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Where does Andrew Toles fit in the Dodgers’ outfield?

He broke out last year, but the Dodgers’ depth makes Andrew Toles’ role in 2017 unclear.

MLB: NLCS-Chicago Cubs at Los Angeles Dodgers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Once a legitimate Rays prospect, Andrew Toles was out of baseball altogether before being plucked from civilian obscurity last year by the Dodgers. After demolishing three minor league levels over the course of 82 games, he was called up to the big club in July. Toles would post a .314/.365/.505 slash line and a 132 wRC+ in 115 plate appearances to go along with outstanding speed and plus defense in left field. It was a small but impressive sample for ‘The Living Legend’ (as dubbed by Andy McCullough of the LA Times), yet despite the great beginning, there is a sizable chance that Toles will begin 2017 in the minor leagues, a casualty of the Dodgers’ noted depth.

When sizing up the roster, it’s clear that center field is a lock for Joc Pederson. Right field is Yasiel Puig’s to lose; barring a monumentally poor performance in spring training, the position will be his. Left field appears to be a platoon situation with Andre Ethier as the strong side and Franklin Gutierrez as the lefty masher.

At this point, the favorite for the fifth outfielder role has to be Scott Van Slyke. The Dodgers have expressed interest in resting Adrian Gonzalez more often in 2017, and Van Slyke brings with him the ability to fill in at first base along with any outfield duties. Meanwhile, Trayce Thompson’s slow recovery from a back injury probably takes him out of the mix initially, but once healthy he’ll be another legitimate contender for outfield playing time.

Barring injury, it seems the opportunity for Toles to make the team out of spring training lies in his ability to convincingly outplay Andre Ethier, though even that might not be enough as Ethier is guaranteed $18 million in 2017 and Toles has minor-league options left. To presume that the oft-injured Gutierrez, Ethier, and Van Slyke make it through the spring injury free is foolhardy, but it also might be the only way Toles makes the Opening Day roster.

It’s unfortunate to see someone that was such a spark plug for his team down the stretch not get a chance to build upon an outstanding debut, but some time in the minors might not be the worst thing for Toles. He crushed hard pitches in his debut but did struggle some with breaking and offspeed pitches. We’re dealing with small samples all around, but here’s a breakdown — using Brooks Baseball pitch classifications — of how he fared against each type:

Andrew Toles Pitch Type Splits

Pitch Type Swing% Contact% SwStr% Avg. Ext Velocity Avg. Launch Angle
Pitch Type Swing% Contact% SwStr% Avg. Ext Velocity Avg. Launch Angle
Hard 50.7% 86.5% 6.8% 91.4 MPH 16.1°
Breaking 60.5% 53.6% 28.1% 89.9 MPH 7.0°
Off-speed 70.0% 77.1% 16.0% 86.2 MPH -0.8°
Data via Baseball Savant

Toles shined against the fastballs, combining an above-average exit velocity and optimal launch angle with a good contact rate and a favorable swinging strike rate. All of this combined for a .379 average and .224 ISO against hard pitches.

It’s easy to see why his swinging strike rate is off the charts against breaking pitches, as he combines an abysmal contact rate with an aggressive swing rate. When he does make contact on breaking pitches, the average exit velocity has been good, but the average launch angle has left a little to be desired.

Compared to the breaking balls, Toles sees his contact rate improve to a more respectable range against offspeed pitches. The problem is that he swings at an alarming number of these offerings, especially since 60 percent of the offspeed pitches he saw were out of the zone. When he makes contact, the exit velocity isn’t great and the launch angle was terrible — which may have been due to his higher contact rate on pitches outside the zone. Contact out of the zone is going to be bad contact more often than not, and Toles proved susceptible to this when it came to offspeed pitches.

Breaking down plate discipline numbers for such a small sample size means we can only point to a player’s trends rather than define his true talent level. In any case, it’s obvious that Toles has plenty of room for improvement against breaking and offspeed pitches. Fortunately, he and the Dodgers seem to be on the same page here, as evidenced by his arrival in spring training with a revamped swing.

It’s incredibly early in the process and the swing will surely continue to be tweaked as Toles works through spring training, but let’s take a look at the difference early on.

(Note: I am by no means an expert on swing mechanics and do not claim to be. We’re just pointing out observable changes here.)

Setup

Where the old stance was a little bit open, now it’s closed, with his front foot flat on the ground as opposed to on its toes. His hands are set up much lower this year with the front elbow tucked into his body, presumably in an effort to shorten his path to the ball and help him cover the inside of the plate. As you can see from his exit velocities by zone, Toles struggled to drive inside pitches compared to those middle-out.

via Baseball Savant

It can’t be seen in the stills, but a pre-bat waggle is present in both instances, despite the different hand placements.

Leg Kick

In this first look at his new swing, a toe tap was not evident; instead, it was a shortened, less-pronounced leg kick that stood out. Since offspeed and breaking pitches are what gave Toles the most trouble in 2016, the shorter leg kick may be in an effort to improve his balance when reacting to those pitch types.

McCullough referred to a toe tap in both a tweet and a column, so it will be interesting to see if that is more prevalent as spring training continues. Last year Joc Pederson had a unique front foot setup that disappeared over the course of spring, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward introduces a new concept over time.

Foot Strike

In looking through some other swings from 2016, Toles’ front leg usually did straighten out, but mostly after he made contact with the ball. In our first look at his new swing, his leg is straight immediately at foot strike, before contact is made.

Considering the skills he’s already shown, if the mechanical changes translate to success against breaking, offspeed, and inside pitches, it will be hard for the Dodgers to deny Toles at-bats in the big leagues.

On almost any other team Andrew Toles would be a presumptive starter or strong-side platoon contributor after what he showed in 2016. Unfortunately for him, the Dodgers’ tremendous depth may delay his next big-league opportunity. If he’s not able to force the team’s hand with an undeniable spring, the good news is that some more time spent in the minors refining his approach against breaking and offspeed pitches may actually be beneficial in the long run.

You will see Andrew Toles in Los Angeles this year — the only question is when.

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Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.