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Three keys to Corey Dickerson's 2017 breakout

Rays designated hitter Corey Dickerson connects for a three-run home run against the Yankees in May. [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times]
Rays designated hitter Corey Dickerson connects for a three-run home run against the Yankees in May. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Published Jul. 6, 2017

Corey Dickerson didn't make a great first impression in Tampa Bay, with a .245 average, .293 on-base percentage and .469 slugging percentage last season. The Rays slugger's second campaign has been much better. Through Sunday's games he's slashing .321/.363/.562 for the eighth-best OPS in the American League. That's earned him the first All-Star selection of his five-year career. These are three of the areas where he's gotten better from last year, transforming from an average outfielder to a feared slugger.

Two-strike hitting

At first glance, Dickerson's below-average strikeout rate of 20.4 percent seems odd. He's maintained his aggressive approach at the plate — his 58.9 percent swing rate is the second-highest in the American League, trailing White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia (59.9 percent). And his 14.2 percent swinging-strike rate ranks seventh in the AL. If Dickerson still swings at everything, and whiffs more than he should, why has his strikeout rate dropped from 24.5 percent last season?

Aggression in and of itself isn't a bad thing. By swinging at most pitches in the strike zone, Dickerson has avoided getting rung up. He's had just two called strikeouts this year, the third-fewest among qualified hitters. (As an aside: Props to Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, who hasn't gone down looking since May 1, 2016.) That's not too different from last year, though, when Dickerson saw nine called strike threes in 551 plate appearances.

Dickerson's improvement this year comes from swinging strikeouts. While he's not making much contact overall, he is coming through when it counts. Most hitters will swing-and-miss more often when they get to two strikes, but Dickerson remains the same regardless:

CountDickerson whiff%MLB whiff%
0 strikes/1 strike15.0 percent9.9 percent
2 strikes15.4 percent14.6 percent
Source: Baseball Savant

Early in the count, Dickerson is a hacker, missing on a lot of his swings. When his back is against the wall, though, he starts to make contact. This season, only two other hitters — the Phillies' Freddy Galvis and Moustakas — have fouled off more two-strike pitches than Dickerson, at 33.8 percent. Dickerson already avoids called strikeouts, and with more foul balls here, he's reduced his swinging strikeouts as well.

This new approach has another benefit for Dickerson. Over 2016 and 2017, the average hitter has a .176/.247/.277 slash line with two strikes. Last year — when he whiffed at 19.6 percent of two-strike pitches and fouled off 29.8 percent — Dickerson fell short of that standard, but he's surged past it this season:

Year2-strike AVG2-strike OBP2-strike SLG
2016.169.199.301
2017.273.296.404

To cut down on strikeouts, some batters become more patient; others seal up holes in their swing to make more contact; and others just stay alive with two strikes, fouling off pitches until they take a walk or find something to hit. Dickerson has taken the latter route, which comes with the bonus of being a better two-strike hitter.

Opposite-field hitting

Even before coming to Tampa Bay, Dickerson was adept at hitting the ball to left field. With the Rockies, his opposite-field wRC+ — a metric that compares a player's offense to the league average — was 147, which ranked 47th among 264 hitters with 150 balls hit the other way. Last season with the Rays, Dickerson maintained that success, with a 148 wRC+ to the opposite field.

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But in his second campaign in the AL, Dickerson has really started feasting on oppo tacos. Just five other AL hitters have a better opposite-field wRC+ than Dickerson (206) this season. He's hitting .422 when going the other way, with a .711 slugging percentage to boot. Throughout his career, Dickerson has mashed when he pulls the ball; going the other way has made the difference in 2017.

Some of this progress stems from power. Prior to 2017, Dickerson had nine career home runs to left field; he's already slugged five this year. But there's another factor at play here. As a left-handed hitter, Dickerson has faced the shift increasingly often — this season, 54.2 percent of his balls in play have come against the shift. With the third baseman standing in shallow right, Dickerson can get a hit by simply poking a ground ball down the left field line, and that's what he's done increasingly in 2017.

Back in 2015, while Dickerson was tearing it up in Colorado, FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan noticed something interesting about him: Despite being a power hitter, Dickerson had a lot of ground balls go the opposite way, a trait usually reserved for slap-hitting speedsters. That paradoxic trend has continued into 2017, as shown in the chart below, which features the 87 qualified AL hitters' opposite-field ground ball rates and their isolated power (slugging percentage minus average):

That's a ton of information, so here's a simpler way of thinking about it. When you're hitting to the opposite field, you want to put the ball on the ground — this season, MLB hitters have a 106 wRC+ on ground balls the other way, and a 99 wRC+ on air balls the other way. Dickerson has hit ground balls 31.3 percent of the time to the opposite field, which is the 14th-highest in the AL. Here's what that looks like in spray chart form:

Shooting ground balls to left field — along with the occasional dinger — is a great recipe for success. No matter where the defense lines up against him, Dickerson can put the bat on the ball and get a hit.

Hitting offspeed pitches

As you'd expect for a guy who ranks fourth in the AL in hitting and sixth in slugging, Dickerson has crushed all types of pitches this year. Hard, soft, high, low, inside, outside: Dickerson can put the bat on everything (although, as we'll see in a moment, he has a clear preference). But more than anything else, offspeed pitches have been the biggest difference maker for him.

Offspeed pitches — defined for our purposes as changeups and splitters — gave Dickerson a ton of trouble in 2016. By FanGraphs' Pitch Type Linear Weights, which measures how well a player performs against certain pitch types, Dickerson was the eighth-worst offspeed hitter in the American League, at 4.3 runs below average. He's flipped that on its head this year, as he's been the AL's fifth-best offspeed pitch hitter, with 5.7 runs above average.

Run values are kind of abstract, so let's look at some more concrete numbers. These are the ways Dickerson has improved against offspeed pitches from last year:

YearABAVGSLGKBB
201698.194.388253
201764.313.53184

Dickerson has made huge leaps across the board — he's struck out less, walked more and made harder contact against offspeed pitches. While he's improved with fastballs and breaking balls as well, the offspeed pitch turnaround has been the key.

In practical terms, this has to do with handedness. Most of Dickerson's plate appearances this season — 69.5 percent, to be exact — have come against right-handers. Those hurlers are the ones who rely heavily on offspeed pitches, which break down and away from left-handed hitters. After putting up a 112 wRC+ against righties in his first Rays campaign, Dickerson has clobbered them to the tune of a 146 wRC+ this season, thanks in large part to his progress with offspeed pitches.

As noted, offspeed pitches tend to move down and away for lefties like Dickerson. That's been the case both this year and last. The difference has come with his swing patterns:

In 2016, Dickerson offered at 47.6 percent of breaking balls on the outer part of the plate. He's trimmed that to a healthy 36.4 percent in 2017. Meanwhile, on breaking balls inside — the area where he's historically hit for a high average and a ton of power — he's become much more aggressive. Right-handers haven't changed their approach against Dickerson, but he's changed how he responds to them.

When the Rays sent ace reliever Jake McGee to the Rockies for Dickerson, they assumed they'd get a formidable middle-of-the-order bat. It took him a year to adjust to the new setting, but with a better two-strike approach, an opposite-field stroke and a mastery of offspeed pitches, Dickerson has made waves in 2017.

Contact Ryan Romano at rromano@tampabay.com. Follow @triple_r_