He’s hitting above his pay grade, but he has also made adjustments and taken a real step forward.
Each baseball season is filled with surprises, but there’s been no accounting for Derek Dietrich suddenly becoming one of the premier power hitters in the league. Following the 2018 season, Dietrich was designated for assignment by the Miami Marlins. Getting cut by any team is a shot to the ego but that coming from the Marlins has to feel especially upsetting. He had to settle for a minor-league with the Cincinnati Reds, and through the first two months of the season, Dietrich has made the Reds look like geniuses.
I think we expected Dietrich to hit for a little more power as he traded Marlins Park for Great American Ballpark, but no one thought it would be to this degree. He’s already set a new career-high with 17 homers and it’s not even June. Out of all batters with at least 100 plate appearances, he leads the majors with an ISO of .451.
Clearly, he’s hitting above his pay grade, and some of his increased performance has been because he’s been protected from lefties better. Only 9.7 percent of his plate appearances have come at platoon disadvantage this year compared to 19.2 percent in 2018. Even if he’s putting up MVP-type numbers, he’s still a platoon player, but there’s reason to believe that he’s made some real improvements.
He’s not just hitting a bunch of cheap shots. Sure, he’s hit a couple wall scrapers like this dinger off of Tyler Beede, but he’s also hit some absolute tanks like this other dinger off of Tyler Beede. He entered the Zeitgeist by hitting two balls into the Allegheny. He’s hitting the ball hard, and he has mostly deserved his success. His xwOBA of .393 is in the 90th percentile, and he’s has already barreled the ball 17 times. That’s hard to fake.
The largest and most obvious change is Dietrich’s batting stance. Take a look at the difference in how Dietrich sets himself before a pitch is thrown.
On the left is Dietrich as a member of Miami Marlins in 2018. On the right is Dietrich in 2019. The first thing you likely noticed is that Dietrich has closed off his stance. Less unnecessary movement is generally a good thing. He’s standing more upright as his back knee isn’t bent so much. He’s also keeping his hands a bit higher, and his front shoulder is tucked in.
I’m no hitting coach, but his new stance looks like it makes him quicker to the ball. He has less lower body movement and less hand load. Maybe quickening his motion has helped him catch the ball out in front of the plate where he’ll hit the ball in the air more often.
Whatever the mechanism, he’s hitting a ton more fly balls. His average launch angle is up five degrees from his career average. He has raised his fly ball rate six percentage points to 30.1 percent. His personal fly ball revolution has come with the side effect of an increased popup rate. He’s also hitting fewer ground balls and line drives, so that helps to explain his BABIP of .197.
Dietrich will come back to earth eventually. Nobody rocks a 35.4 HR/FB percentage. Unless Dietrich has turned into Christian Yelich (and his middling hard-hit rate and average exit velocity suggest that’s not the case), his Bondsian home run pace will slow. That’s not to say that he hasn’t improved. From here on out, he should be a better hitter than he was prior to 2019 as his new stance appears to be working for him and he has been protected from the lefty-on-lefty matchup. He’ll have a few more home runs to pimp before the year is through.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.