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What's wrong with Hunter Dozier?

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The former first round pick is struggling the second time through AA.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Entering 2015, Baseball Prospectus ranked Hunter Dozier the 95th best prospect in baseball. Baseball America said Dozier just missed their top 100, and Fangraphs Kiley McDaniel at Fangraphs rated him the 139th best prospect in baseball and wrote:

Dozier was a late-rising big shortstop in the 2013 draft class from Stephen F. Austin. The Royals took him with an under-slot at eighth overall and those savings allowed them to take Sean Manaea (37th on this list) with the first pick in the sandwich round. Dozier had tons of helium pre-draft and had a big debut, but struggled with contact issues in the second half of 2014 in Double-A. He's a good athlete with easy everyday tools, so if the bat comes around in 2015, he'll be close to a callup.

So far in 2015 the bat hasn't come around, or at least not at the levels we expected (or hoped). Entering the season, Dozier wasn't necessarily liked by projection systems (at least to be a regular), but if you wanted to dream on things he was projected to be relatively as good (0.3 fWAR) as the Royals incumbent 3rd baseman (Mike Moustakas) was in 2014 (0.7 fWAR). That may be more of an indictment of Moustakas (who's admittedly been very good this year) than a superlative of Dozier.

Dozier started off the season well with a 130 wRC+ over his first 10 games, but by game 20 he was at an underwhelming 92 wRC+. For a week in mid-May (11th-17th) Dozier showed some life, hitting at a 125 wRC+ clip and put together a 6 game hit streak, featuring back-to-back home run games (including one of the walk off variety). From the next day on though, Dozier has gone cold. From May 18th to May 27th, Dozier is hitting a putrid nine wRC+. Now, wRC+ doesn't have any park adjustments, but it's probably safe to say that even moving Dozier's line to Jupiter wouldn't get it close to league average.

So what's been the problem for Dozier? One concern has been his increasing strikeout rate. In Rookie Ball he had an excellent strikeout to walk rate as he walked more than he struck out. Upon moving to Wilmington next year his strikeout rate increased to a more average 21%. After an impressive stint in hitter unfriendly Wilmington (136 wRC+), Dozier made his way up to AA Northwest Arkansas, but as he climbed up the did his strikeout rate, bouncing from 21% to 26%. While a player can get by with a 26% k-rate, he's go to hit for some power to offset it or walk. Dozier has posted solid walk rates at every level at that point, but of course as his strikeouts increased, his walks decreased.

Dozier returned to AA this year after an underwhelming debut in the league last year (81 wRC+), but has since been worse. His wRC+ as of 5/27 was 79, while his strikeout rate bulged to 31.6%; a ~5% increase in the same league. Last year Dozier's AA BABIP was .280, some 80-90 points less than what he had done in lower levels. His more line drive swing would lead to just that: line drives (which usually leads to a higher BABIP). He's not a burner on the bases so that high of a BABIP isn't probably sustainable, but players with high line drive rates can sustain a BABIP in the mid-300's or so without being classically fast (see Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman, Joe Mauer - not comps by the way). This year though his BABIP has returned to more reasonable levels of .320 (again as of 5/27), so it's hard to blame that for his lower batting line despite being .40 points higher this year. Also, the strikeouts don't give the BABIP much room to work. As the syllablism suggests, it's batting average on balls in play. Obviously, strikeouts aren't in play, and K's being up means a smaller pool of overall balls to go as hits.

Obviously the strikeout rate is something we need to look at as a 5% jump despite being in the same level seems perhaps out of the ordinary.

So let's look at some plate discipline data. Now...there's a caveat here. Minor league plate discipline, pitch locations, and batted ball data are all manually input by stringers. This leads to inconsistencies in the data. In this case though, we are comparing data from the same level and league, and in half the data it's the same park. We don't know, but we can assume that all the stringers from last year are still there, or at least most have returned. Going between leagues can be very inaccurate and even more so going between levels. Thankfully this is AA to AA, Texas League to Texas League, and Arvest Park to Arvest Park.

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Con% Z-Con% Zone% Swing% Con% Whf% SwStr% Whf/Swng%
2014 19.6% 68.3% 34.7% 80.2% 51.4% 44.8% 70.5% 13.2% 73.5% 29.5%
2015 39.6% 57.2% 60.2% 82.3% 38.5% 46% 70.9% 13.5% 73.8% 29.1%
Difference 20.0% -11.1% 25.5% 2.1% -12.9% 1.6% 0.4% 0.3% 0.3% -0.4%

So the first thing is glaringly obvious is the double increase in O-Swing%. Dozier is swinging at a lot more outside pitches. However, despite swinging at more outside pitches, Dozier is making about an equal increase in contact on those pitches though. Swinging at a lot of outside pitches and missing usually means strikeouts. Swinging at a lot of outside pitches and making contact usually means weak contacts, grounders, and most importantly: outs.

How about some major leaguers with similar rates (2013-2015?

Name O-Swing% O-Contact% K% wRC+
Will Venable 34.90% 60.50% 23.30% 104
Carlos Gomez 39.10% 60.20% 23.10% 128
Starling Marte 37.20% 58.90% 24.40% 127
Mark Trumbo 37.30% 58.50% 25.50% 104
Ian Desmond 35.30% 58.00% 25.20% 110
Hunter Dozier 39.60% 60.20% 31.60% 79

All those guys have worse than league average strikeout rates, but nothing in above 30% like Dozier currently is at. The closest to Dozier there is Carlos Gomez who's basically spot on in O-Swing/O-Contact%, but wRC+/K% are better by some measure than Dozier.

Next is Dozier's Z-Swing%. Now, Z-Swing% isn't necessarily a universal good/bad metric where you want to swing at more pitches in the zone than the next guy per say. Matt Carpenter had the lowest Z-Swing% in the league last year and had a 117 wRC+. You do though want to be swinging at pitches in the zone more often than ones out of the zone. Dozier went from swinging at almost 70% of the pitches in the zone to now 57%. This in combination with the large increase in O-Swing% could be leading to the higher strikeout rates.

His Z-Contact% has increased slightly, but he's making about making the same amount of contact on in the zone pitches but swinging at way less of them. Pitchers are however throwing his much fewer strikes in the zone and his overall Swing% is up. This means that he's swinging at slightly more pitches, but getting way less pitches in the zone. His overall contact rate is almost exactly the same. Pitchers aren't wanting to throw him strikes. Maybe they are scared of him? Most likely it's because he's been chasing pitches out of the zone, and there is no reason to throw him a ton of strikes if he'll chase out.

Everything else across the board is essentially equally. His whiff rate, swinging strike rate, and whiff per swing rate are all basically identical. It's not like he's whiffing on more pitches or getting more swinging strikes overall (compared to last year).

Basically, he's swinging at an equal rate overall, but he's also swinging much more on pitches out of the zone because pitchers are throwing him more outside. He's still making similar contact on pitches in the zone, but he's swinging on far fewer in the zone pitches now that he has less in zone opportunities. He's making equal contact overall and swinging at the same overall rate, but the swap in out of the zone for in the zone pitches mean more of those swings are going towards out of the zone pitches. This usually means more strikeouts and weaker contact.

Three other things I noticed about Dozier this year so far, that I didn't really see in  his stint last year or the lower levels.

First, breaking balls have been an issue for him, and that's been the book on him recently. He'll chase a curveball in the dirt or a slider down and away. Curves in the zone don't seem to fool him as much and he's not whiffing on them really, but he will chase and point #3 will go further on the issue.

Second: velocity. I don't see him striking out on premium speed fastballs, but he isn't hitting them with the strength he has and did last year. Usually faster velo, especially up in the zone, has lead to an easy strike for the pitcher as Dozier will just foul it off. He's got the bat speed to catch up to it if he recognizes it late, but he's just barely getting to it and usually either fouls it down the 1B line or to the back screen.

Finally, Dozier does a good job of working the pitcher deep into counts. I wouldn't be surprised if at least 90% of his plate appearances go to 2 strike counts in some matter, whether it be 0-2/1-2/2-2. He's passive in the first few pitches or will foul off a fastball for a 2nd strike and then a pitch or two later will chase a breaking ball out of the zone. Of course, in order to strike out you have to get to two strikes...

On May 26th, Dozier struck out four times. Let's examine those strikeouts. Dozier went against Astros prospect Vincent Velasquez. Velasquez was ranked by BP as Houston's 3rd best prospect and the 75th best prospect in baseball. He features a fastball in the mid-90's that can touch 98 MPH and an above average changeup with a potential average curveball.

1st plate appearance

Whiff on a curveball

Takes a high curveball

Takes a 3rd straight curveball for ball 2

Takes another curveball for strike 2

Fouls off a fastball

Fouls off another fastball

Goes down swinging on a high curveball

Plate appearance #2

Velasquez starts him off with a first pitch changeup for a strike

Velasquez throws Dozier a 95 MPH fastball that he fouls off for strike 2

Dozier then fouls off another fastball, this time at 97 MPH

Dozier then strikes out on a curveball in the dirt

Plate appearance #3 - In the 6th inning, Velasquez would be replaced by Michael Feliz. BP ranked Feliz as Houston's 6th best prospect. He features another great fastball that can touch upper 90's but is different from Velasquez as he has a plus breaking ball (slider) and potential average changeup.

Feliz gets Dozier to chase a first pitch slider away

Then watches a called strike fastball

Finally Feliz puts Dozier away, swinging at a slider well out of the zone.

Plate appearance #4

Feliz will stay in the game to the end. Houston likes working their starting pitching prospects in tandem pairs, piggybacking off each other.

Called strike one

Called strike two

The final pitch of the game is a changeup that Dozier times right, but doesn't recognize the spin and chases.

Credit to Michael Feliz. He was dominant, getting seven strikeouts over four innings and allowing just one hit while walking no one. That's not an excuse for Dozier going down, but both Feliz and Velasquez were excellent.

The first at bat by Dozier is at least admirable as he made Velasquez throw seven pitches and showing off his full arsenal, but the last two at bats were just overmatched against Feliz's breaking balls.

We know what Dozier needs to do better: stop swinging at all these outside pitches (something that wasn't an issue last year in the same level/league) and making better contact against breaking stuff. Finally, he needs a better two strike approach while possibly being more aggressive at the plate. His hit tool is better than this, and getting yourself into constant two strike counts makes it hard to get anywhere.