We're now more than seven weeks into the 2018 season and once again this year is providing us with plenty of storylines, players and teams to get excited about. There is plenty of talk about early MVP candidates, where players on expiring deals might sign this offseason and what teams could put themselves in position to land a variety of potential trade chips in July.
Here, we're going to look past that and find something else worth diving into. Statistics from the 2018 season that range from breathtakingly bad to historic marks that may not be recognized as often. So let's get started with this series of articles and take a quick look at one of the biggest surprised from the 2018 season so far.
The Tampa Bay Rays drew extensive criticism this offseason when they designated Corey Dickerson for assignment. One of the team's leading hitters last season, Dickerson finished third on the team in wRC+ (115), wOBA (.341), isolated power (.207) and second in slugging percentage (.490). I
n Tampa Bay's defense, much of Dickerson's great numbers came as the result of a 139 wRC+, .376 wOBA and .236 ISO in the first half versus an 80 wRC+, .290 wOBA and .167 ISO in the second half of the season. Given the team's desire to cut payroll and focus more on hitters who could make greater contact, put the ball in play and cut down on strikeouts, they saw enough reason to DFA Dickerson and eventually trade him to the Pirates.
Perhaps Dickerson took the DFA as a sign he needed to make a major change in his career because that's exactly what he has done. It goes far beyond his numbers through six weeks, his 147 wRC+, .386 wOBA, .217 ISO and .333/.371/.550 are outstanding. Skeptics will point to his great numbers from last season though, an indicator that Dickerson is just a strong player early and then he falls off. Perhaps that may end up as the result, but the 28-year-old is providing a very real reason to buy in.
This season, Dickerson is hitting nearly every baseball that comes inside the zone. As of May 9, Dickerson ranked 20th amongst qualified hitters with a 90.1 percent zone contact rate. It's a remarkable number, though not unprecedented given among qualified hitters last season 40 finished with a Z-Contact% of 90-plus percent. What's remarkable is that Dickerson's Z-Contact% last season in Tampa Bay was 75.3 percent and it sat at just 77.2 percent in the first half during his great stretch at the plate.
Dickerson is a changed player. As noted by FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan, he changed his grip on the bat and reduced the leg kick on his swing. The 28-year-old is a different player now and due to the improvements with a quicker swing and significantly more contact made. Dickerson's swinging-strike rate is down from 15.4 percent last season to 9.4 percent in 2018 and his strikeout percentage is down from 24.2 percent to 10 percent. A 14.2 percent drop in strikeout rate, that's just a mark that makes your jaw drop.
From a batted ball perspective, it's the one area we haven't seen significant change from Dickerson. From a BABIP perspective, his .337 BABIP this year is in line with his .338 mark from 2017 and only a slight tick above his career .329 mark. Given the increased contact he has made, a slightly increased BABIP isn't all that surprising and it's one factor in his favor. Lastly, Dickerson is hitting the ball a little harder this year as demonstrated in the bump in average exit velocity from 87.2 last season to 88.2 MPH this season, according to Baseball Savant.
Meanwhile, Dickerson's line drive rate is on the rise from 22.4 percent to 34.5 percent this season. Paired with his higher fly ball rate, which rose from 35.8 percent to 39.7 percent, you start to see more signs of Dickerson hitting the ball at a greater launch angle. His home run/fly ball rate dropped from 17.2 percent in 2017 to 10.9 percent this season, but he is still delivering plenty of pop even after a sacrifice in power for a greater contact rate.
If you'd like further icing on the cake, Dickerson isn't just better at the plate. First, we'll look at how he performed defensively last season in Tampa Bay. Across the 2017 season, Dickerson played 753 in left field exclusively for the Rays. In that span, Dickerson finished with a -1 Defensive Runs Saved, a 3.9 UZR/150 and a -1.4 Defensive Rating by FanGraphs.
Now let's take a look at this season in Pittsburgh. While it's a smaller sample size with just 284 innings thus far, Dickerson is playing like a Gold Glove-caliber defender in left field. He is first in UZR/150 (34.1) with the next closest left fielder registering an 8.5 UZR/150, meanwhile Dickerson is second amongst outfielders in DRS (five) and fourth amongst all outfielders in range runs (2.3).
Even in his Colorado days, Dickerson never performed close to this level. Tampa Bay took him on in the hopes they could transform him, instead he made contact less often, never shined in the outfield and ultimately Tampa Bay thought his career was decided and the player would never change who he was. Instead, the exact opposite happened and Pittsburgh is loving every moment of their own version of the Gerrit Cole transformation trade.
As a result of his work at the plate and defensively in left field, Dickerson finds himself 12th in FanGraphs WAR (1.7). While he isn't quite in the MVP discussion, Dickerson is playing like a player who can practically set his own price in the offseason for arbitration hearings and could be one of the most underrated trade targets for contending teams if Pittsburgh decides to sell.
Don't listen to anyone who tells you Dickerson is just repeating his 2017 form and a big drop off is coming. Maybe there's some change, but the player we are seeing right now is nearly the polar opposite of who we saw in Tampa Bay, meanwhile the Rays would do anything to have this version of Dickerson in its lineup. While there were plenty of bad moves this offseason, Dickerson's transformation could make Tampa Bay's decision to DFA one of the most regrettable in several years.