The manilla folders were spread out on a table inside Royals draft headquarters, and with one round remaining, Art Stewart began to scan.
Those folders contained hundreds of names. They were dreamers with flaws, fliers with low odds of success, amateur baseball players who remained unselected after 49 rounds of drafting. It was June 7, 2006, and Stewart, the long-time Royals scout, was tasked with picking the Royals’ 50th-round selection.
The process was akin to buying a lottery ticket. One year, Stewart made a late-round selection because he was enamored with the kid’s name — he was related, somehow, to “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. On this day, though, Stewart scanned the list of names and saw a junior-college outfielder named Jarrod Dyson. He had graded out with “80” speed, the highest number in the scouting vernacular, and while his other skills were far from polished, the speed was something.
“What the hell?” Stewart thought.
Nearly 10 years later, on a Wednesday morning in Arizona, Dyson hopped into the passenger seat of a golf cart and wrapped his left arm around Stewart, now an 89-year-old senior adviser for general manager Dayton Moore. As a group of Royals prepared to hit live batting practice on a back field, Dyson paid homage to the man who gave birth to his career.
“Hey Art,” Dyson said.
Nearly 10 years after the 2006 draft, Dyson’s place in Royals lore is secure. He is the 50th-round pick who scored the go-ahead run in Game 5 of the World Series, the swaggering hype man who provided the soundtrack to the franchise’s revival. For six seasons in Kansas City, Dyson has earned his keep as a supplemental piece, a base-stealing savant and sterling defender off the bench. But as the Royals begin their World Series title defense, club officials are prepared to offer Dyson something he has never had: A consistent starting role in the outfield.
“He’s worked his (tail) off here for five years,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “He’s never complained. He’s just prepared himself. He could have played numerous times before.”
1,202 Dyson’s career plate appearances
.664 Career OPS
.255 Career batting average
146 Career stolen bases, in 443 games
For now, Yost envisions the left-handed-hitting Dyson manning a platoon in right field with the right-handed-hitting Paulo Orlando. The alignment is not set in stone, Yost says, and a collection of other outfielders will receive a look this spring. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain could also log games in right field as a way to rest his legs, Yost said. But as camp begins, Dyson is prepping for the most playing time of his major-league career.
“Man, I’m ready to play every day,” Dyson said. “Been ready.”
The decision to rely on a Dyson-led platoon in right field is not without peril. In 1,202 career plate appearances, Dyson has a career OPS of .664. He is a career .255 hitter who has batted just .211 against left-handed pitching. His offense, to this point, has been a few notches below average, especially for a corner outfield position.
Yet the Royals believe in the value of a homegrown player. The club believes Dyson’s skills — his hawkish defense in the outfield, his base-stealing, his natural self-confidence — will represent an upgrade over the departed Alex Rios, especially when utilized in the right dosage.
“He’s been here,” Cain said. “He’s been in the grind. He’s been in the fold for so long. It’s time for him to be playing every day. I know he’s definitely excited to get an opportunity to play every day.
“He’s a great ballplayer, but a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to see that.”
Inside the Royals clubhouse, Dyson is entrenched as a member of the young core. He came through the minor leagues with Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. He lockers within earshot of Cain, his friend and wingman in the outfield. The sound of Dyson’s southern baritone is a clubhouse staple.
In most tangible ways, though, Dyson’s progression as a major-league outfielder has come in phases. When he debuted in 2010, he was something like a novelty, a pinch-runner who stole bases at will and made his mark with speed.
As Yost thinks of Dyson, he remembers the words of former major-league manager Jimy Williams, who once said that a base-stealer must have “larceny in his blood.” When Yost witnessed Dyson for the first time in 2010, he saw a spindly, 5-foot-10 outfielder who fit the profile.
“He’s completely fearless,” Yost said.
In 443 career games, Dyson has swiped 146 bases, with a success rate of 86.3 percent. According to advanced metrics, he grades out as one of baseball’s best base-runners. His legs have been a proven weapon in two postseason runs.
I don’t approach the game like a backup, because I don’t look at myself as a backup.”
Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson
In Game 5 of the World Series last November, when catcher Salvador Perez led off the inning with a single to right, it was Dyson who sprung from the bench to pinch-run and swipe second with ease. It was Dyson who sprinted home to score the go-ahead run on Christian Colon’s RBI single.
“You’ve seen little flashes of what he can do when he’s in the game,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “But I think everyone knows he’s good enough to play every day.”
Dyson’s legs have afforded him a career in baseball, but it is his defense which could make him a useful regular. Despite appearing in just 297 games over the last three seasons, Dyson ranks 13th among all major-league outfielders in defensive runs saved during the span. He has amassed 31 defensive runs saved since 2013, and his outfield range has buoyed his value. According FanGraphs’ WAR statistic, Dyson was worth 1.8 wins above replacement in 2015, a number that ranked sixth among Royals position players.
The club rewarded Dyson with a one-year, $1,225,000 contract, avoiding arbitration. He will be eligible for free agency after the 2017 season.
“We know what’s in that tank,” said Royals first-base coach Rusty Kuntz, who works with the Royals’ outfielders. “We just got to make sure it stays ready and he’s able to do things offensively as well as he does defensively.”
Back at camp on Wednesday morning, Dyson stepped off the golf cart and dug in at the plate during live batting practice. Dyson was set to face pitching prospect Christian Binford, a right-hander who excels at filling up the strike zone. Dyson crouched into his stance, rocked his bat in his hands and fought off a couple pitches. Then he sliced a line drive down the left-field line.
“Triple!” Hosmer shouted, standing behind the batting cage.
“I’ll take that knock,” Dyson said.
Close to two hours later, Dyson returned to the Royals clubhouse and took a seat in front of his locker, removing his spikes. He is 31 now. He will turn 32 in August. On most day, his temperament can belie his age. As Hosmer puts it, Dyson is still the catalyst in the room, the element that causes the chemical reaction.
“He just sets the tone,” Hosmer said.
For the moment, Dyson says that will not change. Ten years ago, he was a name in a manilla folder, organizational filler for a club looking for a final draft pick. He has made a career playing the game a certain way, he says, and if his work load increases in 2016, he will not change who he is.
“I prepare myself every day like a starter,” Dyson said. “That’s just how I approach the game. I don’t approach the game like a backup, because I don’t look at myself as a backup.”