and average glove combining to make a two-win (i.e. average) player. Steamer, though, doesn’t think nearly as highly of him, foreseeing a sudden decline to replacement level thanks to poor hitting and fielding. Which system are we to believe?
Since both systems project identical walk rates, we won’t need to analyze that. For this edition, we’ll examine the four areas of disagreement — strikeouts, isolated power, batting average on balls in play, and defense — and come to a conclusion about which projected outcome is correct.
Strikeouts — 23.6 percent (Steamer) vs. 26.4 percent (ZiPS)
Like oh-so-many rookies before him, Dahl had some problems with the punchout during his debut: He fell in the 24th percentile** with a 24.9 percent strikeout rate. Strikeouts never gave him too much trouble in the minors — where he tallied a K in 19.6 percent of his career plate appearances — so optimism might be warranted. Then again, the pitching down on the farm can’t compare to what Dahl will see in the Show.
**This ranking, and all others in this post unless otherwise noted, is among the 353 hitters with at least 200 plate appearances last year.
And during his cup of coffee last year, Dahl floundered against those big-league arms. His eye wasn’t very sharp: He paired a 92nd-percentile O-Swing rate (38.9 percent) with an 80th-percentile Z-Swing rate (69.3 percent). Making matters worse, he swung-and-missed at 14.9 percent of all the pitches he saw, placing him in the seventh percentile. Dahl had a tough time discerning balls from strikes, and too many of his cuts came up empty.
Some zone plots can illustrate the precise area — low in the zone — where Dahl struggled. He chased way too often at pitches in the dirt…
…and whiffed quite a bit on those swings:
According to Baseball Savant, 343 players took at least 300 pitches below the strike zone last year. On those pitches, Dahl ranked 32nd in swing rate (43.1 percent) and 16th in whiff rate (19.8 percent). That’s probably why pitchers buried the ball so much with two strikes — they wanted Dahl to go down swinging, and he was happy to oblige.
An aggressive young hitter is nothing new. As he gets more exposure to big-league pitching, he might develop better judgment and patience. Until he shows some signs of that progress, though, we should probably take the bearish outlook on his strikeouts. ZiPS — in this case, the pessimistic projection — will take the cake.
ISO — .169 (Steamer) vs. .215 (ZiPS)
Dahl had some decent power in 2016 — his .185 ISO put him in the 65th percentile, ahead of guys like Carlos Correa and Jose Abreu. In Coors Field, though, that isn’t too impressive. Aided by the mile-high altitude, Dahl should hope for an ISO in the .200s, as ZiPS predicts. Will he live up to that, or tumble to Steamer’s level?
In the minors, where he could feast on inferior competition — albeit in non-Colorado environments — Dahl put up a .203 ISO. But based on what he’s shown in the majors, that might not translate. For one thing, he notched a 45.5 percent ground ball rate last year, which was above the major-league average; that’s never a good sign for a power hitter.
And when he managed to elevate, he didn’t do it with much authority.
- Hard contact: 37.1 percent (31st percentile)
- Medium contact: 49.4 percent (82nd percentile)
- Soft contact: 13.5 percent (41st percentile)
Rankings among 323 hitters with 80+ fly balls/line drives in 2016.
Dahl didn’t have a large quantity of balls in the air, nor were they of great quality. In other words, he doesn’t yet have the makings of a power hitter. As with his plate discipline, Dahl could improve at the major-league level here — he hasn’t quite reached the point where we’d expect his power to peak. But without a hefty swing, he’ll retain his middling ISO. When it comes to clout, Steamer wins out.
BABIP — .333 (Steamer) vs. .355 (ZiPS)
If Dahl had subpar walk and strikeout rates, and a pedestrian ISO, how did he hit so well? He killed it in the one area of offense — BABIP — that’s more volatile than the others. Nobody else in the Senior Circuit had a higher BABIP than Dahl’s .404. While a mark that high is bound to come down a bit, we don’t know for sure just how far it’ll plummet.
Let’s talk about that volatility for a moment. If you’re reading Beyond the Box Score right now, you probably have some idea of this already, but for hitters, BABIP fluctuates a lot year-to-year. BtBS’s Bill Petti did some research to bear that out a while back:
Hitting metric correlation year-to-year
|Hitting metric||YTY correlation|
|Hitting metric||YTY correlation|
So someone who pounds out a .404 BABIP one year could drop down to, well, just about anything the next year.
Dahl has a few things working in his favor, though. He plays half his games in the aforementioned Coors Field, which is the most BABIP-friendly park in the majors. The thin mountain air should help his line drives and ground balls gain a little extra bite and escape opposing fielders. And on the latter, he’s especially well off.
When discussing Dahl’s power, we saw that he didn’t hit his air balls very hard. But what about when the ball doesn’t go airborne? How often does he square up his grounders?
- Hard contact: 27.0 percent (88th percentile)
- Medium contact: 55.4 percent (43rd percentile)
- Soft contact: 17.6 percent (ninth percentile)
Rankings among 316 hitters with 70+ ground balls in 2016.
Very often, it turns out! Only 15 other hitters had a higher ground ball BABIP than Dahl’s .316, and while he’ll probably regress some from there, he should remain among the leaders if he keeps hitting the ball this hard.
Dahl has some speed — he earned 2.8 baserunning runs last season, per FanGraphs — so he can take advantage of those ground balls by legging out some infield hits. Plus, he distributed the ball pretty evenly, with a 34.4 percent, 12th-percentile pull rate, meaning he won’t need to worry about the shift. He should have an above-average BABIP regardless of what happens; given everything in his favor, the bullishness of ZiPS is the more logical pick here.
Def — -5.1 runs (Steamer) vs. 0.5 runs (ZiPS)
With defense, things get a little murkier. Dahl accrued only 481 1⁄3 innings in the outfield last year, over which he was worth -1 run by DRS and 0.4 runs by UZR. That’s nowhere near a large enough sample to reach any conclusions about his glove. And obviously, those metrics don’t exist for the minors.
What we do have for the minors — as noted in the introduction — are prospect lists, and the scouts behind them. Here’s what Baseball Prospectus had to say about Dahl last offseason:
Despite not being an out-and-out burner on dirt, Dahl projects as an above-average center fielder. His instincts and jumps are excellent, he takes good routes laterally, and he is comfortable chasing down balls directly over his head. Everything is very smooth, and at least for now he has plus speed to close on balls when he needs it.
Here’s what MLB.com had to say at the same time:
[His] speed serves him well in center field, where he should be able to stay long-term. His strong and accurate arm just adds to his overall defensive package.
(Baseball America wouldn’t accept my credit card, but I’m assuming their thoughts were similar.)
Now, does that defensive potential mean Dahl will play center field? You would think that, if you didn’t know the Rockies. Here’s what Colorado skipper Bud Black had to say earlier this month:
New Rockies manager Bud Black has no plans to tinker with the club’s outfield alignment. That means Charlie Blackmon will be Colorado’s primary center fielder, Carlos Gonzalez will prowl right field and David Dahl and Gerardo Parra are expected to share time in left field.
“I think with Charlie, where he is in his career, the leadership ability and take-charge ability, all of those things … it makes sense to keep it as it is for right now.”
As a big-league center fielder, Blackmon has cost the Rockies -15 runs by DRS, and -27.1 runs by UZR. Does it make sense to keep him there and push Dahl to right? No, not at all. Then again, it doesn’t make sense to make Ian Desmond a first baseman, and that hasn’t stopped the club from doing just that. With the Rockies, it’s apparently best to assume the most illogical possible outcome will come to pass.
If he ends up playing in left field, Dahl will have a tougher threshold to clear: Per FanGraphs, the positional adjustment for corner outfielders is -7.5 runs per 600 plate appearances, compared to +2.5 runs/600 for center fielders. In layman’s terms, that means a left fielder with, say, 20 DRS is just as good as a center fielder with 10 DRS, because of the difference in difficulty between the two positions.
But as a left fielder, Dahl would most likely keep his head above water. After all, he needs to be a +7.5-run defender to break even, and if he was an above-average glove in center, he should have an easier time in left. While fielding can go in any direction, and a player’s glove can turn to lead overnight, the scouting evidence here — and the fact that Dahl will turn 23 in April, hitting the peak age for defense — makes me side with ZiPS.
The final tally: three W’s for ZiPS, and one for Steamer. Really, though, it’s two areas (strikeouts and ISO) in which we take the upside, and two (BABIP and defense) in which we take the downside. Dahl looks like an adequate major-league contributor, someone who can put up a decent average and catch what’s hit to him. He still has a ton of room to grow, and on a Rockies team that looks to be on the upswing, he’ll get some chances to blossom further.
Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, sometimes. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.