Coming into this winter, there was a general belief that every single team in baseball had a spot on its roster for Houston Astros super-utility player Marwin Gonzalez. Gonzalez is just 29 years old, played seven different positions in 2018, and is a reliably above-average offensive contributor. He’s just a year removed from a breakout 4-WAR season in 2017, and since the Astros did not extend to him a qualifying offer at season’s end, he would not even cost a draft pick to whomever signs him. Simply put, he’s the kind of relatively low-cost upgrade all 30 teams could afford, and one that would make every one of them better.
The Reds thought so too, so they signed Derek Dietrich.
You may know Dietrich for being historically good at getting hit by baseballs, or for getting base hits on chip shots that land three feet in foul territory. You may not know him at all. After all, if he were an especially productive or popular player, the Marlins obviously would have traded him, instead of simply designating him for assignment the way they did in November. Dietrich didn’t land on many free agency wish lists across baseball, and I’m not here to claim that that is some grand injustice. What I am here to do is present this:
Those are stats from the previous three seasons, 2016-2018. I chose 2016 as a starting point because that’s when Dietrich formally established himself as a major league regular.
The table above says Dietrich has posted the same wOBA as Gonzalez, a walk rate one percent lower, a strikeout rate one percent higher, and a wRC+ two points lower over the last three years. Gonzalez’s offensive ability goes a long way toward making him as valuable as he is, and there’s Dietrich, right there with him by nearly every offensive metric.
What the table doesn’t say is that Dietrich played five different positions in 2018 — two fewer than Gonzalez, but a couple more than the average player typically plays in a season. Here is a table of all seven players in Major League Baseball who played at least five positions in the field last season while also maintaining Dietrich’s 109 wRC+ or better (min. 200 PAs):
That’s an exclusive group of big leaguers Dietrich happens to be a part of. It’s not a list of star players, necessarily, but it’s a list of perfectly useful players, and even if Dietrich is the least valuable of them all, it’s worth something that he’s a part of the group to begin with.
While his bat is relatively on par with most of the other players on that list, his defense is a decent ways off from the rest of the group. Baseball-Reference was no kinder to his fielding, rating him at -2.4 dWAR in 2018. Defensive metrics are often noisy and shouldn’t be trusted a whole lot even over the course of one full season, but from a cursory glance at their histories, defense is where Dietrich differs the most from Marwin Gonzalez: Dietrich has posted a negative dWAR figure in five of his six seasons at the big league level, while Gonzalez has posted a positive dWAR in six of his seven seasons.
But through the same elementary research that we use to settle upon the fact that Dietrich likely isn’t the fielder Gonzalez is, we can also identify something of a pattern in what causes the former some extra trouble to begin with. In that 2018 season that served as Dietrich’s worst all-time from a defensive standpoint, he played 95 games in left field, far and away the most of his career. His second-highest number of games in left field came in 2015, when he played 46 games there — and posted his second-worst defensive value of his career, -1.2 dWAR. In other seasons, Dietrich was primarily used at second and third base, and graded out as roughly average each time. If the Reds don’t count on him for a significant load of innings in the outfield, they’ll more than likely get at least replacement-level defense.
The good news here is that Dietrich shouldn’t be counted upon for much defense at all. Cincinnati appears to be gunning for a starting outfield of Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel and Yasiel Puig, which would leave Scott Schebler and Matt Kemp on the bench. The Reds won’t have much need for a sixth outfielder, nor will they have any reason to platoon left-handed Scooter Gennett with the also left-handed Dietrich at second base. Instead, it’s likely Dietrich is used simply as an extra left-handed bat off the bench, with innings in the field largely contained to third, second and first. If he’s able to man those positions capably while putting together the above-average offense he’s been responsible for in recent seasons, he’ll be a fine piece to the puzzle Cincinnati has put together over the past four months — and one that will only cost the team $2 million.
Dietrich might not be Marwin Gonzalez. Fortunately, the Reds won’t ask him to be.