Derek Dietrich does not fit the profile. He’s not your scrappy, speedy, slick-fielding middle infielder that the Rays seemingly have a million of. But he just could be something better.
Derek Dietrich was a strange pick by the Rays in the 2nd round of the 2010 MLB Draft. Dietrich, a Georgia Tech product, was the only college shortstop they drafted in that draft and the only premium position player (shortstop, centerfield, catcher) that the Rays drafted out of college in the first 20 rounds of that draft. In fact, in the last five years, the Rays have only drafted one other premium position player out of college in the first 20 rounds of the draft, and that player isn’t even a true prospect: catcher Matt Rice, who they drafted in 2011 among their 60 picks. Why did the Rays go against their usual philosophy with Dietrich? The answer is simple. Dietrich provides something the Rays have never had at the shortstop position: power.
No player who has played at least 30 games at the shortstop position during their time with the Rays has ever hit 20 home runs- not just in a single season, but for their entire time with the team. The record-holder for both the single-season and career marks for Rays shortstops is Jason Barlett, with 14 blasts in 2009 and 19 in his career with the Rays. No one else has even come close. There’s still some hope that Reid Brignac will put it all together in 2012 and produce a 20 home run season (he did hit 41 home runs from 2006 to 2007 between High-A and Double-A), but Brignac’s power has decreased as his pro career has progressed. Dietrich on the other hand, if and when he makes the major leagues and gets a starting opportunity, has the power to be a 20 home run hitter annually.
Derek Dietrich is far from a perfect prospect, but there’s no way not to like his 2011 numbers for the Low-A Bowling Green Hot Rods. He posted a .277/.346/.502 line with 34 doubles, 22 homers, 81 RBI, and 5 stolen bases (7 CS) in a season where he didn’t turn 22 until mid-July. Dietrich’s power was no fluke at all. According to Minor League Central, 17.7% of his flyballs to the outfield went for home runs, which was well above the league average of 8.0%. Dietrich made full use of his power by hitting 63.3% of his batted balls in the air compared to the league average of 51.1%. 43.7% of his batted balls were flyballs compared to the league average of 36.4%, and 34.7% of his batted balls were flyballs to the outfield compared to the league average of 29.3%. By hitting so many flyballs to the outfield, Dietrich was able to take full advantage of his power. But he also was an excellent line drive hitter, hitting 19.6% of his batted balls for line drives compared to the league average of 14.7% which helped him manage a .331 BAbip (batting average on balls in play) compared to the league average of .306 despite hitting fewer groundballs than the league average (keep in mind that a groundball is more likely to go for a base hit when it’s softly hit than a flyball is, so groundball hitters generally post higher BAbip’s). Dietrich’s power and line drive hitting ability were on display in 2011.
The problem with Dietrich was that despite his impressive line drive percentage and .331 BAbip, he still hit .277. The reason was that Dietrich had problems making contact. He struck out in 23.8% of his plate appearances compared to the league average of 20.7%, which isn’t an enormous problem considering his power except for the fact that his inflated strikeout rate did not come with an increased walk rate. He walked unintentionally in just 6.7% of his plate appearances compared to the league average of 8.4%. The good news is that Dietrich didn’t really have a problem with pitch identification as he swung at 24.1% of pitches out of the strike zone compared to the league average of 26.1% although he was overly aggressive on pitches within the zone, swinging at 89.3% of pitches compared to the league average of 88.3%. But even though Dietrich’s pitch identification was solid, he made contact on just 51.7% of his swings compared to the league average of 58.7%. That 7% mark is about 50 more swings and misses that Dietrich had compared to the average hitter.
Dietrich had stretches over the course of the season where he was more patient, but he also had times where he basically went into a power only mode wehre he swung for the fences every swing, and even though that got him a bunch of homers, it ruined his plate discipline. The perfect example of that is Dietrich’s July compared to his August and early September. In July he posted a .286/.390/.582 line with 6 doubles, 7 homers, and 18 RBI, walking 7 times compared to 14 strikeouts. That month, he was adept at only swinging at pitches within the zone, swinging at 95.3% of pitches within the zone and just 21.5% of pitches outside the zone. By doing that, he not only hit for prolific power (.296 ISO) but also made a lot more contact as he made contact on 55.7% of his pitches overall and 59.8% of his swings and pitches within the strike zone. That was a real positive development for Dietrich. But it was also completely undone in September. He still had a solid month especially in terms of power, producing a .271/.325/.543 line (.272 ISO) but he walked just 7 times compared to 35 strikeouts. That month he was a little bit more passive on pitches within the strike zone, swinging just 86.8% of the time, but he was chasing pitches outside the zone all day, swinging at 30.1% of pitches outside the zone. And he still couldn’t make very much contact, just 54.7% of his swings and 53.8% of his swings at pitches in the zone. Dietrich needs to continue working hard to find the balance between power and patience.
Defensively, it’s pretty alarming when a shortstop can only steal 5 bases in 12 tries in 127 games, and Dietrich’s lack of speed does hinder him. He posted just a .952 Fld% defensively, not far below the league average for shortstop, but not a good sign considering Dietrich is a college product. His 4.07 RF/G was pretty solid, but his overall defensive struggles could force him off of the shortstop position. Nevertheless, he definitely has the arm to handle third base (although there’s some guy named Evan Longoria entrenched there for the Rays) and second base isn’t a problem either. If Dietrich could handle shortstop, his power makes him a very interesting prospect, but he’s still a solid prospect even if he moves off the position.
The questions on Dietrich’s patience and defense prevent him from being a top prospect right now. But 2012 could be the season where he puts it all together. Dietrich’s power will almost undoubtedly take him to the big leagues in some capacity, but if he can improve his patience and make strides to be at least an average defender at shortstop, he could be a very good big league regular. Will that happen? Dietrich is just 22, but as he gets older, the likelihood gets lower and lower. If Derek Dietrich is ever going to take the step forward he needs to be close to a top prospect it has to happen in 2012.