The Miami Marlins are not exactly playing well right now, and a lot of players are at fault for that as of right now. Position players are not necessarily performing well, with Christian Yelich standing out as the best hitter on a team with a lot of struggling parts right now. The second-best hitter on the team so far this season, however, has been Derek Dietrich, who is sporting a nifty .292/.393/.542 batting line (.404 wOBA) through just 28 plate appearances.
Now, 28 plate appearances means almost nothing. However, Derek Dietrich has essentially spent a little more than a season in the majors, and he owns a career batting line of .236/.320/.425, good for a reasonable .327 wOBA. That line is seven percent better than league average over this three-plus year time span since Dietrich made his debut in 2013. In fact, of the nine Marlins players with at least 600 plate appearances in a Fish uniform since 2013, Dietrich has the fourth-best batting line, behind only Giancarlo Stanton, Yelich, and Dee Gordon.
This does not mean that Derek Dietrich is a great player. He still is not a good enough hitter to be a regular at first base, and there have been documented issues defensively for him both at second and third base. However, that batting line and his work mean something, and the Marlins owe it to themselves to figure out what that something is.
On Base the Hard Way
Dietrich has a lot of mild qualities of interest for a middle infielder of the second/third base variety. He hits for some modest power, as he owns a career .189 ISO and 25 homers and 40 other extra-base hits in that short time span. Prorate that down to 600 plate appearances for a full-season perspective and you get a guy who is averaging about 20 homers and 33 doubles / triples in a full season. Kendry Morales, Andrew McCutchen, Trevor Plouffe, and Evan Longoria produced similar extra-base numbers last season. He is also a surprisingly decent baserunner.
The most intriguing part of his game, however, is how he gets on base. Dietrich is not the most disciplined hitter at the plate, and he does not make a huge amount of contact. His contact rate over his career is seventh out of those same nine Marlins with at least 600 plate appearances since 2013. His swing rates both out of the zone and overall rank fifth. Outside of a dominant season in Double-A for Jacksonville in 2013, he never really walked much in the minors. But he always did one thing well: he got hit by pitches.
That is more or less a perfect representation of what Dietrich does well: hit for power and get plunked. For his career, in mostly part-time work in Miami, he has been hit 32 times in 733 plate appearances, good for a 4.3 percent rate of hit-by-pitches. I looked to see what other players since 1961 have posted similar plunk rates in their careers. Only one player, F.P. Santangelo, has hosted a career hit-by-pitch rate over four percent. Carlos Quentin comes close at 3.9 percent and did it over a longer time period. Since 1993, only 11 players with at least 1000 chances drew hit-by-pitches at a rate greater than three percent. Even some guys you most associate with high plunking rates are lower than Dietrich and the rest; Chase Utley owns a career 2.6 percent rate, and he led the league three years in a row in his prime. Hall of Famer Craig Biggio led the league three times as well, and he owns a career 2.7 percent rate.
Getting hit by a pitch is likely a skill, and it is not as though Dietrich has never done it before being in the bigs. His career rate of plunks in the minors sits at 3.6 percent, so Dietrich has at least a tendency towards getting hit. Whether that is good for his long-term future is a question, but it does add to his ability to get on base otherwise. He owns just a 6.7 percent walk rate for his career, but if you tacked on those extra free passes from being plunked, you have a guy who can at least maintain something of an on-base percentage even with a worse batting average. Given that he did a good job hitting balls on the money last year, a mild improvement at the plate could be a big deal in terms of avoiding outs for a guy who can sustain a higher-than-expected on-base rate.
The problem, as always with Dietrich, is the question of defense. Where should he play, and will his bat hold up? Outfield last season was an adventure the Marlins would rather not reconsider, but more reps could at least get him up to passable levels. At the same time, Dietrich would have to be better than this level of play offensively to be an average player in the corners, and any move to the outfield would force Christian Yelich to center, which is a worse proposition for both players.
Third base is the biggest opening available to Dietrich. Prado is a free agent after this season and there is a question as to whether he would return to Miami. He is well-liked by the front office, but he will be 33 years old next year and might still be looking for his last starting job and contract, which would price him out of Miami's range. At the same time, if the Marlins do not trade Prado, Dietrich has no realistic spots in the lineup. A move to first base has been discussed as part of a "versatility" play, but Dietrich's bat would need an even bigger step up to handle the offensive load at first base.
Dietrich's home should be in the second or third base range of the defensive spectrum, but he will have to show he can handle those positions. But what other way will Miami figure that out than to play him more regularly? If Prado is dealt at some point this year, Miami can at least find a spot for Dietrich for almost half a season to audition him. But they need to take some advantage of 2016 time to figure this out, because Dietrich is scheduled for arbitration in 2017, meaning Miami will have to begin paying for their bench utility player with the intriguing offensive skillset and odd defensive problems, and that is not something the Fish like to do for younger players.