Brian Dozier Has Been Key to Twins’ Surge

The first-place Minnesota Twins have 30 wins on the season and sit 11 games above .500 as we enter June. Questioning Minnesota’s sustainability as a first-place team is going to be a topic of discussion for as long as Minnesota remains in the race. Jeff Sullivan detailed the Twins’ performance a few weeks ago and not much has changed since then aside from more Twins’ wins. Dave Cameron warned this morning about being mindful of the future when considering potential mid-season moves. Even mainstream statistics makes it easy to see why there are questions about the Twins. The team is 13th in batting average (excluding pitchers), 24th in on-base percentage, 23rd in slugging percentage, and their ERA for both starters (14th) and relievers (17th) are merely average. While there are questions about the Twins sustainability as a winner, there are fewer questions about the short-term sustainability of the performance of leadoff man Brian Dozier, who has played excellently in May and should have another good year after a five-win 2014 season.

While Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter are the poster boys for non-prospect players who have excelled at the major-league level, Brian Dozier is cut from the same mold. An eighth-round pick out of Southern Mississippi in 2009, Dozier was a senior sign who received just a $30,000 signing bonus. Dozier played well in the minors, but starting his professional career made him older than most of his competition. Dozier performed poorly when called up to the majors in 2012, hitting .234/.271/.332 in 340 plate appearances. That performance carried over into the first two months of 2013, but Dozier rebounded to post a wRC+ of 117 from June through the end of the season.

Dozier’s mini-breakout carried over to 2014 with a five-win season, as he hit 23 home runs with a 13% walk rate that was fifth in the American League. That performance earned him a contract extension for four years and $20 million, buying out his arbitration years but keeping his time to free agency intact. Dozier got off to a slow start this season, hitting just one home run in his first 90 plate appearances despite decent walk and strikeout numbers. Since that time, Dozier has had a run of good play coinciding with the Twins good fortune. He’s hit eight home runs since his slow start and his 170 wRC+ in May is seventh among AL batters.

Dozier is not generally regarded as one of the best second basemen in the game, but his play dictates otherwise. In alphabetical order, the top-10 second basemen by WAR over the last calendar year are as follows: Jose Altuve, Robinson Cano, Brian Dozier, Dee Gordon, Howie Kendrick, Ian Kinsler, Jason Kipnis, Joe Panik, Dustin Pedroia, and Ben Zobrist. Going based on the names, one might suspect Panik is last on the list in terms of WAR, and that would be correct. Altuve, Cano, Zobrist, and Pedroia all get a lot of notoriety. Kipnis and Gordon have gotten off to great starts while Kinsler and Kendrick have had solid careers. It probably should come as a surprise, then, that Brian Dozier tops the list.

Brian Dozier .250 .343 .444 122 4.7
Jose Altuve .333 .370 .447 129 4.7
Ian Kinsler .260 .308 .391 95 4.5
Dee Gordon .319 .348 .401 111 4.4
Howie Kendrick .293 .342 .403 113 3.8
Ben Zobrist .274 .350 .407 119 3.7
Robinson Cano .289 .358 .429 123 3.6
Dustin Pedroia .283 .338 .394 104 3.6
Jason Kipnis .275 .339 .389 109 3.4
Joe Panik .304 .356 .402 119 3.3

Dozier does not fit the typical profile of a player that sells out for power, and his strikeout rate is fairly close to average, but he does look to hit the long ball. Dozier credits manager Paul Molitor for helping form an aggressive approach. Dozier has been a fixture among the leaders for infield fly balls since coming into the league, and constantly trying to pull the ball has helped Dozier hit 50 home runs since the start of 2013. In 2014, he pulled the ball 54% of the time, sixth in MLB. The spray chart for 2014 illustrates Dozier’s pulling tendencies.

Source: FanGraphs

Before this season, Dozier had never hit a ball over the fence to the right of second base. Out of his 56 career home runs, only this lined shot against Francisco Liriano in May went that direction.

The first month of this season, he was even more pull-happy than last year, with 64% of batted balls going to the pull side. Many of these balls were grounders and they often turn into outs for Dozier, who has never had a high BABIP. Before the season started Tony Blengino was wary about Dozier’s tendency to pull the ball.

Extreme pulling is generally a hallmark of a player harvesting power near the end of a career, when it’s basically all that he has left in his offensive game. The most comparable 2013 pull factors were posted by the likes of Jonny Gomes, Raul Ibanez, Chris Young and Andrelton Simmons; three guys who appeared cooked in 2014, and another who is struggling to find an offensive identity. Dozier didn’t become an extreme puller to extend his major league career; he did so just to have one, at least as a regular, in the first place.

Blengino warned that shifting could cause a decrease in batting average for Dozier and lower his production. Dozier appears to have found at least a temporary solution in May: only 16% of his batted balls have been hit the ground. He’s not pulling the ball quite as much — his pull percentage is down to 58% this month — although his 61% overall mark is currently first in all of baseball. He’s still walking around 10% of the time, and he is seeing fewer fastballs, an indication the league might be trying to make adjustments. The number of pitches he’s seeing in the strike zone has gradually fallen over the last few seasons, too — but Dozier has swung at more pitches in the zone this year than at any other time in his career. He’s swinging and missing at a slightly higher rate, and his strikeouts have gone up, but not alarmingly so.

Last season looked like a career year for Dozier, but even with a drop in production over the course of the rest of the season, the 28-year old is well on his way to reproducing that season for the Twins. Whether his pull-heavy approach is something that will work for Dozier long-term is still up in the air, but for the short term he looks to be leading the charge for a Twins team that’s attempting to remain in the playoff race. Minnesota might not be as good as its current record suggests, but even if the Twins go two games under .500 in every month from June through August, they’re going to be 70-65 after September 1 and still find themselves very much involved in what looks to be a crowded pennant race. Dozier putting his poor April further into the rear-view mirror should be very important as the Twins try to pull of an improbable season.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Sandy Kazmir
Sandy Kazmir

Thanks for this. Love watching this cat play and glad to see he’s starting to get some recognition from folks other than those getting rolled in fantasy by Dozier.