The past two trips through free agency haven’t exactly been all that kind to Jarrod Dyson. The 35-year-old speedster waited until mid-February to find a one-year, $2MM deal with the Pirates this winter. That contract was penned two years (nearly to the date) after he signed a two-year, $7.5MM deal with the D-backs. Dyson has been able to find big league deals, but the lengthy waits and relatively small guarantees make clear that he’s not a highly in-demand player. I’m not here to say that Dyson should’ve been commanding lucrative three- and four-year offers in either of those instances, but his deal with the Bucs could still pan out as a nice bargain.
Dyson would be miscast as an everyday player — he’s a career .247/.319/.388 hitter — but he’s a legitimately elite defender and baserunner who is at least a passable option against right-handed pitching (.250/.320/.351). The lack of power is glaring, of course, but Dyson’s batting average and on-base percentage against righties are right in line with the league averages for the decade he’s been in the Majors.
Beyond his shortcomings at the plate, though, Dyson is excellent. Since 2012, his first full season in the Majors, Dyson ranks sixth among all big league outfielders in both Defensive Runs Saved (81) and Ultimate Zone Rating (55.6). Those rankings come in spite of the fact that everyone ahead of him (with the exception of Kevin Kiermaier) has logged 1200 or more innings than his 5543 innings. Jason Heyward and Alex Gordon are both over 9000 innings of defense in that time. On a per-game stat like UZR/150, Dyson ranks slightly ahead of both those two. Among outfielders with at least 1000 innings dating back to 2012, only Kiermaier, Mookie Betts, Harrison Bader and (perhaps surprisingly) Aaron Judge have posted marks higher than Dyson’s 12.6 UZR/150. Giving Dyson more reps in the field obviously means living with his sub-par offense on a more regular basis, but he’s one of the best defensive outfielders of the past decade.
It’s a similar tale on the basepaths. Dyson ranks third among the 3140 players who’ve had a big league at-bat since 2012 in terms of FanGraphs’ composite baserunning value (BsR). The only two players ahead of him are Billy Hamilton and Mike Trout — and Trout has had more than twice as many plate appearances. Dyson is sixth overall in stolen bases in that same group, and he has vastly fewer games played and plate appearances than the five ahead of him (Dee Gordon, Hamilton, Jose Altuve, Starling Marte, Rajai Davis). He’s been successful in an outstanding 85 percent of his career stolen base attempts.
The Pirates signed the right-handed-hitting Guillermo Heredia to team with Dyson in center field, Beyond that pairing there’s no immediate threat to step into the spot. Jason Martin, acquired in the trade that sent Gerrit Cole to Houston, had a big half-season in Double-A in 2018 but has hit just .242/.297/.383 in 640 plate appearances in Triple-A. JT Riddle was signed to fill a utility role but has only logged 235 innings in center and figures to fill more of a bench role.
Dyson isn’t going to provide much with the bat, barring a huge BABIP spike, but there’s also a bit of room for him to rebound a bit from a rough two years in Arizona, where he hit just .216/.302/.299. The Pirates may want to try batting Dyson lower in the order than the D-backs did in 2019, when he hit leadoff for 376 of his career-high 452 plate appearances; Dyson, for comparison, walked 18 times in 101 plate appearances hitting eighth in front of the pitcher over the past two seasons in Arizona. Any extra bases on balls are a welcome addition for a player with his wheels.
Beyond that, Dyson began hitting the ball in the air considerably more once he left the Royals in 2016. Perhaps it’s simply attributable to the increasing focus on launching the ball, but the drop from a 57.7 percent grounder rate to a 47.7 percent mark doesn’t seem ideal for Dyson’s skill set. His fly-ball rate, conversely, rose from 23.7 percent to 32.6 percent.
Even if Dyson keeps hitting the ball in the air more than he did in his Royals days, his glove and baserunning will prove plenty valuable. But from 2013-16, Dyson was worth an average of 2.5 bWAR per season and never saw a single season south of 2.1 — despite only playing on a part-time basis. His lone replacement-level season in his career came in 2018, when he was plagued by a .216 average on balls in play. A move down the order and/or a change in his approach at the plate could make Dyson a pretty tidy bargain.