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Rockies rookie outfielder David Dahl has left something to the imagination

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MLB: Miami Marlins at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
August 15, 2018

Remember, way back, when David Dahl landed comparisons to Andrew McCutchen? It was silly to take them seriously. But here we are. Two years into his major-league career, and David Dahl has fulfilled the most unlikely of promises.

“Promise” is too strong. Player comparisons make the futures of young players without major-league experience legible, but they are subject to revision. The comparisons can shift throughout a young player’s career until, when it has crystallized into something knowable, the player turns into the object of comparison. Looking back, it’s striking to note how similar Dahl’s first 20 games were to McCutchen’s. Dahl hit .342/.388/.570 in his first 20 games, and McCutchen hit .330/.371/.516. After Dahl’s first three weeks, voices of reason and wet blankets (pick your flavor) identified Dahl’s absurdly high .471 batting average on balls in play as a sign that he was going to slow down markedly. Comparatively, McCutchen rode a high, but less absurd, .387 BABIP to start his career. But at the same time, we were right to be reminded that BABIP is a skill. Specifically, McCutchen and Dahl, both centerfielders by trade, are fast. They can leg out hits on balls in play.

One of the biggest questions about whether or not Dahl would fulfill the McCutchen comp—and, remember, he has fulfilled it here in the year 2018—was Dahl’s power. In his first 20 games, Dahl hit three home runs; however, he did so with a batting profile that didn’t have very many fly balls. His power profile slowed considerably after his start, but, like McCutchen, he soon settled in with a fly ball rate around 35 percent and a home run to fly ball ratio a tick above league average. That’s what has given him a power profile of about 20ish homers a year since then.

Add all this up, and we can congratulate ourselves for gravitating toward and embracing the best possible player comparison from years ago. David Dahl is the new Andrew McCutchen.

August 15, 2018

Even top prospects disappoint, and we have to accept that David Dahl is a disappointment. We were blinded by his hot start. He hit safely in his first 17 games, tying a major-league record, and wrapped up his first 20 contests with a sparkling batting line that allowed us to remember that this was the guy once compared to Andrew McCutchen, even if we had to squint to see it. Who knew that he would end up being Steven Souza Jr. instead of McCutchen.

A Souza to Dahl comparison is sort of apples to oranges, but that’s the point. Dahl landed on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list four times, whereas Souza made it just once. He ranked 37 after the 2014 season. Dahl was ranked 22 on the same list. Souza himself can be considered a disappointment, but that Dahl has turned into Souza is even more so. Perhaps we should have known though. The signs were there.

We didn’t need to look any further than Dahl’s contact rate. The hot start to Dahl’s career rested on a high BABIP. That high BABIP, in a way, is even more impressive because he only made contact 65.6 percent of the time. Dahl’s contact rate approximated Souza’s career contact rate at the time—Souza the below average hitter and generally disappointing player. Not only that, but in Dahl’s first 20 games, he exhibited a much worse chase rate than Souza had in his career at the time. He swung about as often at balls outside of the zone as Corey Dickerson, but he made less contact. It was easy, at first, to “small sample size” it all, but it persisted. It was a bad combination—and here we are.

At least Dahl still has the centerfielder thing going for him. A punchless centerfielder is a useful player, but it is still disappointing given Dahl’s potential.

August 15, 2018

We suffer from imagining extremes, sometimes. Reality is usually in the middle. It was far too much to hope that David Dahl would turn into Andrew McCutchen—an MVP and potential Hall of Famer. We were too pessimistic, too, to dwell on Dahl’s plate discipline and conclude that he’s going to turn into someone like, oh, I don’t know, Steven Souza Jr. David Dahl, in the two years since he’s been in the majors, as shown himself to be the next iteration of Starling Marte. It’s who he is. Marte, like Dahl, is not among the stars of the game, but he’s a valuable player and contributor to a good team.

Throughout Dahl’s minor-league career, the major criticism against his game was his plate approach. He had a large zone, swung too often at pitches outside, and didn’t walk much. Dahl did have a fine walk rate in his final two stops before the majors in 2016, as he posted rates of 11.7 and 8.8 percent in Double- and Triple-A, respectively. However, over his first 20 games in the majors, he posted a 5.3 percent walk rate, which more closely resembled his first years in the minors. Similarly, Marte’s minor and major-league walk rates are about five percent.

For players like Dahl and Marte, speedy guys who never really developed a power stroke, a low walk rate isn’t a death knell. Indeed, Marte has been an excellent leadoff hitter with a respectable on base percentage for years now, and Dahl has also been excellent in the leadoff spot after the Rockies smartly traded Charlie Blackmon for an excellent return after the 2016 season. Marte has hit about 20 percent better than league average and has reliably been a three to four win player for six years. That’s incredibly valuable, even if it’s not MVP-caliber play. And that’s what the Rockies have in Dahl. Of course that’s where we are.

We can imagine a lot of possibilities about what Dahl will do next. One of those guesses might even be right. Still, it’s best to remember that things generally might turn out differently than we hope or fear.