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A Tale of Two Doziers

It was the best of seasons, it was something less than the best of seasons. Something changed after Dozier’s thorax injury.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals
Sep 27, 2019; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals third baseman Hunter Dozier (17) doubles during the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken
Peter G. Aiken

At the start of the 2019 season, the faith the Royals placed in Hunter Dozier was still more hopeful than based in reality. He had hit just .229/.278/.395 in 2018 and showed flashes of power, but with his rough defense at third base, it was easy to see how he could be forgotten in just a few short years. When the 2019 season began, he was hitting rockets and not finding success. It was easy to dismiss him because, at some point, the numbers have to come. Thankfully they quickly did. Starting with a long home run against the Mariners on April 10 through his thorax injury he sustained in Texas, Dozier hit .348/.429/.652 with 10 home runs, 12 doubles, three triples and 23 walks in 184 plate appearances.

Those are the numbers of a superstar. It’s a small sample, but large enough to evoke serious optimism. And when he was knocked out of the lineup, it was a huge blow for the Royals. His return was much anticipated, but things didn’t go quite as well as everyone had hoped. He hit .190/.271/.365 heading into the All-Star break and while he did pick things up the rest of the way, hitting .276/.330/.513 after the break, the overall body of work brings up at least some question of if he’s more building block or placeholder/non-core player on a good team.

The total .260/.319/.485 line is more than adequate. It fits in the middle of a rebuilding lineup, no doubt. It even fits in a good lineup if there’s some OBP to surround it. But there is at least a question as to what Dozier is and what he can be moving forward. While it’s true that players don’t always progress linearly and nothing about an age-28 season screams regression is guaranteed to come, it’s at least worth examining.

One of the things that made Dozier’s early breakout seem sustainable was his plate discipline. Take a look at the numbers divided up by his injury.

Dozier’s Plate Discipline

Plate Discipline Category Pre-Injury Post-Injury League Average
Plate Discipline Category Pre-Injury Post-Injury League Average
O-Swing% 27.00% 31.90% 31.60%
SwStr% 8.30% 13.40% 11.20%
Z-Contact% 95.60% 87.70% 84.90%
O-Contact% 53.90% 48.40% 62.70%
Contact% 79.60% 71.70% 76.20%
BB% 12.00% 7.80% 8.50%
K% 19.00% 28.90% 23.00%

Let’s break this down a bit since they all work together with each other. At a very cursory glance, you can see that in many categories, he went from above average to below average, which, well, isn’t great. He was taking pitches outside the zone and not swinging and missing very often when he did swing. It led to a well above average walk rate and a pretty significantly below average strikeout rate. And he did this all with some pretty impressive power numbers. The pre-injury numbers point to a near star-level hitter. The post-injury numbers don’t necessarily mean he can’t be a star. The plate discipline numbers were in the ballpark of guys like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Trevor Story, so it’s possible to still be great, but it certainly makes things more difficult.

One of the biggest differences came on pitches inside and spedifically hard stuff, which he was absolutely mauling before the injury, slugging .938 on four-seamers, sinkers and cutters on the inside edge and off the plate. He slugged just .414 on those after returning. Prior to his early season breakout, Dozier slugged .382 on hard pitches on the inner third and farther. When you take a step back, the outlier clearly isn’t the post-injury Dozier but rather the guy we saw the first two months of the season, which does lead to some very real concern.

Of course, this is where it all ties back to his plate discipline. That inner third was a part of the plate that he ruled during the first two months of the season. He swung at just 23.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone that were either on the inner third but up or completely off the plate. After returning from the Injured List, that number spiked to 33.7 percent. His selectivity remained pretty consistent, if not better on pitches away from him, but those coming in on him turned into a big problem for him after he returned from his injury.

And that speaks to an issue that was talked about with Dozier prior to 2019 with a belief he struggled on getting to inside pitches. Something like that isn’t terribly uncommon for a player with longer arms, but could potentially limit the ceiling for a guy like him. Early in the season, he put those questions to rest with his numbers on pitches on that inner third and farther in, but when that was something that was questioned prior to the season and then came back up after an injury issue, it should lead you to wonder whether or not that two month sample is a sign of things to come once Dozier has an offseason to fully get healthy or if it should be a harbinger of more issues moving into 2020.

I’m no doctor, nor do I play one on TV, but it seems logical to me that a chest injury could make a hitter a little bit worried about getting to pitches in on them. And it might even be a bigger worry for someone with long arms who might have a harder time to start with on pitches on the inside. So maybe, just maybe, it had something to do with his injury. Perhaps he cheated a bit to get to those inside pitches, which led to him swinging at more outside the zone because he had already started the swing. If that’s the case, the hope is that the time off to get fully healthy can get Dozier back to his pre-thorax injury numbers.

Still, though, I remain worried because of his issues on the inside pitch prior to his breakout to start the season. It feels vaguely wrong to look at a first-round pick who posted a .279/.348/.522 season and nitpick, worrying about if there’s a future for him on a team that is filled with projects. But the way he finished the season has me wondering if he can maintain that success, let alone the way he started the year. He looked like a potential MVP candidate before his injury and then simply a useful regular who you love while cheap and probably don’t want to keep around once they start getting expensive.

Time will tell. If he can regain ownership of the inner third of the plate, there’s not a thing to worry about. If not, there’s a good chance Dozier’s first two months of 2019 will be remembered similarly to Mark Teahen’s second half in 2006. Either way, seeing how he finished the year and why he finished it that way would lead me to not hesitate in dealing Dozier if the right deal came along. Extending him at this point when the current data points to his breakout being the outlier or even refusing to entertain offers on him seems very shortsighted given the regression potential he’s already shown in returning from his injury in June. Dozier’s 2019 on the whole provides cause for optimism, but his finish is reason to wait and see to determine just what it is the Royals have.