Judging the Royals

Why Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson doesn’t bunt all the time

The Royals' Jarrod Dyson runs the bases during spring training last month in Surprise, Ariz.
The Royals' Jarrod Dyson runs the bases during spring training last month in Surprise, Ariz. jsleezer@kcstar.com

The other day, Jarrod Dyson tested his strained oblique by running the bases, and it was a pleasure to watch.

I can’t run a lick, so watching a guy who runs so fast he leans into turns like a sailboat changing tack is awe-inspiring.

Afterward, Dyson talked about hitting the inside corner of each base and using that base to push off to the next one — that’s base running at its best.

Baseball ranks skills on a scale of 20 to 80 — 50 is major-league average — and when it comes to speed, Dyson is an 80.

Base-running coach Rusty Kuntz says Dyson and Terrance Gore are both 80s, and that’s a rare talent.

In the speed category, Dyson and Gore are as good as it gets.

Dyson is one of the fastest players in the American League, and the more he uses that speed, the better player he’ll be. And that gets us to an interesting subject: bunting.

Over his career, when Dyson gets a bunt in play, he has hit .431. So why doesn’t he bunt all the time?

It’s pretty simple: if Dyson bunted all the time he wouldn’t hit .431.

Teams would position a third baseman well in on the grass and take away the bunt on that side of the infield. That means the left-handed Dyson would have to take the bunt with him down the first-base line.

But if the pitcher’s throwing sinkers down and away and Dyson tries to hook those pitches to the right side, the odds are good that the bunt would go right back to the mound.

As usual, nothing is as simple as we like to think.

But if teams position their third baseman on the infield grass and have their pitcher throw hard sinkers away, they may stop the bunt but create perfect conditions for Dyson to slap the ball past a drawn-in infielder.

Solution? When the third baseman plays in, swing away and hit the ball past him; when the third baseman plays back, drop a bunt in front of him.

If Dyson mixes up his approach, he puts the defense in a bind.

One version of Dyson has him bunting twice a game: slapping ground balls to the left side, motoring down to first base and then turning an infield single into a double or triple by stealing second and third.

But Dyson sees himself as a player who can drive the gaps and then fly around the bases. Dyson has hit .703 when he puts a line drive in play, but line drives can be hard to come by. Miss the center of the ball by a fraction of an inch, and that line drive is a fly ball. And when Dyson hits one of those, his batting average drops to .168.

The Royals believe in pressuring the other team’s defense, and a ground ball creates more pressure than a fly ball.

On a fly ball, one guy has to do one thing: catch the ball. On most ground balls, two guys have to do three things: field the ball, throw the ball and catch the ball.

And when a guy with Dyson’s speed is running, the pressure gets turned up.

So when Dyson gets healthy and back on the field, pay attention to when he bunts and when he swings away. And when he swings away, pay attention to how he swings away. Does he keep the ball on the ground or hit it in the air?

If he plays often enough, Dyson believes he can show us some things we haven’t seen before. And as Dizzy Dean once said: “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.”

And since we’re on the subject of bunting ...

On Saturday, the Oakland A’s used a defensive shift with Mike Moustakas at the plate, and Moustakas beat the shift by putting down a bunt to the left side.

Like Dyson, Moustakas needs to show that he’ll mix it up.

When teams use an exaggerated defensive alignment — bringing the third baseman in on the grass or using overloaded shifts — players have to show they’ll take advantage of that alignment.

Being versatile, having the ability to put down a bunt, go the other way or slap a ground ball to the left side, makes things tough for the other team.

If Moustakas bunts against a shift often enough, teams will be forced to quit using those shifts or let the Royals' third baseman have some easy hits. Being stubborn, insisting on playing the game your way — even when your way isn’t working — has gotten a lot of ballplayers in trouble.

Smart players take what the other team gives them.