The Cincinnati Reds don’t seem like a terribly easy team to have fun playing on in 2019. Their record is 15-20, and if you happen to be a hitter on this team, there is a very good chance you’re having the worst season of your career. Even after breaking out for 37 runs in four games against the lowly San Francisco Giants — and still managing to lose two of those games — they still own the seventh-worst team wRC+ in the majors, the fifth-worst OBP, and the third-worst batting average. There are many culprits for this: Jose Peraza’s wRC+ is the worst of his career by 30 points; Joey Votto’s wRC+ is his career worst by 35 points; Yasiel Puig’s wRC+ is his career worst by 41 points. Scott Schebler went from starting center fielder in Cincinnati to a demotion to Louisville in just 30 games. It’s a dark time to be a Reds hitter. Unless, of course, you are Derek Dietrich.
Dietrich is one of many new faces to join Cincinnati in the most recent offseason, after the Miami Marlins declined to tender him a contract despite him being just 29 years old and owning a .254/.335/.422 line over six years with the team. He signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Reds, and immediately endeared himself to his new club with a pinch-hit three-run homer on Opening Day that served as the biggest play of a 6-5 win for his new team. Since then, the fireworks haven’t really stopped. After 33 games this season, Dietrich is hitting .257/.366/.686, and is tied for second on the team in home runs with nine.
Dietrich hasn’t just performed well with his new club, though. He’s been genuinely fun. That’s not something that was necessarily anticipated from him — not because of evidence to the contrary, but because, well, he’d never had a reputation for being particularly fun before. Plus, the Reds had already gone out and gotten Yasiel Puig — he of the famous bees in his pants — during the offseason, along with another demonstrably fun player in the magic-gloved Jose Iglesias. Puig’s been unfortunately subdued thanks to the aforementioned slow start, while Iglesias has been pretty exciting at times. Then, there’s Dietrich.
What a weird guy! Dietrich wasn’t even playing in Monday’s game, getting a day off after he donned a horrendous eyeblack moustache, left the top two buttons of his shirt undone, and went out and did this on the first pitch he saw on Sunday.
The way Dietrich reacts to hitting that home run makes me want to run through a brick wall, because he has a very good reason not to react at all. I mentioned the significance of Dietrich’s first dinger of the season earlier in the post, but that isn’t his most famous one of the season. No, that would be this one.
I think that’s the longest I’ve ever seen someone stand in the batter’s box after a home run, aside from Jose Bautista’s infamous postseason homer and bat flip against the Rangers. He admired it for so long that Chris Archer — Chris Archer! — got angry enough to throw at him, and when he did so Dietrich stayed in the batter’s box again, letting his teammates and coaches do the fighting for him, just so he could hit another tater later in the game and linger at home plate once again.
Dietrich’s done this a lot this season. He pulls a homer to right, stares at it a bit, and slowly strolls out of the box. Does taking the time to watch the ball damn near land in the bleachers before even beginning to jog toward first on every home run he hits make him extremely cool? Yes, yes it does. But it’s also a sign the Dietrich is locked in in a way he he’s rarely been over the course of his career.
In 83 plate appearances — not a large sample at all, but what we have to work with in 2019 — Dietrich is striking out 16.9 percent of the time and walking 8.3 percent of the time. Both of those outpace his career numbers by a fairly wide margin, but are especially an improvement over 2018, when he struck out 25.4 percent of the time and walked 5.3 percent of the time. Here’s a plot of his 33-game rolling averages in walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power dating back to 2016.
It’s been a long time since a dip in strikeout rate has corresponded with a rise in walk rate like the one he’s had this season, and at no point has his power looked this strong, with or without his walk and strikeout numbers being in a good place.
Power surges like this can sometimes be the result of a hitter selling out line drives and medium contact for fly balls and hard contact, and with Dietrich, that seems to be the case.
That steep fly ball increase has come at the same time that he’s raised his hard contact percentage from a 36.6 to 40.4 percent over the last two seasons, while his soft contact has jumped from 19.4 percent to 24.6 percent. That hard contact rate doesn’t place him in elite company by any means — out of all big leaguers with at least 80 plate appearances in 2019, he ranks 102nd, sandwiched in between Bryce Harper and Curtis Granderson — and his HR/FB ratio of 33.3 is a mark no qualified hitter in baseball outside of Christian Yelich sustained over all of 2018.
But that isn’t to say Dietrich’s production so far is a mirage, either. At .378, his xwOBA rests in the 82nd percentile across all of baseball according to Statcast, and his xSLG of .531 is in the 87th percentile. Dietrich might be getting a tad lucky, but even the underlying numbers state that he’s been the Reds’ best hitter through the first five weeks of the season, and aside from Jesse Winker, the competition really hasn’t been close.
Dietrich’s opportunities for playing time will only get more difficult to come by as the season goes on. He bats from the same side of the plate as his primary competition for his two main positions — Scooter Gennett at second base, and Jesse Winker in left field. Gennett’s groin injury is expected to sideline him until June, but once he returns, it’s a near-certainty that he’ll be the everyday starter at the keystone, and Winker has looked better seemingly every day this season. Right now, Dietrich’s playing a like someone who knows no at-bat is guaranteed, and wants to make the most of each one by swinging for the fences, admiring dingers, and flashing some chest while he’s at it. He’s having fun. And he deserves it.