Letters from camp: Can you buy into a rebound season for Hunter Dozier?
Will Dozier ever recapture the form he showed at the plate in 2019? Plus, Opening Day starter news and clarity on the backup catcher situation.
This is a pivotal season in the career of Hunter Dozier.
Hampered by a thumb injury that occurred in his fourth plate appearance of the year, 2021 was a season to forget. It was the third time in four big league seasons that Dozier was a below league-average hitter.
His 2018 and 2021 seasons look eerily similar, with 2019 as the clear outlier in his stat line.
I decided to try to see if I could figure out what powered his 2019 season and if that was something Dozier could recapture. Maybe not to the extent as a 124 OPS+, but still something above league average, something he hasn’t been as a hitter in his other three major league seasons.
I was scrolling through Dozier’s page at Baseball Savant, looking at his Run Values by pitch type. This is a metric that illustrates exactly what you think it does…It’s where a run is assigned to the different types of pitches Dozier has seen as a hitter. A positive value is good. A negative one is…not. Last year, it will not surprise you, Dozier had a negative run value against almost every type of pitch he saw. He was worth 0 runs against changeups. That’s it. Because the change is a difficult pitch to square up, he hit .216 with a .333 slugging percentage.
In fact, Dozier has rarely put positive Run Values up against any pitch in any year. In his four seasons where he’s had enough plate appearances to generate a sample size, he’s posted a positive Run Value just six times against a particular pitch. (In a normal season, Dozier sees seven different pitches as classified by Savant. Four seasons against seven pitches…That’s 28 different data points. Only six have had a positive outcome.)
These are the pitches where Dozier posted a positive Run Value against over the course of his career.
That 2019 season…Dozier against sliders and four-seamers…Amazing. Maximum destruction.
Naturally, I want to focus on that performance. He was worth a +13 Run Value against the slider in 2019. He was tied for the second-best hitter in baseball on the slider that year. George Springer led the majors with a +17 mark. Max Muncy was also +13 on the slider.
We know from looking at the basic stats above that the 2019 season feels like a massive outlier for Dozier. Against the slider that year, he hit .313 with a hearty .580 slugging percentage in 139 plate appearances that ended on that pitch. His performance against the slider (and the four-seamer) powered that outlier season. How much of an outlier? Here’s how Dozier has fared against the slider in his career.
While Dozier was also wildly successful against the four-seamer in 2019, the way he mashed sliders was a huge reason for his overall success at the plate. In 2019, Dozier posted a .450 BABIP against the slider.
It takes around 850 plate appearances for BABIP to stabilize, so to draw any kind of conclusion from the individual seasons above is misguided. Hell, Dozier doesn’t have 850 batted balls against the slider in his entire career yet. The strikeout rates (which takes around 60 plate appearances to normalize) have remained relatively stable, but the 2019 season looks like just a stretch where the hits were just falling for Dozier. A hot streak on the slider.
It seems it would be wishful thinking to expect him to ever match his offensive production from that season.
The next step would be to look at Dozier’s approach at the plate. This could prove to be especially relevant given his thumb injury that really did hamper his offensive production.
Let’s look at how Dozier sets up at the plate. Here’s his stance from 2019.
Hands shoulder high, Dozier drops the bat to his shoulder as the pitcher begins his delivery. His stance is ever so slightly open.
This is his stance last summer:
Dozier still possesses a bat wiggle, but in this case, the bat head is a little more upright when the pitcher begins his delivery. He’s also a little more coiled here.
Both stills are from plate appearances where Dozier is about to receive a first-pitch, center-cut slider. Here’s the swing from 2019.
To my untrained eye, the mechanics look incredibly consistent across the years. A little shorter on the follow through from 2021, but that’s probably because he dropped his bat head as it passed through the zone. That would follow that the elevated BABIP and corresponding numbers against the slider in ‘19 were simply a sample size blip. A random run of good results, unlikely to be replicated for another extended stretch.
I do think it’s good news that his swing looked so similar. Dozier didn’t seem to alter his swing due to the injury to his thumb. So if he keeps the same swing mechanics, if he’s completely healthy, we should expect some kind of a bounce back. Not to the full heights of 2019, but he should improve over what we saw last summer.
ZiPS sees a league-average hitter, coming in at .238/.307/.437 with a wRC+ of 100. Steamer projects .234/.309/.412 with a less impressive 95 wRC+. PECOTA is even more bearish checking in at .233/.311/.409 with a DRC+ of 93.
Those projections won’t factor in the injuries Dozier suffered in 2021 and how they impacted his at bats. While the setup and swing certainly look consistent from season to season, it’s not difficult to imagine how a banged-up thumb would hamper a batter. Yet that consistent swing and the heavy outlier on how Dozier performed against sliders in 2019, make me think that season will continue to be a heavy outlier. I’m not as down on Dozier as the projection systems, but I do think the best-case scenario is somewhere slightly above league average offensive production.
With the young talent on the horizon and the existing glut of position players, it’s ok to question Dozier’s role on this club. Are the Royals a better lineup with someone like Kyle Isbel or Eduardo Olivares taking Dozier’s place? Should the Royals use the DH spot as a revolving door of sorts, an opportunity to not only spell Salvador Perez, but also someone like Adalberto Mondesi or Carlos Santana?
Four years into his major league career, there are many more questions surrounding Hunter Dozier than there are answers. If he’s to start providing positive ones, he has to come out on a strong start to the 2022 campaign. Otherwise, those questions will have concrete answers that neither he, nor the Royals, will want to hear.
The Royals announced on Wednesday that, as anticipated, Zack Greinke would be the Opening Day starter. In my mind, this makes the day even more of an event, as if that’s possible with the first day of the new season.
According to Mike Matheny, this was a fait accompli even before the Royals signed Greinke as a free agent.
“He kind of asked when we were meeting that first time, ‘What do you see as my role here?’ and I told him that you’re throwing the first day. Do you need to hear anything else? I mean that should say it all.”
It’s going to be a helluva event at The K a week from today.
That puts either Daniel Lynch who started on Tuesday in Arizona, or Brad Keller who threw in a B game that same afternoon, in line to start the second game of the year. I’d put my money on Keller.
Sebastian Rivero was optioned to Omaha on Wednesday, a move that officially awards Cam Gallagher with the backup catcher role. It’s a tough role, being third on the catcher depth chart, especially when the first stringer is Perez. Still, I’m certain we will see Rivero in Kansas City at some point this summer. He’s a solid defender and handles the pitchers well, two qualities that are most desired in a backup backstop.
There’s also this MJ Melendez kid in the system.