To many followers of the MLB draft, Dylan Covey was a name remembered for all of the wrong reasons. He went from being taken 14th overall by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2010 to 131st overall by the Oakland Athletics in 2013.
What made him a can’t-miss prospect was his four-pitch arsenal, with a plus fastball and a plus-plus curveball. What also helped was a 0.40 ERA (sheesh) and 138 strikeouts in 70 2⁄3 innings as a senior in high school. However, because of a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, he turned down an offer from the Brewers and attended the University of San Diego, where his downfall from can’t-miss prospect began.
By 2013, Covey was eligible for the draft again but he was not the highly-touted prospect he once was. He lost some control, and instead of developing a changeup, he became a two-pitch pitcher with his fastball and curveball. In his junior year, Covey had an abysmal season: In 76 2⁄3 innings, he had a 5.05 ERA, with 43 walks and only 65 strikeouts. He also had a batting average-against of .288, speeding his fall to the fourth round, and this time, he signed.
He was in the Athletics minor league system from 2013 until the winter of 2016, when the Chicago White Sox selected him No. 9 in the Rule-5 draft, but he never truly stood out. His best season, in terms of ERA, was in 2016, with a 1.84 ERA over six starts. However, he had a 5.22 BB/9, as his command was at an all-time low. He also missed most of the season because of injury. However, like Oakland did in 2013, the Sox wanted to try to unlock the former top draft pick.
In the next season, 2017, it’s safe to say Covey remained locked.
Covey was truly, remarkably bad in 2017 with the White Sox. He had a -1.1 fWAR, with a 7.20 FIP. In 70 innings pitched, he only struck out 41 batters, only seven more than he walked. His 2017 campaign was so bad, he was taken off the White Sox 40-man roster, and no other team picked him up.
But 2018 came around, and something changed. In Charlotte this year, Covey had a K/9 of 8.15, the best since his first pro season in 2013. He also had a 3.49 BB/9, his lowest since 2015 in High-A ball. The home runs were drastically reduced, from 2.57 HR/9 with the Sox in 2017 to 0.70 HR/9 in Charlotte, and his FIP, at 3.81, was his best since 2014. So, when a spot was available, Covey’s contract was purchased, and he has now brought those improvements to the big leagues and impressed in eight starts.
So, what actually is different from 2017? How can a pitcher have a 7.20 FIP and in only one year, cut it by more than half, to 3.48?
Let’s look at the batted ball data first. Covey is giving up more medium contact than last season, but that is because he is giving up less hard-hit contact. The hard-hit rate has fallen 4.1%, which has converted into a 3% rise in medium contact rate and a 1.1% increase in soft contact rate (1.1 + 3 = 4.1). These numbers also correlate to the stark drop in pull contact — which usually means better contact — from 41.2% to 33.8%.
What this weaker contact has brought is a 0.9% decrease in live drive rate, an 11.5% increase in ground ball rate (Covey’s 60% is the sixth-best in baseball), and a 10.7% decrease in fly ball rate (Covey’s 24.4% is the 10th-best in baseball). I am sure you all remember that home runs were a big issue for Covey last season. With his high fly ball rate in 2017, Covey had a 24.7% home run per flyball rate (HR/RB). This season, his HR/FB rate dropped all the way to 6.1% (11th-best in baseball).
But what exactly has Covey done to improve the contact he has given up?
The two pitches that made Covey a top draft pick were his fastball and curveball. He is ignoring those two pitches in 2018, and rightfully so. Last season, Covey used his fastball 29% of the time, his curveball 11.8% — and they were his worst pitches. According to pitch info, those pitch values were -4.0 for his fastball, -5.0 for his curve. He used five pitches in 2017, and they were all well below average.
In 2018, Covey has cut out his fastball almost completely, and his curveball substantially. His sinker usage has doubled from 31.5% to 63.3%, and his changeup and slider usage fell about 1% each. Covey has become a three-pitch pitcher, even though every single pitch he thows has improved value-wise, with his changeup and slider being his best pitches.
Covey’s sinker usage has greatly affected the contact rate, and in turn, makes his secondary pitches more efficient — especially with increased velocity on every pitch. Every pitch Covey throws has ticked up at least one mph, but his sinker has changed everything. Obviously, Covey is getting more ground balls because of his sinker, as it sinks to the bottom of the strike zone. The average launch angle has decreased from 8.7 in 2017 to 4.8 this season, but it is also changing the approach for hitters against Covey.
Hitters are now getting 3.1% less contact off of Covey in 2018. That is mostly because batters are now 1.3% more likely to swing at a Covey pitch outside of the zone, and are 3.5% less likely to swing at a pitch inside the zone. And when Covey goes outside the zone, hitters are 10.5% less likely to make contact, according to Pitch Info. Covey’s sinker, even though it is his worst pitch in terms of value, has allowed his slider and changeup to thrive outside of the zone, fooling batters.
All of those results are impressive improvements in one short year, but what is most telling is the “meatball” swing percentage. In 2017, hitters facing Covey swung at 83.5% of pitches deemed as “meatballs,” according to Baseball Savant. This season, that number has dropped to 74.1%. Hitters are not seeing even Covey’s juiciest pitches as well as they did last season.
Covey has made himself an above-average pitcher. He is not a No. 2 or 3 on a championship ballclub, but he is showing himself to be a No. 4. His mostly two-pitch sequence of a sinker and slider, with a changeup and curveball sprinkled in, has worked wonders in 44 1⁄3 innings so far. He still has a walk problem, at 4.06 BB/9, but his batted-ball results and strikeouts are significant improvements.
He is not the pitcher he was in 2010, 2013, or even 2017. This new Dylan Covey, after a long road, is back on the top draft pick track.