A week after 30 teams deemed 1,474 amateur players more promising than he was, Jarrod Dyson left his home in McComb, Miss., and moved into a hotel outside the Royals’ spring complex.
The Royals chose him as the first selection of the 2006 draft’s 50th round. They assigned him to their rookie-level club in the Arizona League and confined him to the bench. For two weeks, he stewed and contemplated going home.
“I was like, ‘This (stinks),’ ” Dyson said. “I’ve got to sit here and watch these guys play ahead of me. I feel like I’m better than all of them. It’s just how I felt.”
His spirits lifted, he explained, when he strung together a series of infield singles. He earned a place in the lineup. The feeling of superiority in spite of his draft status has never left him. It buoyed him on a gradual, painstaking progression to the major leagues, a level his own general manager didn’t consider within his reach until 2009.
One day earlier this week, Dyson sipped a cup of coffee and recalled his thought process all those years ago. He was 21 when he signed. He never trifled with academics at Southwest Mississippi Community College. He had another year of eligibility but worried this opportunity wouldn’t come again.
“Let me think,” Dyson said. “I should have not signed, went to McDonalds and made whatever I was going to make every two weeks. Maybe that would have been a better option, right?”
He cackled with laughter. His 5-foot-9, 160-pound frame rested in a clubhouse chair. He lockers near giants like Eric Hosmer and Justin Maxwell, but he does not look out of place.
“He’s not lacking in confidence,” manager Ned Yost said. “And he’s not afraid of a thing.”
He is also the most successful 50th-round pick in the last two decades. In four big-league seasons, Dyson accrued 4.7 wins above replacement, Baseball-Reference’s catch-all metric that measures a player’s overall contribution to his club’s win total. Marvin Benard, the 1,391st pick in the 1992 draft, accumulated an 8.6 WAR as a part-time Giants outfielder.
Dyson is not guaranteed a roster spot, but his place feels secure. He appeals as both an insurance policy for oft-injured center fielder Lorenzo Cain and a prized late-game pinch runner. Dyson ranked 12th in the majors with 34 stolen bases in 2013 — and he appeared in only 87 games. His 85-percent success rate also ranked 12th in the majors.
But Dyson serves as a luxury item for a team with roster crunch. One American League scout questioned the wisdom of keeping him around. The scout ticked off his critiques: Dyson’s routes are circuitous; his throwing is subpar; his hitting is lackluster.
When Dyson arrived in the organization, speed and tenacity were his only clear assets. He admitted he didn’t have much of an offensive approach. He used his legs to offset defensive misjudgments.
Dyson hit well enough to stick in the organization and rise a few levels. But he didn’t truly register on Dayton Moore’s radar until 2009. Dyson graduated to Class AA Northwest Arkansas. After he swiped 46 bases, the organization deemed him their Willie Wilson Baserunner of the Year and invited him to big-league camp the subsequent spring.
“Dice has always had a great heart to play,” Moore said. He also noticed something else. “He’s very likable. Everybody always kind of pulled for him.”
Dyson required support that spring. He tore a muscle in his back after being sent back to minor-league camp and later sprained his ankle. He responded with the strongest season of his career. Dyson hit .299 across four levels and earned a big-league call-up.
He’s been trying to stick around ever since. That means extra sessions trying to improve his bunting. It means studying opposing pitchers to improve his stealing capability. It means an endless slog of work, the sort befitting a self-made, 50th-round pick.
“So when I leave this game, they’ll be still talking about me,” Dyson said. “And be like, ‘Hey, man, Dyson, great teammate. He kept everyone together. And he worked hard when he was out there on the field, no matter the outcome.’ ”