Looking at what’s wrong with Sam Dyson
Our lives are consumed with finding answers.
What’s our purpose in life?
What happens when we die?
Where are you getting your energy?
The trade deadline is a marketplace of questions and answers. Just instead of important philosophical questions, you’re looking for what arm or bat will complete the complex baseball puzzle that lays out a championship trophy at year’s end.
The Rangers are no different. It’s well known that the team is searching for pitchers both starter and reliever after the injury bug ran through the staff. With farm options limited, they look to bring in outside options to patch the holes. They did a small part of that by acquiring Lucas Harrell and Dario Alvarez from the Atlanta Braves Wednesday. That won’t be enough however.
Media and fans alike will fixate on the shiny new baubles Jon Daniels and company hope to acquire.
While they keep one eye on the trade rumors, they’d do best to keep an eye on those currently wearing Ranger red.
Which leads me to my question: Is there something wrong with Sam Dyson?
A cursory glance at his to date numbers against last year say no. His ERA is lower this year than last, 2.53 to 2.63. His FIP and xFIP are both higher, but at 3.55 and 3.57 it’s not super concerning. He’s stranding runners more frequently than last year, 82.6% to 75.8%. He’s accrued 0.7 WAR, beating his projection from both ZiPS(0.4) and Steamer(0.3). Those were full season projections that he’s knocked down, with August and September left to go.
You see all that and say “OK so his ERA isn’t spiking, the more advanced metrics aren’t a disaster, more guys aren’t crossing home, and he’s twice as valuable as projected. What’s the problem here?”
The top layer is fine. It’s when you peel that thing back where things get dubious.
For one thing, Dyson’s strikeouts per 9 are down a whiff and a half from last year(8.48 to 7.01). For another, he’s getting luckier than he did last year. Dyson’s 2015 BABIP was .295, which is reasonable. This year, he’s got a .275 BABIP. That indicates Dyson could be headed for some regression down the stretch, with a few more hits falling in than before leading to some less productive outings.
So those aren’t terrible. You’d like to see the strikeouts up, but he’s a ground ball pitcher relying on a heavy sinker. So no worries right?
Looking even deeper increases the concern.
Dyson’s ground ball rate is seeing a sharp decline, from 68.8% last year to 59% this year. That’s a career low. If that wasn’t concerning enough, Dyson is seeing a spike in how hard balls are hit against him. Fangraphs has a metric measuring what percentage of balls are hit soft, medium or hard. Dyson’s soft hit percentage is down almost ten percent from last year, 31 to 22. His hard hit percentage is up ten percent, 17 to 27. His hard percentage is a career high, his soft a career low.
Those numbers tell us that not only is Dyson generating fewer ground balls, the balls hitters are putting into play are more well hit which leads to…well more hits. A ground ball pitcher who doesn’t get soft ground balls for double plays or easy outs isn’t exactly what a depleted bullpen needs down the stretch.
So how and/or why is this happening?
Looking at PITCHf/x data, we can see a couple of drastic changes in Dyson’s pitch selection. The biggest being that his fastball usage is down from last year to the tune of 13.5%. in 2015, Dyson threw his various fastballs a little over 81% of the time; this year he’s only doing it 68% of the time. The majority of that drop comes from the 4 seam fastball, which last year he used 30.3% of the time. This year? 16.5%.
He’s also throwing an increased number of change-ups this year, from 10% in 2015 to 19%. There’s also a 5% bump in his cutter, from 6 to 11. The good news is the velocity of all his pitches is stable, so the likelihood is he’s not injured. That said, he’s made a conscious change on what he’s throwing when.
Even then, pitch selection can only tell us so much. It’s worth looking at where those pitches are going, regardless of what they are. Let’s first look at Dyson’s heat map* from 2015:
For the year, Dyson lived in the bottom of the zone. He didn’t miss up and in to lefties or go away from righties much. He did go down the middle quite a bit, but consider what he was throwing. That mid 90s sinker was headed down, which means even if hitters got bat on ball they’d beat it into the ground for an easy out. Since most of us didn’t know who Dyson was until he came to Texas, let’s look at what happened after he was traded to Arlington.
Pretty much the exact same idea, with an understanding that he threw less pitches during this time so the sample size is smaller. Middle, lower middle, just outside the zone without coming in much at all(save for that one spot to righties). It’s a clear MO for a sinker baller. So what’s 2016 look like for Dyson?
So the differences here are subtle yet important. Notice that a lot more concentration lies inside the strike zone. The lower 2/3rds is a lot hotter than his 2016, and the section right below the zone(where the sinker did its dirty work) isn’t as well populated. Notice also that Dyson is coming inside to both sides of the plate more. It’s not the majority of his pitches, but it’s an increase from last year.
So he’s throwing more off-speed pitches and less hard fastballs, while working more inside the zone and higher to boot. All those are beneficial to hitters, who will either get better pitches to hit or more balls to take which will force Dyson to throw more strikes. All that leads to more potential hits, which leads to more potential runs.
So why did Dyson, regarded as a dominant reliever last year, make these changes. What would cause someone to change their base philosophy this drastically?
Hey didn’t the Rangers hire a new pitching coach this off-season?
Doug Brocail came in this winter, replacing Mike Maddux who took his talents to the Nationals after an extended stay in Texas. With him, he brought a philosophy that he laid out on a Dallas Morning News podcast in January. His words:
Well, the most important thing is the mistakes late in a ballgame usually are made middle of the plate, in, as a reliever. Throughout my whole career, you hear ‘if you’re going to give up a bomb, give it up to the big part of the field’ which is usually away…The main goal for pitching inside is buying real estate. If we’re going to primarily make our living away, then we have to buy real estate, and for that to happen you have to pitch in, you have to pitch in for strikes, you have to pitch in for effect, you have to pitch in up, and that’s the goal.
It’s funny he used real estate as a metaphor in that quote, because Dyson’s biggest problem might just be location, location, location.
When something changes like a result, you look around to see what could have caused that change in outcome. We can see a clear pattern in Dyson’s pitch selection and pitch location that shows a shift in his pitching style. The pitching style he’s applying falls in line with that of the new pitching coach. It’s not a hard conclusion to draw that Brocail’s style is acting as a hindrance to Dyson, with the potential to get worse as the season progresses.
This is an isolated and in progress case. It’ll be fascinating to go through various Rangers pitchers once the season ends, seeing if this trend shows across the entire staff. For right now though, the man at the back of the Rangers bullpen is showing he’s not performing as well as he has before. While the reason seems clear, in the end the reason’s relevance is questionable.
The Rangers need results from their bullpen if they hope to repeat as AL West champions. While Dyson hasn’t prohibited that success yet, he hasn’t been the same lock down reliever he was when Texas acquired him for Tomas Telis and Cody Ege last trade deadline. You hope he rights the ship, becoming the bowling ball throwing stopper he was down the stretch.
If he doesn’t though, don’t be surprised.
*All heat maps are courtesy of Fangraphs. Our thanks to them.