The Pirates, much to the consternation of a certain subset of ‘fans’, are off to a 17-12 start. Yes, that record has some real peaks and valleys, but as we stand right now, they’ve booked 17 wins that can not be taken away from them.
In general, the offense has been much better than expected and that’s due to many players. Young padawan Alex Stumpf talked about Starling Marte’s newfound ability to draw a walk, but I’d like to focus on Corey Dickerson and his newfound ability to make contact.
I say ‘make contact’ instead of ‘strike out less’, because although they’re related terms, they are not interchangeable. Dickerson is striking out less this season — much less. For the last three seasons, with both the Rockies and the Rays in much different batting environs, he’s been a pretty consistent 24% strikeout guy. This season in the first month of play he’s at 9.2%. That’s not a modest improvement. That’s halving your percentage and then a skosh more.
But as I said, it’s not just his K rate, it’s also his contact percentage. Going by Fangraphs’ Pitch Info Plate Discipline numbers, Dickerson is being more aggressive and making more contact at unprecedented rates in his career.
Let’s parse out a few pieces of info here. First, look at Dickerson’s Z-Swing% column. This shows how often he swings at a pitch in the zone. So far in 2018, he’s at a rate of 73.3%. But then correlate that with Z-Contact% column. This is how often he makes contact with a pitch in a zone. It’s the highest percentage (83.6%) of any season since his debut partial season in 2013 and a full 10% higher than last year’s figure. When you are swinging at more pitches and making more contact on those pitches, you’ve just entered batting Nirvana. (The heavenly state, not the early 90’s grunge band. Although I did briefly contemplate calling this article ‘Corey Dickerson Will Have His Revenge On Tampa’ for the 2 people that would understand that reference.)
It’s even more stunning when you see Dickerson’s heat map from Brooks Baseball. The first graph is Corey Dickerson’s cumulative Whiff Rate heat map from 2013 up to the end of 2017, just for his time in the Majors. Keep in mind that with all these heat maps, it’s from the catcher’s perspective, so the lefty Dickerson is standing on the right side of this graphic.
You can pretty much draw a diagonal from up-and-in to low-and-away for the lefty Dickerson and see that he has had some contact issues. And although not germane to the premise of this strike zone contact article, Dickerson really has some issues up and down outside the zone, too.
Now here’s the same Whiff Rate heat map from March/April 2018 only:
Wow. Much like Vincent Van Gogh, Dickerson is entering the blue phase of his career right now. Look at that dead-center zone — no whiffs on 10 swings so far this year, a vast cry from his career 21.9% whiff rate in that same meaty zone. The upper corners of the zone are spotless to date, as well, with each of them in the mid-20’s of whiffs previously.
Now of course this isn’t sustainable at this current success level. But the amazing part is that at no point during Dickerson’s numerous hot spells has he achieved this rate of contact. Dickerson had an amazing first half of 2017, running OPS’s around 1000 and wRC+’s in the 160 range. Here’s his Whiff Rate chart from the first half of 2017:
That’s the same basic diagonal as his career Whiff Rate chart I showed at the outset. So even during one of the hottest stretches of his career, Dickerson still had contact issues. This isn’t to say that Dickerson isn’t a good hitter, of course. He’s probably one of the best ‘bad ball’ hitters in the Majors right now, due to his excellent hand-eye coordination. But what he’s doing right now in the strike zone is unprecedented for him.
I’ve probably put the hoo-joo on Dickerson and he’ll spend all of May looking like Mr. Magoo at the plate and his career Whiff Rate diagonal will re-establish itself. I apologize in advance if that happens. But as it stands now, we could be witnessing the re-invention of Corey Dickerson for the Pirates.