Brian Dozier Is Doing His Impossible

There was, I’m sure, a certain amount of message-sending last night, when the Twins went into Cleveland and knocked off the Indians. The Twins right now are trying to make a statement, ensuring that opponents take them seriously. More important than any of that, though, the win moved the Twins to the verge of sealing up a playoff spot. All they need now is one more win, or one more Angels loss. Say what you will about the odds, but the Twins would love to just make things official. You could see that in Brian Dozier’s expression, as he rounded the bases following his lead-changing, eighth-inning, three-run homer. The Twins were likely to make the playoffs with or without the home run, yet Dozier was elated by the prospect of moving one step closer.

There’s nothing so unusual about Brian Dozier going deep. He’s one of the better power hitters in his division. But I’d like to show you a screenshot of his homer in flight.

Brian Dozier’s right-handed. He homered the other way.

It’s not the first opposite-field home run of Dozier’s career. That homer happened in September of 2015, and I wrote a whole thing about it. I wrote about it because it was weird, and I wasn’t the only person who felt that way. Consider, say, one of Dozier’s teammates.

“We pinched ourselves there and thought we were dreaming and I’m sure he did, too. But he’s shown that power all year with 28 home runs, which is amazing for a second baseman. That home run was big and put us up, 1-0, and sparked that whole inning there.” — (Trevor) Plouffe, on Dozier’s first career homer to right field

Dozier first reached the majors in 2012. He didn’t hit any homers the other way. In 2013, he didn’t hit any homers the other way. In 2014, he didn’t hit any homers the other way. In 2015, he hit one homer the other way. In 2016, he again hit one homer the other way. Now here we are. It’s 2017. Congratulations, you made it! The majority of things that have ever lived didn’t live to see 2017. You, me, and the squirrels outside — we’re special. It’s 2017, and, in the year 2017, Brian Dozier has hit five homers the other way.

That’s not all. It’s not just a matter of five blips. Dozier has 40 career opposite-field extra-base hits. He’s hit 18 of them this season. Pretty clearly, Dozier has changed, and we just have to look at this graphically. The field is split into thirds: the pull side, the middle, and the other way. Here’s how Dozier has done, directionally, by wRC+, combining his first five years, and then just isolating 2017.

That’s…that’s exactly whatever that is. Dozier’s actual overall wRC+ isn’t too strange. He’s at the second-highest mark of his career. Yet, underneath, Dozier has changed his very offensive identity. And, not that the numbers need the support, but the above patterns are mirrored in Dozier’s hard-hit-rate splits.

When Brian Dozier became successful, he did so as one of the most extreme pull hitters imaginable. Pretty obviously, it worked well enough, but over Dozier’s first five years combined, his wRC+ to the opposite field was 8. 8! It was a number so low that, if this were a newspaper, we might be inclined to spell it out. Eight. Brian Dozier, to right field, was nothing. This year, his opposite-field wRC+ is 176. Less dramatically, but still dramatically, Dozier’s opposite-field hard-hit rate used to be 13%. Now it’s 33%. Dozier has become less dangerous to the left side, but he’s more dangerous in the other areas. Dozier has become something of a spray hitter.

For some greater perspective, I calculated differences between pull-side numbers and opposite-field numbers. Over Dozier’s first five years, he had the second-greatest difference in wRC+ in baseball. He was 213 points better to the pull side. Only Mookie Betts was higher, at 215. That ranked Dozier in the 99th percentile. By the hard-hit-rate difference, Dozier ranked in the 93rd percentile. We’re going over what we already knew — Dozier was something extreme. This year, by the wRC+ difference, Dozier ranks in the 21st percentile. By hard-hit-rate difference, he’s in the 17th percentile. Dozier now has a higher wRC+ the other way. He’s around names like Chris Davis and Josh Donaldson.

Changes like this are anything but simple, but the explanation might be simplistic. Here’s Dozier’s first opposite-field homer, from 2015.

Here’s an opposite-field grand slam from this past August.

2015, around the moment of contact.

2017, around the moment of contact.

The first one looks like it was almost an accident. The second one appears more intentional. Dozier was more open in 2015, and more closed in 2017. You see how his feet are differently aligned. That leads to change elsewhere — in the lower image, Dozier’s hip hasn’t yet opened up, and neither have his shoulders. In 2015, Dozier took one of his more usual swings, and the ball just sailed the other way. In August, for the grand slam, Dozier stayed through the ball, seemingly trying to go up the middle or the other way. It’s all fairly basic, kind of like Hitting 101, but the difference here is still staggering. Dozier isn’t taking so much of a pull-side approach. So he’s no longer what he was as a hitter.

The last time we talked about something like this might’ve been 2015, when Mike Moustakas suddenly discovered the opposite field. The difference, however, was that Moustakas was just trying to be successful for the first time. He had yet to post a wRC+ higher than 90. He had things to work on, and only by hitting balls to left did he make himself more complete. Brian Dozier wasn’t in the same place as Mike Moustakas. Dozier’s coming off the best year of his career. It didn’t seem like he needed to change very much. Here we are anyway, though, with Dozier again one of baseball’s top second basemen. On the surface, he’s kind of the same guy. Underneath, he’s a lot more…even. You could say he’s perhaps become less exploitable. He’s not so easy to defend, and it’s not so easy to find a pitching strategy. Even if Dozier might not be better, this could make him better for the future. Teams can’t just bunch up all their defenders. Teams can’t just keep aiming for the far outside corner.

I’m not sure Brian Dozier needed to change. Dozier evidently disagreed. As such, he’s become an all-fields hitter, after having been one of the more extreme pull hitters the modern game has had. I wouldn’t have believed he could do it, but then, Dozier has heard those kinds of comments before.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago