Oftentimes, when a player is a left-handed hitter and a right-handed thrower, or a right-handed hitter and a left-handed thrower, they are weaker on one side of the coin. The reasoning is that it’s hard to rotate quickly in both directions and usually the players have a dominant side. The Dodgers’ Tanner Dodson used to be a left-handed hitter and a right-handed pitcher—at both the college and professional levels.
He was drafted in the second round by the Rays out of Cal (UC Berkeley) in 2018 and signed for $772,000. He excelled at the plate in his sophomore summer in Cape Cod and in his draft season at Cal hitting over .300 for both teams in a combined 370+ at bats. He lacked power (he had just one home run in his junior season at Cal) and didn’t have much success at the plate with the Rays, peaking with a league-average season at the now-eliminated short-season level with Hudson Valley in 2018. After an aggressive promotion to High-A in 2019 and a meager .636 OPS in 63 plate appearances on the season (injuries limited him and he threw just 17 innings on the mound too), it looked like his hitting days might be over. He wanted to keep swinging the stick though and trained extensively as a hitter in the 2019 offseason and during the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, he didn’t get much run as a hitter when he came back to the Rays in 2021, tallying just 63 plate appearances (.040 average) before putting away the lumber for good.
Luckily for Dodson, he had a rocket for a right arm in his back pocket. He worked as both a starter and reliever in college, switching to a full-time reliever as a junior, throwing 40 high-leverage innings (11 saves) in the Pac-12 out of the bullpen. He had an excellent first pro showing on the bump with a 1.44 ERA in 25 innings in a short season. Despite weak numbers in High-A heading into the pandemic (5.3 ERA, 7.8 K/9), his “Stuff” played and the Rays knew he had value. Obviously, his athleticism as a successful college player earned him a big bonus for small-market organization standards which wasn’t just handed out.
Dodson averaged 95 mph in his first taste of pro ball, throwing primarily a sinker and a gyro slider (upper 80s) which was his bread and butter at the time, leading to high ground ball percentages and low walk rates. His second pro season (High-A Charlotte) saw him try to throw a four-seamer which averaged around 94 with far worse command and a curveball with higher usage than his slider.
When he came back to the Rays after the pandemic (as he was not invited to the Alternate Training Site), he was ready. While he stuck with the four-seamer, he was fresh and throwing noise, dominating in High-A Bowling Green where he touched 100 mph. His slider averaged 90 mph and while it carried a bit more backspin, he had a lethal combination. He put up a 2.50 ERA and 10.7 K/9 in 40 innings before a promotion to Double-A Montgomery. While he wasn’t quite as dominant with the Biscuits, his velocity was elite and his walk and strikeout numbers were still palatable.
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In March of 2022, the Rays and Dodgers exchanged Dodson for Luke Raley. Dodson struggled from the get-go, switching back to a sinker and battling bouts of wildness. The Dodgers moved him from Double-A to the Development List and eventually the rookie-level ACL Dodgers before sending him back to Tulsa. After his time in Arizona at the complex, he stuck with the two-seamer and scrapped the four-seamer altogether as the Dodgers saw his ground ball potential. He started finding the zone more and had a great east-west arsenal with the 89 mph slider and 95 mph sinker. They sent him to the Arizona Fall League following the conclusion of the season where he carried momentum into 2023.
While his walk numbers haven’t markedly improved since 2022 (5.4 BB/9 in Double-A in 2023) he missed enough barrels to warrant his first promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma in August of this past season. He had poor walk (7.0 BB/9) and strikeout (6.7 K/9) numbers in the PCL, but that’s nothing unusual given the electronic zones and fields at altitude. An important statistic to note is that Dodson had a 61% ground ball rate in Triple-A which continued his soft contact dominance. He had a 65% ground ball rate in Tulsa in 2022 and was over 50% there again this season—showing why the Dodgers switched him back to a two-seamer. While an upper 90’s four-seamer is “Classic Dodgers,” they saw his 6′ release height and release characteristics (lack of spin efficiency) and knew that the movement on a two-seamer would be elite because of seam-shifted wake. After all, it is how he found success at the college level. Because he releases the pitch unusually high, it has a much steeper angle (Vertical Approach Angle) than other two-seamers, making it much harder for hitters to hit the bottom of the ball (opposite of a high ride four-seamer).
More than likely, Dodson is going to ride this fastball to the big leagues—but that doesn’t mean his four-seamer is a bad pitch either. Although he scrapped the four-seamer in 2022, it was still a plus pitch that led to his bigger strikeout numbers. Fastballs are usually easier to command than off-speed pitches and having two looks in the mid-90s could be a rather sexy package coming out of the bullpen as both pitches are unique. His slider is also a relatively easy pitch to command as it can be strike to strike (if he starts it in the zone, it can stay in the zone) which makes his game plan rather simple. The Rays might not necessarily select Dodson in the Rule 5 draft, but he could certainly follow their command philosophy of throwing his pitches down the middle since they have such high “Stuff” values.
If Dodson just had the gyro slider and the four seam fastball, he would be like all the other young arms that the Dodgers have flashed in the last few years (Bobby Miller, Alex Vesia, Kyle Hurt, etc). His slider is a common pitch among other relievers–it has a similar shape to that of Edwin Diaz, Camilo Doval, and Andres Muñoz, however, the two seam is more unique. His combination of low vertical break and a high release height is especially hard to find and something that will certainly be more in demand year-by-year as ground balls become more desirable. The Yankees’ Matt Krook rode his high release height two-seam to great success in Triple-A in 2023 and the Giants’ Sean Hjelle has a similar fastball, however, like Dodson, he has struggled with execution in the zone and down.
The Dodgers left Dodson off of their 40-man roster on Tuesday’s deadline, tempting teams to take him. Even though he doesn’t have a long run in Triple-A yet, he has two bonafide MLB pitches in his back pocket in his sinker and 90 mph gyro slider, is an elite athlete as a former two-way hitter, and has made significant progress over the last several seasons on his pitch shapes and execution. His ground ball rates are sky high which are a skill that translates extremely well from Triple-A to the Big Leagues, and though the command is weak, it projects to be better in the majors than it was in the PCL with the tight electronic zones. He’s 26 years old and has been in the minor leagues for nearly six seasons, but has only been a full-time pitcher for just over two seasons, showing that there may still be some ceiling to climb to and one can reasonably assume his command can improve in time too. There are other prospects more likely to go off the Rule 5 board first at the Winter Meetings (the Royals’ Walter Pennington and Christian Chamberlin come to mind), but a team in need of a low cost, high ceiling reliever could take a flier on him. His chances of getting selected depend on what reliever needs teams have left to fill. To clarify, if the Braves recent acquisition of Aaron Bummer is any indication, sometimes teams are looking for one piece from a player in a rather large roster puzzle. If a team needs ground balls out of the bullpen, Dodson will get selected.