May 16, 2014
Painting the Black
Bullish on Dozier
Most of the time, prospects conform to their scouting reports. Those who don't are the interesting ones.
Brian Dozier did something noteworthy last year by hitting more home runs in a single MLB season (18) than he had throughout his minor-league career (16). It's not too rare of an accomplishment; Dozier's teammate Joe Mauer has done it a few times. Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout have done it. Even Jose Bautista, who homered 53 times during his stints on various farms, pulled it off with his 54-jack effort in 2010. There are exceptions, but the common profile is a young player who dashes through the minors en route to a successful big-league career; in fewer words: a high-quality prospect.
Dozier is one of those exceptions. Drafted in the eighth round in 2009, by way of the University of Southern Mississippi, Dozier was a skills-over-sizzle type. It wasn't until 2011 when he began to feel the embrace of the prospect community, though expectations remained tempered. Scouts liked Dozier's quick bat and his mature approach, but were less endeared by his arm and athleticism, which they felt excluded him from playing on the left side of the infield. Dozier was a second baseman, and second basemen, save for Darwin Barney, have to hit to survive.
The expectation was that Dozier would buoy his offensive numbers the old-fashioned way, by dumping singles and spraying doubles to the gaps. In November 2011, Kevin Goldstein quoted a scout who said, “The kid just flat out hits.” A few months later, another scout gushed about Dozier, this time to John Perrotto: "The Twins have wasted a lot of money signing Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Jamey Carroll. This kid is better than both of them. He isn't a great defensive shortstop, but he's okay, and he's good enough to hit .300 in the big leagues."
If you placed a bet entering last season on whether Dozier would hit .280 or 15 home runs more often during his career, then you had a problem and needed treatment. You would also be out a good deal of money. Despite being viewed as a high-average, low-wattage hitter throughout his prospect days—"[It's] unlikely he'll ever reach double-digit home-run totals in the big leagues," reads Goldstein's 2011 report—Dozier has flipped those projections on their head. His nine home runs and .306 True Average are among the best at the position in 2014, while his .243 average is among the worst.
Dozier's transformation dates to last spring, when he was reunited with hitting coach Tom Brunansky, with whom he had worked in the minors. Brunansky had his pupil firm up his front side, allowing him better hip rotation, and freeing him to drive the ball better. Later, after a brutal April, Brunansky tasked Dozier with improving his timing. Too often, the pair found, Dozier started his swing late, forcing him to defend rather than attack. Formerly a habitual tinkerer, Dozier found a combination that worked for him, and from May on hit .244/.314/.428 with 52 extra-base hits. His PECOTA projection before Brunansky's work: .247/.296/.353.
Fast forward a bit and Dozier has homered 26 times in the past year. The pretty chart overhead illustrates where he's done his damage. Sixteen of his blasts have been on pitches that were located either dead-red or up. Another few came on pitches down and in. Similarly, the table below shows that Dozier is a fastball slayer. Eight of his nine home runs have been on fastballs, with half of those coming in fastball counts; two others occurred in full counts.
The lone deviation from Dozier's fastball diet, a cookie slider from Max Scherzer, provides a good lesson on how he maintains respectable contact and strikeout rates despite his emphasis on power and walks. Watch Dozier's hands throughout his swing; his bat doesn't take a long, looping path to the ball. Instead it's fairly direct and compact, with his hands finishing below shoulder level, yet Dozier is able to get enough on the ball time and again to pull it into the left-field stands.
Even with that controlled aggression, there are some nits to pick in Dozier's game. His approach, which has led him to the league's 12th-highest fly-ball rate (min. 50 plate appearances), results in a lot of easy outs. As such, he's unlikely to hit for high averages. Likewise, his woes against same-side pitching damper his overall effectiveness.
Still, Dozier is a quality fielder and baserunner who should walk and provide 15-plus home runs annually. Besides Mauer, the Twins haven't signed a homegrown position player to an extension since Denard Span, in March 2010. Maybe the timing is wrong, and the Twins would prefer not to spend too much money before the kids reach the majors, but make no mistake: Dozier is worth hanging onto. He's a solid player, even if it's not in the way we envisioned a few years ago.