August 25, 2016
Baseball's Unlikeliest Slugger?
Twins second baseman Brian Dozier leads all major-league middle infielders in homers this season with 30. He also led all major-league middle infielders in homers last season with 28. And dating back to 2013—his first full year in the big leagues—Dozier leads all major-league middle infielders in homers with 99, ahead of Robinson Cano (90) and Troy Tulowitzki (84). Dozier is baseball’s premier slugging middle infielder. How the hell did that happen?
Dozier was the Twins’ eighth-round draft pick in 2009 out of the University of Southern Mississippi, where he hit four home runs in 38 games as a senior and totaled 16 homers in 224 games overall. Baseball America’s pre-draft scouting report called him “more of a solid college shortstop than a big pro prospect” and Minnesota signed him for a measly $30,000 bonus. The picks directly before and after Dozier in the eighth round were both college players and they signed for $150,000 and $105,000, respectively.
He looked like organizational depth—a high-average, low-power college shortstop likely headed for second base or a utility role as a pro, which is a pretty common player type. In his first full season Dozier started the year at low Single-A and ended it at high Single-A, hitting just .275/.350/.349 with five homers in 127 games. His college strike-zone control had carried over, as he totaled more walks (60) than strikeouts (57), but Dozier managed just 25 extra-base hits in 580 plate appearances despite being a 23-year-old at Single-A.
In his second full season the Twins had Dozier repeat high Single-A at age 24 and after playing 94 games there the previous season, which is a sure sign they viewed him more as a minor leaguer than as a prospect. Dozier did what 24-year-olds repeating Single-A should do and hit .322/.423/.472, but even that included just two homers in 49 games. Promoted to Double-A around midseason, he hit .318/.384/.502 and showed a little pop for the first time with seven homers in 78 games.
Dozier began his third full season at Triple-A and struggled, hitting .232/.286/.337 with two homers and a poor 34/14 K/BB ratio in 48 games. However, when the Twins opted to replace 38-year-old Jamey Carroll at shortstop they called up Dozier for his MLB debut. He played shortstop nearly every day for three months, but looked stretched defensively and hit .234/.271/.332 in 84 games. He was demoted back to Triple-A in August so that the Twins could use Pedro Florimon at shortstop and Dozier didn’t return in September.
In the spring of 2013 the Twins shifted Dozier to second base full time and handed him the Opening Day job, but it was the same story as he hit .223/.278/.314 with three homers through mid-June. At that point Dozier was 26 years old with a .409 slugging percentage in 365 games as a minor leaguer and a .325 slugging percentage in 138 games as a major leaguer, including a total of 25 home runs in nearly 2,200 plate appearances as a pro. And then, almost overnight, he became a slugger.
In a five-game stretch from June 16-21 he homered four times, nearly equaling his career total of five homers in 102 previous games for the Twins. Dozier kept rolling from there, smacking 15 homers—plus 29 doubles—in 93 games from mid-June through the end of the year, which was good for a .254/.329/.465 line that looked totally out of place within the rest of his career. No second baseman in Twins history had ever topped 14 homers in a season—Dozier hit 15 in three-plus months.
And then he completed the shocking transformation from low-power, high-contact utility man to homer-slugging, walk-drawing, hard-swinging second baseman in 2014 by hitting .242 with 23 homers, 89 walks, and 129 strikeouts in 156 games. Dozier, whom Baseball America described in 2012 as having a chance to be the next Jamey Carroll, now looked more like the next Dan Uggla, turning into a Three True Outcomes monster rarely seen in the middle infield.
Dozier took it to another level in 2015, hitting .256/.328/.513 with 19 homers in the first half to make his first All-Star team. In his last 337 games—a stretch extending from mid-2013 through mid-2015 and equaling slightly more than two 162-game seasons—Dozier hit 66 homers. And then, as suddenly as it began, it ended. Dozier had a miserable second half, hitting .210/.280/.359, and then continued to struggle this year with a .202/.292/.329 line in April and May.
Pitchers had seemingly learned their lesson about Dozier’s newfound ability to crush high fastballs and in transforming into a dead-pull slugger he had seemingly lost his ability to make adjustments. Over an 11-month, 127-game span from July 1, 2015 through May 31, 2016 he hit .205/.282/.354. It got so bad that the Twins moved Dozier to the bottom third of the lineup and even benched him for several games, as local media criticism mounted due to a perceived stubbornness when asked to change his pull-heavy approach.
For his part, Dozier remained calm. By late May he had surely seen the strongly-worded newspaper columns, and was being asked every day to explain why he’d stopped hitting and why he was resisting a change in approach. Dozier downplayed the idea that a focus on opposite-field hitting would cure his nearly year-long ills, saying: “The results will come. It’s not about shooting singles the other way. It’s a lot more than that, so I’ve got to make adjustments.”
Then the calendar flipped to June and he flipped the slugger switch back on. He homered Wednesday for the 25th time since June 1, hitting .310/.372/.667 in 75 games. During that period his 25 homers are tied with Edwin Encarnacion for the most in baseball and his .667 slugging percentage leads the majors. His season line is up to .270/.343/.543 with 30 homers, 63 total extra-base hits, 79 runs, 76 RBIs, and 48 walks. His current .273 isolated power is the highest by any American League second baseman … ever.
It’s tempting to assume that Dozier’s rediscovered excellence coincided with a change in approach, and anyone watching the Twins’ television broadcast has heard endless theories involving his supposed recent willingness to use the opposite field. Don’t believe it. Sure, it’s possible Dozier has recently been more open to advice about using the opposite field and it might even be something he’s been focused on doing, but as his spray chart since June 1 shows quite clearly he hasn’t actually done it.
Those gorgeous red dots are the homers and all but two of them were deposited on the pull side of center field. In the past 30 days he’s pulled 62 percent of batted balls, which is the second-most in baseball and above his career rate of 51 percent. Dozier has been crushing pitchers for the past three months roughly the same way he emerged in 2013 as baseball’s most unlikely slugger: He takes huge, upper-cut, pull-heavy, bad-intentioned swings and in particular makes pitchers pay for leaving anything up in the zone.