After the Reds’ victory over the Pirates in the second half of Monday’s doubleheader, a bunch of very dumb, very angry children got very dumb and angry over Derek Dietrich. Dietrich — who already sent Chris Archer’s soul flying into the river outside PNC Park and caught the rage of dumb, angry babies back in April — crushed yet another mighty dinger to the back row of the right field seats against Pittsburgh in the eighth inning of Monday’s game, and as he is wont to do, stood in the batter’s box for a couple seconds to watch it fly, because Dietrich is capable of fun in a way that puzzlingly few baseball players are.
The chorus of the dumb and the angry advocated for throwing at Dietrich in Tuesday’s game, kicking off the same discussion that we seem to have every year. One side, being dumb and angry, thinks that throwing a baseball at someone somehow evens the score after that someone admired the mashing of a very large tater, and isn’t an admission of defeat, not only in terms of who is the worse baseball player, but also in terms of who is the worse person. Actually, the other side counters, throwing baseballs at people is incredibly stupid and dangerous, and should never happen. Besides, the best way to get revenge on someone is by embarrassing them the way they embarrassed you — by striking them out, or otherwise making them look silly while trying to do their very difficult job of hitting a baseball.
In April, the Pirates listened to that first argument, throwing at Dietrich and starting a lengthy dust-up. That didn’t work very well, as Dietrich retaliated by crushing another homer later in the game. On Tuesday, the Pirates opted to take the second option, and actually pitched to Dietrich like human adults. That didn’t work either, as Dietrich clobbered three homers in four at-bats, the first time in his career he’d done so in a game.
We don’t need to get into all the reasons Dietrich’s three-homer night against the most deserving of victims ruled, because I’ve already written about just how much more fun he is right now than damn near anyone else. Instead, it’s time to discuss just how unique of a season Dietrich is having, and figure out what the rest of his year might look like.
He is now hitting .254/.364/.720. Among players with at least Dietrich’s 140 PAs, only Cody Bellinger has a higher slugging percentage. Just five players have a higher wOBA than Dietrich’s (.434), and no one has a higher ISO (.466). Put it all together, and Dietrich is seventh in baseball with a .171 wRC+, sitting two points of Mike Freakin’ Trout.
You don’t need me to tell you this has been a surprise. Before the end of May, and without the benefit of being an everyday starter for the entire season, Dietrich has already set a career high in home runs with 17. His 36.2 percent home run per fly ball rate is blowing the doors off his previous career high of 16.1 percent, set all the way back in his 57-game rookie season. The pace he is setting is blinding.
Dietrich AB-per-HR is 6.9. The record for a single season is 6.52 (Bonds in 2001). No one else has ever been under 7.27. #reds— John Fay (@johnfayman) May 29, 2019
If Dietrich is faking all of this, he’s doing an awfully convincing job. Among all major leaguers, his HR/FB rate sits at third entering Wednesday’s afternoon tilt. The rest of the top five in that category are Joey Gallo (first), Christian Yelich (second), Cody Bellinger (fourth), and George Springer (fifth). That’s four of the most notorious power hitters in baseball over the past few seasons (or, in Yelich’s case, the past 10 months), and Dietrich’s name is right in the middle. The batted ball profile on Statcast tells us a similar story. Among all players with at least 90 batted ball events, Dietrich’s barrels-per-PA percentage ranks fifth, right in between Joey Gallo and Josh Bell. His xwOBA of .396 ranks 22nd in the majors, and his xSLG ranks 14th.
But while Dietrich crushing baseballs makes this a unique season in his own career, there’s something else at work that makes him unique among every other hitter in baseball this season. That would be his .176 BABIP, which is the lowest average of any hitter with at least his number of plate appearances. He is one of just five hitters currently producing a BABIP under .200. The wRC+ values put up by the other four: 64, 62, 61, and 43. Again, Dietrich’s wRC+ is 171.
A few things are worth noting here. The first is that a BABIP that low over the course of a full season never happens — since 2000, the lowest BABIP for a player with at least 400 PAs in a season was posted by Aaron Hill, who recorded a .196 BABIP in 2010. The second thing is that having your league’s lowest BABIP almost never leads to positive offensive production. In the last 20 years, just two players have posted a positive wRC+ while owning the majors’ lowest BABIP: Todd Frazier in 2016 (105 wRC+) and Carlos Santana in 2018 (109 wRC+), both of whom finished with BABIPs 50-60 points higher than Dietrich’s.
Finally, it’s important to note that Dietrich’s BABIP has never looked like this. For his career, he owns a .302 clip, which is fairly standard for a big league hitter. Last year, it was .336. Many factors are involved in shaking out a hitter’s BABIP, and the contact Dietrich is making will certainly have some influence on that. His line drive rate is down to just 15.6 percent (from a 21.8 percent career average) and his soft contact rate is up to 27.5 percent (21.6 percent career average). Dietrich is going all in swinging for the fences, and it isn’t a surprise that it might have some ill effects on how well he hits line drives and grounders.
Still, it is incredibly unlikely that Dietrich’s BABIP remains this low over the course of a full season. There is still some luck involved, and how hard a player is hitting the ball does have an effect over the course of a full season. With Dietrich’s exit velocity currently representing a career high, it stands to reason that more of his batted balls should be falling for hits than what he is getting right now.
The question all of this points to is, which of these historic paces is going to break first? The easy answer, of course, is the home run rate — impressive as he has been, Dietrich is no Barry Bonds. But he has swung the bat like one of the game’s more outstanding sluggers this season, and the underlying numbers suggest that version of him may be here to stay longer than one might anticipate. That, of course, brings us to his unsustainably low BABIP, which actually suggests he may be in for some positive regression soon. It isn’t often we see a hitter who appears to be so lucky and so unlucky at the same time. It can’t last. He can’t keep hitting homers like this, but he also can’t keep making this many outs in play. Dietrich’s luck is going to about to turn around soon, but this time, we have no idea what that means. All we can do is what the man does himself: Sit back and watch where the ball lands.