Jarrod Dyson shifted his body by a series of increments, and triggered a chain reaction for his opponents.
All he did was open his stance, center his shoulders to the plate and slide his left hand higher on his bat. His bunting technique is “rough around the edges,” Royals coach Rusty Kuntz said, yet still enough to alter his surroundings.
All around him, the Orioles infield contorted into motion as he attempted a fifth-inning bunt Sunday. Already positioned on the infield grass, the third baseman sprinted ahead. The first baseman charged off the bag. The second baseman stepped forward, and the shortstop shifted to cover second.
“When I square around, you’ve got a lot of people on the field that’s moving,” Dyson said. “Because they’re not sure what I’m going to do. They know one thing: I’m a bunt-type of guy.”
Dyson turned 29 last August. But he only started to grasp the role the coaching staff envisioned for him this spring training. The man who coined the phrase “That’s what speed do,” is embracing the axiom and batting .375 thus far.
The Royals, 12-12, reaped the benefits during a recent road trip, when Dyson catalyzed the stagnant offense from the bottom of the order. He batted eight for 16 and scored a trio of runs. Only three of his hits left the infield. Three of the singles came on bunts.
“He’s really starting to transition from a big swinger, flyball-out guy to a guy that puts the ball on the ground,” manager Ned Yost said. “He’s utilizing the bunt much more, which is important to his game. With his speed, he doesn’t have to be perfect with the bunts.”
The epiphany occurred at a critical time for both Dyson and the organization. He becomes arbitration-eligible after this season. He needs to produce to procure the first nine-figure payday of his life. And the team needs a competent replacement for oft-injured Lorenzo Cain, who is still nursing a hamstring strain.
Cain can return from the disabled list this week. He will work out with his teammates at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday before they begin a three-game series with Toronto.
General manager Dayton Moore indicated he preferred Cain undertake a rehab assignment before reactivation.
“If everything goes to script, he could be ready some time this week,” Moore said.
The injury promoted Dyson, who platoons with Justin Maxwell and starts against right-handed pitchers. Dyson made the club as a luxury item. Yost adores his value as a pinch runner.
Rival evaluators praised Dyson for his speed and pegged him as an intriguing backup, but one hampered by deficiencies. His defense can be scattershot, as the team saw on a critical misplay in Cleveland last week. In the past, too often he swung for the fences.
Dyson batted cleanup at Southwest Mississippi Community College. This past spring, he sneered when a reporter asked how much emphasis he placed on hitting the ball on the ground.
“I’m not trying to slap no balls,” he said. “I’m trying to crush the ball.”
Dyson projected confidence when he spoke, despite his 5-foot-10, 160-pound frame. His stubbornness was hard-earned. Dyson built a career from meager beginnings, transforming himself from a 50th-round pick into a useful big-leaguer. But the coaching staff fretted about his refusal to exploit his elite speed.
Hitting coach Pedro Grifol counseled Dyson on the technical aspects of the approach. He explained how Dyson could pair the bunt with the slash to devastating effect, playing a cat-and-mouse game with the infield.
Kuntz advised Dyson on a more pragmatic level.
“The worst thing that happened to him, a couple years ago, he hit a home run at Kauffman,” Kuntz said. “Well, he’s still living on that one home run he hit in the fountain. It’s like, ‘Dude, you know when you retire from baseball, you’re going to havetwo
. In the meantime, you’re going to be flat … broke, because you’re still looking for No. 3. It ain’t going to happen!’”
Kuntz is only slightly off with his math; Dyson actually swatted two more homers in 2013 to reach the mythical total of three. But his point holds.
In years past, Dyson attempted to keep up with his power-hitting friends like Eric Hosmer and Justin Maxwell. But the coaches told Dyson to emulate speed-based players like Denard Span and Ben Revere. For the 2014 season, Grifol grouped Dyson with Nori Aoki for batting practice.
During the spring, the coaches noticed Dyson following through on their advice. Yost raved when Dyson drew walks in Cactus League games. They treated each successful bunt as a triumph.
When he discussed his evolution this past weekend, Dyson insisted he still sought line drives above all else. But he was making concessions.
“I’ve got plus-speed,” he said. “And I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do to utilize that speed. That’s bunting the ball, and hitting it on the ground, and getting my knocks any way I can.”
Dyson tinkers with his skill each day. But a pitching machine cannot replicate the late movement of a cutter or a sinker. When Dyson can drop a bunt with two strikes, Kuntz explained, is when he’ll have mastered the skill. For now, he resorts to swinging with two strikes.
In time, the organization believes he can reach that level. They will continue to preach to him. Dyson is listening.
“They keep telling you so you don’t ever forget who you are,” Dyson said. “Identity is key. And you want to identify the person you are, the type of player you are.”