Briefly, because it’s fun and I think it illustrates a point, let’s revisit each of Derek Dietrich’s nine home runs this year:
1. The Opening Day hero dinger. Yes, it’s a wall scraper but in the moment it didn’t matter. Dietrich had put the Reds ahead to start the season in the most dramatic fashion possible.
— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) March 28, 2019
2. The one that started a brawl and a whole meme. Some say Dietrich is still watching this home run, a complete no-doubter that splashed down.
Derek Dietrich sends a souvenir into the river. ? pic.twitter.com/BcZ4EJfreJ
— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) April 7, 2019
3. The post-plunk retaliation homer. Another no-doubter, sent to splash around with its friend in the water.
Derek Dietrich is sure making a splash in today's game. pic.twitter.com/d0zpq61NQG
— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) April 7, 2019
4. Dietrich dingers go international with this Mexico home run. It just climbs into the bullpen, but a homer’s a homer.
5. Another wall-scraper with late-inning heroics written all over it.
— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) April 20, 2019
6. A Great American special, Dietrich rips one into the third row of the stands.
— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) May 3, 2019
7. Dietrich’s second multi-homer game of the season, with this home run going deep into the stands.
?? SECOND 3-run ? of the night for Derek Dietrich!!
The @Reds are on ? in their return to GABP!
— FOX Sports Ohio (@FOXSportsOH) May 4, 2019
8. A towering shot to left-center that just gets by the fence.
— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) May 5, 2019
9. The most-Derek Dietrich home run you ever did see. A colossal dinger punctuated with a bat drop and strut.
The @Reds take a very early 4-0 lead with back to back TO BACK home runs!!
— FOX Sports Ohio (@FOXSportsOH) May 5, 2019
Well, that was fun wasn’t it? So many home runs, so many struts. Really crazy that the whole league just ignored this prolific power hitter, right? Except…
Derek Dietrich has never shown this much power before. Sure, you look at his biceps and you’re pretty sure that this guy could tickle the moon with a baseball, but he’s never proven it on the field. Since he came up with the Marlins in 2013, the most home runs Dietrich hit in a full season was 16 last year. In the last three seasons, Dietrich has only hit 36 home runs in 1,427 at-bats. He’s hit a quarter of that total in just 83 at-bats this year. All of which begs the question, where did Derek find this power?
Well for one, he really hasn’t. Not quite at least. Five of Dietrich’s nine homers have just barely cleared the fence, three of which are classic Great American specials. One of the other two, the Mexico home run, came at altitude: Monterrey would rank as the second-highest altitude ballpark in the MLB behind Coors Field in Denver. The last of the five did happen in the spacious Petco Park, yes, but it also just barely slipped over the fence right down the 322-foot right field line. According to Statcast, it only flew 354 feet, still a Great American type home run.
On the other hand, Dietrich’s other four home runs have been well clear of the fence. Two landed in the Allegheny River, which is no easy feat, and one nearly climbed out of Great American. Even if we discredit Dietrich for the five just barely home runs, he’s still on pace for 26 round trippers over the course of a 550 plate appearance season. In other words, Dietrich’s power surge looks like it’s for real, even if he won’t hit 50+ home runs this year. So what changed?
At first, I thought Dietrich may be seeing more pitches in his sweet spot than usual. In actuality, Dietrich has seen fewer pitches where likes them, though not by much. Below, from left to right, you can see Dietrich’s career slugging based on where the pitch is in the zone, his career placement of pitches seen, and where pitches have been in 2019 for him.
Clearly, much of Dietrich’s power comes middle down, with down and away also accounting for a good bit. Prior to 2019, Dietrich saw 20.45% of pitches in his sweet spot. This season, he’s seen 18.84% in the sweet spot, with one of the biggest decreases coming in that middle-down power alley.
Instead, Dietrich’s power seems to be coming from a combination of three factors: hard pulled flyballs.
First, Dietrich is barreling the ball like never before. According to Statcast, his barrel% has jumped to 14.0%, well above last year’s 6.1% mark or his career 7.3%. His average exit velocity hasn’t changed much since last year or from his career mark, which indicates that Dietrich is hitting balls both much harder and much softer than previous seasons. FanGraphs also supports the idea that Dietrich is simply hitting the ball harder, showing a 3.8% increase in hard hit balls while a nearly 10% drop in medium hit balls.
Second, Dietrich, when he hits for power, is pulling the ball. That phenomenon is nothing new for Dietrich — for his career, he’s only hit four home runs to true center or the opposite field. Especially this year, Dietrich’s longest home runs have been to dead right field. FanGraphs also shows that Dietrich has been pulling the ball more in general, his pull rate climbing to 47.4%, well above his 41.8% career rate. The propensity to pull has also logically come at the expense of his driving the ball back up the middle. Dietrich’s up-the-middle percentage has dropped more than 12 points, but he is hitting the ball the opposite way more as well.
Finally, Dietrich is putting the ball in the air more than ever. If the Giants had picked up the utility man on a minor league deal (as I’m sure they’re wishing they had after this weekend), Dietrich would not be having nearly as much success. But in a park like Great American where flyouts elsewhere can land in the stands, Dietrich’s 12.2% increase in flyballs nets as a positive. He’s hitting far fewer line drives and groundballs in favor of putting the ball in the air but has recorded a ludicrous 33.3% home run to fly ball rate. Statcast confirms the additional lift Dietrich is getting, showing nearly a 2.5 degree higher launch angle in 2019 than his career average.
Basically, Dietrich figured out the recipe for home runs: Hit the ball hard, high, and to the shortest part of the field.
What’s truly marvelous about Dietrich’s power surge though isn’t necessarily the home runs but the lack of accompanying strikeouts. When Dietrich set a career high in home runs last season, he also recorded his highest career K%. But this year, while Dietrich’s home runs totals have climbed again, his strikeout rate has plummeted from last year’s 25.4% to 16.9%. Even though his swinging strike rate has remained constant, Dietrich has swung at fewer pitches outside the zone and fewer pitches in general.
All of which shows that Dietrich hasn’t sold out for power like so many hitters do when they start putting up big home run numbers. Instead, he’s leaned into his raw power. He’s become more like vintage Joey Votto, taking the pitches a pitcher gives him where they need to go and unleashing on the ones he knows he can.
Hopefully, Dietrich can keep it up for a full season and maybe nudge Votto to start doing the same.