Dodgers counting on Dayton to repeat strong debut

Rookie lefty whiffed 39 in 26 1/3 innings in 2016

Dodgers counting on Dayton to repeat strong debut

As you may be aware, the Dodgers have a fantastic reliever in Kenley Jansen. But might they have two? And if they do, would you believe it could be Grant Dayton, a name few outside Los Angeles know, even after he became a valuable part of last year's bullpen?

Unless you're a big Dodgers fan, the first time you probably met Dayton was in Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS against the Nationals, when he coughed up two runs, prompting manager Dave Roberts to call on Jansen in the seventh inning -- and to bring Clayton Kershaw into the game in the ninth to close it out. So, in a certain sense, perhaps we should thank Dayton. If he escapes that seventh inning unscathed, we might not have been treated to Kershaw vs. Daniel Murphy with a runner in scoring position and the season on the line.

Now, if that game was your only frame of reference for Dayton, you might not understand why he's being projected for such a strong 2017 campaign. Right now, the well-respected Steamer projection system sees him as a reliever worth 1.5 WAR next year, making him one of only 10 relievers projected to reach that mark -- along with names like Andrew Miller, Craig Kimbrel, Jansen and Zach Britton.

While he's surely not as good as those pitchers, and no one is saying he's expected to be, that's pretty good company, don't you think? So, why is a pitcher who didn't reach the Majors until his age-28 season, and was acquired in a little-noticed trade for first-round bust Chris Reed in 2015 looked upon so favorably?

The first caveat, obviously, is that he only tossed 26 1/3 innings and faced just 101 total batters. That's not much to go on, at least at the Major League level. Second, he allowed only a .196 batting average on balls in play. Of the 511 pitchers who tossed at least 20 innings last season, only three -- Carl Edwards Jr., Steve Geltz, and Brad Peacock -- allowed a lower BABIP than Dayton. If you expand that list to include from 2011-16, we get 2,931 pitcher seasons with at least 20 innings pitched. Of them, just 28 allowed a lower BABIP than Dayton in 2016. That's either extreme skill, or extreme luck.

Yasiel Puig, Dave Roberts reactions after Grant Dayton strikeout

On the other hand, his 15-percent swinging-strike rate ranked 26th of the 511 pitchers who tossed at least 20 innings last year. The two pitchers directly above Dayton on that list? Kimbrel and Roberto Osuna. Among the pitchers just below him? Jeurys Familia, Sergio Romo, and Koji Uehara. That's some pretty decent company. In addition, Dayton's 14.3-percent infield-fly percentage was well above the league average of 9.7 percent.

He didn't generate very many ground balls, but he had the luxury of playing behind a great outfield defense. LA's outfielders logged a +10.2 UZR in 2016, good for 10th best in the Majors and second best in the NL. Their +24 Defensive Runs Saved was sixth best in baseball and second best in the NL. That's a recipe for a bulletproof BABIP if I've ever heard one.

As for the lack of experience in the big leagues, there's no getting around that, but it is mitigated by the fact he had really phenomenal numbers in the Minor Leagues. In talking to Jared Cross, the creator of Steamer, he notes that Dayton's MiLB work last season was equivalent to a 2.14 ERA in MLB. When you combine the work from the Majors and Minors, you have 78 superb innings.

Jeff Sullivan also made this point in a piece back in August, just after Dayton made his Major League debut. He combined numbers from the Minors and Majors to put together strikeout leaderboards, on which Dayton appeared at the top. With more big league time under his belt by the end of the season, he finished the year at the top of those leaderboards at strictly the Major League level (sixth in K percent and fifth in K-BB percent). But I also wanted to look at these leaderboards broken out with just left-handed pitchers.

Observe what happens when we subtract walk rate from strikeout rate, where larger numbers are better:

2016 K-BB% leaders, LHP, Min. 20 innings

41.5 percent -- Miller
32.7 percent -- Dayton
32.4 percent -- Aroldis Chapman
30.1 percent -- Dario Alvarez
29.6 percent -- Kershaw

Better than Chapman and Kershaw is pretty good, in case you were curious.

Again, no one is saying Dayton is officially now one of the best 10 relievers in baseball, but it's not just Steamer that loves him, either. In the Dodgers ZiPS projections, Dayton came out well -- best reliever on the Dodgers after Jansen, and slightly better K percent and BB percent projections than Steamer gives him. In other words, there are no major disagreements on Dayton between the two systems.

Dayton is a 29-year-old reliever who has faced barely more than 100 Major League hitters, and he has done so with a fastball that averages 92 mph and tops out just below 95. That's not typically the type of pitcher one would guess is elite. And yet, here we are, staring his excellent projections in the face, without much evidence to cast aspersions on it other than the fact he hasn't yet pitched through a whole season in the Majors. He's about to though, and if he's as good as the projections say, you'll be hearing his name a lot more in the future.

A version of this article first appeared at FanGraphs.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.