February 4, 2016
All Dahled Up
David Dahl’s inclusion on the Top 101 was a no-brainer. We all agree on that and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who could make a case otherwise. His standing within the Top 101, and his ultimate value at the ML level, however, are up for debate. There’s very little to quibble over when it comes to Dahl’s sparkling defensive ability, arm strength, and athleticism but as is the case with many prospects, what you think of the player as a whole is heavily dependent on what you make of his offensive projection. Further, there are some non-tool-related elements to evaluate here that may or may not play a role in Dahl’s development. Without further ado, Mark Anderson and Jeffrey Paternostro debate Colorado Rockies center fielder, David Dahl.
Ezra Wise: Mark is the high man on Dahl overall, but Jeff actually likes the wheels a bit more.
Mark Anderson: Yeah. Most of my recent times on his wheels were in the second half of last season when his knee was acting up.
EW: He fouled a ball off of his knee, right? After recovering from the whole spleen thing?
MA: Yeah. They [the medical staff] dubbed it tendinitis.
EW: …which provides a natural segue to our first question! Dahl’s been hurt a bunch—some freakish injuries, and some not so freakish. Is he the kind of guy who’s going to be plagued by injuries for the entirety of his career or is it too early and/or unwarranted to get worked up? How, if at all, does Dahl’s injury history inform his OFP/risk profile?
MA: I’m certainly concerned about his ability to stay on the field and be a productive player. To say otherwise would be lying. That said, I’m always hesitant to bury guys for getting injured in the minor leagues while their bodies are still developing and changing. Right or wrong, I downplay it a little bit at this point. Regarding the extent to which I’ve factored injury history into his OFP and risk profile, I’m a little skeptical the speed stays plus, so I knocked it down a bit and went with what I saw in the second half—more of a solid-average to above-average runner. I don’t think—or maybe I should say I’m hopeful—that his injury history won’t impact his long term development.
JP: I think it’s far too early to throw an “injury prone” tag on him. There is nothing in his medical history you’d think would be recurring or degenerative. But I do think you can consider the lack of reps as an added “risk factor” of some sort. We have less information on him than we otherwise would have at this point in his career. It muddies the water a bit. For example, were his struggles in Double-A due to getting exposed against better pitching or can some of that be attributed to issues with his knee or general injury-related inexperience?
EW: Let’s say that for whatever reason—injuries, bulking up, nieces and nephews clinging to his legs while playing, etc.—he ends up as a solid-average to above-average runner at peak. Is Dahl’s feel for playing center field so strong that he’d still be a no-doubter to stick at the position long-term, even with the hypothetically-diminished speed?
MA: The player I saw regularly over the last 29 games of the season, post-collision, was a guy that looked more confident and controlled in center field; exactly the opposite of what you’d expect from a guy who’d been speared in the spleen earlier in the season by his teammate. After that injury and how it all went down, I expected to see someone tentative out there, but he broke quicker, took more direct routes, and got aggressive when he needed to at the end of plays; something I hadn’t previously seen from him at any level of pro ball. Before the stretch at the end of the season I would have said he’s probably a right fielder if the speed degrades, but based on what I saw, I have him sticking in center field even it ends up being “just” solid-average to above-average speed.
JP: Dahl projects as a major league-caliber center fielder even if he only ends up being a solid-average runner. His defensive profile is the reason I have him rated as highly as I do [despite my take on his offensive tools]. He has advanced instincts in the outfield and takes very good routes. When he needs the closing speed right now, it’s there, but it’s the reads and jumps that impress the most and those should only get further refined with more reps.
MA: Do you have any feel for his makeup? I’ve talked to the guy, but don’t have enough of a sense to make a judgement in that regard.
JP: I hear varying things on his makeup.
EW: There was a disciplinary incident in the past. Is that water under the bridge or is there some signal there?
MA: Given what I know about the disciplinary issue, I’m not worried. You always remain mindful of it, but guys grow up all the time, and I think it will prove to be a youthful mistake.
EW: So let’s get to the fun stuff—the offensive tools. Dahl’s a guy who’s relied on natural bat-to-ball ability up to this point in his career without having much of an approach. Has he hit a wall of sorts in the upper minors now that he’s facing some guys who can spin it for strikes, change speeds, and sequence?
JP: I think you definitely saw that some in the Eastern League. That is a tough adjustment even for players with more High-A experience than Dahl. You want to give him a bit of a pass, given the pretty stroke from the left side and the natural hitting ability you mentioned, but the approach is aggressive early, and he doesn’t have much of a two-strike plan. I can live with getting caught chasing better breaking balls in the dirt, but he expands the zone in all directions and that is a tough fix.
MA: I can see where Jeff is coming from (is that too civil for a debate?). I saw 8-10 games in the first half and then another 10-12 (out of 29 played) in the second half, and I witnessed what looked like real growth. I know that’s putting a lot of weight on a pretty small sample of games late in a Double-A season where he may have been facing a lesser level of talent than what he was up against before the injury, but the approach had some new flavor to it. He was still aggressive early, but when he was swinging early in the count, he was attacking fastballs, and laying off breaking balls. I had never seen that from him before, and it was quite shocking to see from a developmental perspective, particularly given what I saw in April and May. I’m not going to fool myself into thinking he’s going to completely overhaul his approach, but I think maintaining growth like that and demonstrating the pitch recognition to get after heat and lay off spin early can allow the natural bat-to-ball ability to play at a high level.
EW: Do you think there’s anything to the theory that “natural hitters”—guys who just have an intrinsic feel for putting bat-to-ball—end up hurting themselves in the long-run because they’re able to perform all the way up until the high minors without really having an approach?
MA: There’s certainly something to that. The guys that don’t have “that gift” have to really work to craft it.
JP: Daniel Murphy was interesting in that regard because he was an approach-and-medium-pop type in the minors but morphed into a more aggressive bat-to-ball guy in the majors and now he gets called a “natural hitter”. But some of the best hitters are tinkerers (and Murphy is certainly one), and as a result, their offensive profiles can evolve in somewhat-unpredictable ways.
EW: I go back and forth on that—whether I’d rather have a guy who can just flat out hit without any clue about how he does it or an introspective, analytical type who approaches his swing like it’s a machine requiring constant maintenance.
MA: Interesting. I hadn’t looked at Murphy in that light before. I think that’s part of what made the shift for Dahl in the second half of the season so surprising. If it’s real, then hell, now you’ve got that natural ability coupled with a sense of how to adjust, even if he’s not going to morph into Scott Hatteberg all of a sudden.
EW: I think both profiles (the “natural” and the “analyst”) can work. You have a guy like Adam Dunn on one end of the spectrum who could just hit but had absolutely no clue what to do when things got out of whack a few years ago and Dustin Ackley on the other, who (apparently) just overthought himself into a rut.
MA: Agreed. Nick Castellanos is a case in progress right now on the “natural” end of the spectrum.
JP: I have thought about that too, and I always worry about a guy who can’t talk intelligently about his own swing. It doesn’t have to be a doctoral thesis, but the guy should have an idea of how it works.
MA: I agree. If the guy doesn’t have a feel for his swing, his approach, or what the pitcher is trying to do, that’s a huge red flag.
JP: Of course some dudes are going to hit regardless, but you don’t want to bet on that as a player development philosophy.
EW: For Dahl specifically, that’s learning to lay off pitches he can get to but can’t do damage on, right?
JP: Again, getting to the bottom of what he can and can’t do is tough because he’s never had to make any sort of adjustment before.
MA: I hate to continue harping on the last 10-12 games I saw late in the year, but he was in the box, loading and driving through fastballs, and then loading and spitting on breaking balls, even those in the zone he could drive. I believe that what he showed for that stretch was for real and that there are more adjustments to come.
EW: One last tool-related question about Dahl—Mark, on the power actualization front, what about Dahl makes you see an above-average future? And Jeff, what’s the driving force behind the fringiness you see? Is it approach-based or are your concerns based on mechanical elements?
MA: There’s not a ton of lift in that swing and he’s not going to pound majestic home runs, but when he squares it, the ball jumps in a big way. He’s going to have a ton of doubles no matter what happens with the hit tool, and if you believe he’s an above-average to plus hitter at the end of the day, that’s a lot of balls squared up that can leave the yard. He’s got the strength to get it out on a line to center field and the pull side, and there might still be some in the tank to the opposite field.
JP: I think where we differ is just how many balls he is going to square up. I do agree he will bag plenty of doubles as the ball jumps into the gaps for him, but I don’t see the over-the-fence pop. Above-average raw is fair but unless he makes major strides with the approach, it won’t play to that in games.
MA: How the hit tool plays completely dictates the power in game situations. If he’s a fringe hitter as Jeff suggests, then the home runs won’t come and the doubles will be nice but not a difference maker. If he’s a plus hitter as I suggest, getting to 15-18 home runs, or even more, is well within the realm of possibilities.
EW: Alright. One sentence power statement time. What does David Dahl look like performance-wise as a Big Leaguer? No hedging allowed.
So did we reach any conclusions? Kind of. We don’t yet know which version of Dahl will end up being closer to the truth, but we do have a pretty good idea that he’s going to be a big leaguer whether he’s the fringy hitter Jeff sees or the impact bat Mark sees. It’s very telling that even with 45s on both of Dahl’s offensive tools, Jeff still has a 50 on him overall. That’s the appeal of a well-rounded player like Dahl. There are multiple conceivable developmental paths that will result in him being an impactful Major League contributor. Keep an eye on Dahl’s approach going forward; specifically whether he hits a wall against upper minors pitching and if so, whether he’s able to make the necessary adjustments in relatively short order. No matter how you feel about Dahl offensively, it’s clear this will be the primary element that dictates his value as a Big Leaguer when all's said and done.
Mark Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @ProspectMark