Bernie on the Cardinals: A Look At ‘Devil Magic’ Candidate Austin Dean

I think it’s time to examine a notable “Devil Magic” candidate for the 2020 Cardinals.

If you don’t know what Devil Magic is, then I have to question your legitimacy as a Cardinal fan. But this organization has a fascinating history of picking up players from the minors, from limbo, or the reject pile, the dumpster, the alley, another MLB team’s bench, or a foreign land.

The Cardinals somehow sense there’s more to a player than everyone else can see, and they venture into the weeds to pull him out of nowhere land or no-man’s land. Nobody bats .1000, or even .500, but John Mozeliak and crew have done a pretty damn good job in these hidden-treasure hunts.

This is by no means a complete list — not even close — position-player examples of Cardinals Devil Magic would include Ryan Ludwick, Jose Martinez, Craig Paquette, Jeremy Hazelbaker, So Taguchi and Scott Spiezio. Relative to expectations, Allen Craig and David Freese had the “Devil Magic” touch as well.

(There are also the mystifying episodes — call it “Devil Magic Month” — in which Pete Kozma becomes Barry Larkin. In this instance, Kozma did that over the final few weeks of the 2012 season and into the NLDS vs. Washington, to rescue the Cardinals. But this is a special category.)

Today, let’s look at Devil Magic nominee Austin Dean. When the Cardinals collected Dean from Miami this past offseason in a minor deal that made little sound, my reaction was a shrug.

Dean is a corner outfielder who bats right-handed.

The Cardinals already had plenty of corner outfielders that bat right-handed.

The last thing they need is a marginal at best outfielder taking up a roster spot on a team that, at least for now, is short on offense. Right?

And based on the metrics we have available, Dean is a corner outfielder who gets messy on defense. In 552 MLB innings in left field, he’s a minus 7 in defensive runs saved. And he’s a minus two DRS in only 50 innings in right field. He also played 32 innings at first base for the Marlins, and evidently will get some time at first base for the Cardinals this spring.

At 26 years and 130 days, Dean isn’t a frisky little prospect. It took him a lot of time to navigate the minors. Dean needed four seasons to reach the Class AA level. And after his first Double A season in 2016, the Marlins put him back in Double A for the second straight season (2017.) And lo and behold, Dean began the 2018 season in Double A ball. Three years in a row? At least this time, Dean’s bat charged up and he soon earned a promotion to Triple A.

Dean even got some playing time with Marlins in ‘18, and again in 2019, and the incomplete sample of 311 big-league plate appearances showed a .223 average, a poor .286 onbase rate, and an unimposing .388 slugging percentage.

Dean’s strikeout rate (22%) for the Marlins wasn’t terrible, and he worked counts for a healthy share of walks in the minors. But in Dean’s big-league trials with Marlins spread over two seasons, he performed at 29 percent below league average offensively in park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) Those first-time struggles are hardly unusual. It’s happened to many a dude who developed into an accomplished MLB hitter.

I’m paying more attention to Dean because his name frequently pops up in the spring-training stories about roster-spot competitions. The low-level buzz seemed puzzling at first; why are good reporters talking this guy up? At least part of the reason is based on what the scribes, TV and radio peeps are hearing — and Cardinals’ management is doing a little marketing to draw attention to Dean.

Maybe Mozeliak and staff really like Dean, and we’ll soon discover why — or perhaps they’ll be way off base in their persistent build-up of Dean’s chance to make the 26-man roster. Remember Drew Robinson?

Dean’s Statcast data as a major-league hitter lacks volume, and is largely inadmissible in this case. But from what we do have … not much to talk about. Nothing jumps out as a “Now I See Why the Cardinals Are Delirious For Dean” box of evidence.

If you’re looking for reasons to understand why the Cardinals’ baseball ops department and analysts have something of a crush on Dean, this is what I can offer:

1. Intriguing power. There’s a late-bloomer pattern here. After slugging .419 in his 213 games at the Double A level, Dean slugged a robust .546 in 160 games at Triple A. In his 568 at-bats against Triple A pitching, Dean clubbed 27 doubles, 31 homers and knocked in 111 runs. Sure there’s a ton of offense in the ball-flying, fence-busting Pacific Coast League — but Dean’s numbers were impressive.

2. Improved plate discipline. Dean was never horrible with his strikeout-walk balance. But he certainly seemed to have a smart feel for the strike zone at Triple A. He struck out only 15.7 percent of the time, with a walk rate of 10%. That’s a significant reason for Dean’s exceptional .398 OBP at Triple A. (That, and some fortunate batted-ball luck that stoked a .331 batting average.)

3. There wasn’t a glaring platoon-split at the Triple A level. Dean posted a 1.014 OPS vs. lefties in 2018. But in 2019, Dean actually had a better OPS against RHP (.890) than LHP (.813.)

4. If you’re looking for a sign of Dean finding confidence in matchups against major-league pitching, then go back to late last season. After being promoted from Triple A on Aug. 24. In his last 25 games for the Marlins (95 plate appearances) Dean batted .256 with a .319 OBP and .500 slug. His damage included nine doubles and four homers. Small sample, but not bad.

5. Dean may benefit from the Cardinals’ shift to a foundation built on the increasing use of advanced metrics and Statcast data. His demonstration of enhanced strike-zone judgment fits the Cardinals’ priority to lower strikeouts and ratchet up the OBP. And so far at the MLB level, a below-average launch angle has limited Dean’s power capability. If batting coach Jeff Albert is as good as promised, he should be able to adjust Dean’s swing.

Now that we’ve mentioned the positives, let’s remember this: The Marlins removed Dean from their 40-man roster and designated him for assignment.

So what does that say?

It might say that I wrote too many words on Austin Dean.

Conclusion: there’s enough here to warrant a look at Dean this spring. But here’s one of the questions: with so many RH bats in the outfield group, would it make more sense to go with Justin Williams, a LH-hitting outfield prospect who ripped up Triple A pitching late last season? And when top prospect Dylan Carslon joins the big club at some point this season, the outfield churn will spin again.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie