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Who plays third base isn’t a big deal this year. Where Hunter Dozier plays is.

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What the Royals do with him is important.

Hunter Dozier #17 of the Kansas City Royals forces Mark Canha #20 of the Oakland Athletics out at second during the game at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on September 17, 2019 in Oakland, California. The Athletics defeated the Royals 2-1.
Hunter Dozier #17 of the Kansas City Royals forces Mark Canha #20 of the Oakland Athletics out at second during the game at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on September 17, 2019 in Oakland, California. The Athletics defeated the Royals 2-1.
Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

Pop quiz: who played a majority of third base in 2010?

Everyone remembers 2011 as being the true start of the Second Golden Age of the Kansas City Royals. It saw the debuts of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Salvador Perez, and more. In contrast, 2010 was just another year devoid of much talent or promise at the big league level. As a result, it is far, far less memorable than the seasons that came afterwards.

So who played third base in 2010? Ooh, and a bonus question: who played third base in 2009?

I’ve payed closer attention to the Royals than 99% of Royals fans because of my position here at Royals Review. I am a sad encyclopedia of moves in the Dayton Moore era. Josh Anderson? I remember him. Ryan Freel? Yep, him too. Before debating Whit Merrifield’s trade value, I was debating David DeJesus’ trade value in 2008. But as I write this, I have no idea who played third base for the Royals in 2009 and 2010 for some reason. None. Let’s look it up on Baseball-Reference now.

The answer: in 2009, the year where Alex Gordon missed most of the year after a hip labrum tear, the primary third baseman was Mark Teahen. In 2010, third base was split between Wilson Betemit and Alberto Callaspo. Riveting stuff.

Why don’t I remember who played third base those years, when the Royals didn’t have a legit prospect manning the position? It’s simple: it just didn’t matter who played there. The Royals sucked then. Over 90 losses in both 2009 and 2010. Who played third base during those years had no bearing whatsoever on the success that the Royals had between 2013-2017 when they were one of the best teams in baseball.

There are going to be hot takes about the Royals signing Maikel Franco to be their 2020 third baseman for a cool $3 million. Some people think it’s fine. Others hate it. Still others are neutral on it.

This could either be the hottest possible or coldest possible take, but I think it’s the most correct one: it doesn’t really matter how Franco plays, and it certainly doesn’t matter who plays third base for the Royals in 2020. To be competitive, Kansas City needs to replace two thirds of their pitching staff and probably half their position players. They have talent but precious little depth, and no amount of Franco-esque signings is going to solve that.

It’s because the fate of the team is so sealed that even a good Franco won’t make his time in Kansas City memorable. Just take a look at the aforementioned Betemit. Betemit hit 41% above league average in 2020 and was worth 1.1 WAR in only 84 games. That’s really good for a waiver wire pickup! But nobody has talked about him for the better part of a decade for a reason. Even though the Royals traded him in 2011, they did so for two guys—Anthony Maglione and Ian Coleman—who never made the big leagues.

Actually, Betemit wasn’t traded for Maglione and Coleman, because those two are two of my former college professors. I bet you didn’t recognize it, though, because the actual names—Antonio Cruz and Julio Rodriguez—are just as unrecognizable to most of you. There just isn’t a realistic world wherein Franco brings back a future piece for the next competitive Royals team.

Rather, the most fascinating part of this whole thing is what this means for Hunter Dozier. Dozier played a majority of third base in 2019, his breakout season, after playing most of his minor league career at third base. But it seems Dozier is destined for somewhere else: right field, primarily.

This is an unequivocally good move. Two common defensive statistics, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), rate Dozier very poorly as a third baseman. Among 30 players who have accrued 1000 innings or more at third base between 2018 and 2019, Dozier ranks 28th in DRS and 26th in UZR. Inside Edge Fielding, a third defensive metric that categorizes each play into one of five categories (Certain, Likely, About Even, Unlikely, and Remote), helps explain how Dozier is bad. Compared to his peers, Dozier makes Certain and Likely plays as often as he should, but converts anything at or below About Even at a much lower rate. In other words, Dozier doesn’t make the hard plays that good third baseman do.

This doesn’t really have anything to do with his speed. Dozier is plenty fast; his sprint speed ranks in the 80th percentile of all big leaguers. It doesn’t really have anything to do with his athleticism, either. Rather, third base just isn’t the best place for his talents.

If this sounds an awful like another famous third baseman-turned-outfielder, I think the comparisons are valid. Among the 29 players who accrued at least 1500 innings at third base from 2008 to 2010, Alex Gordon ranked 21st in both DRS and UZR. Gordon was plenty fast, and he was plenty athletic, and he was plenty talented. Kansas City moved him to the outfield, where he has won seven Gold Gloves.

So if the Royals are looking to move Dozier to the outfield, there’s precedent that they can make it work. But only if they are committed.

One of the reasons that Gordon was successful in the outfield was because Gordon and the Royals committed to it. Gordon played 23 innings of first base in 2011, but to date that’s the last time he ever spent any time in the infield, and in the context of an entire season 23 innings is essentially nothing. It took hard work to learn outfield, an entirely new position with new things to learn. Gordon’s success was due to his determination, as the famous power shagging story explains:

Around Kauffman Stadium, Gordon’s pregame regimen is renowned. During batting practice, the Royals are instructed to “power shag” balls. When a teammate hits a ball, you play it live.

Gordon has raised the standard, staying in the outfield for two hitting groups instead of one. It’s 30 minutes of nonstop fielding work. It got so intense that manager Ned Yost called Gordon into his office and ordered him not to power shag for two consecutive groups.

”162 days, Gordy, you’re gonna run out of gas.”

It got so intense that the Royals recorded Gordon power shagging spring training, so they could use it as an instructional tool for minor leaguers. “When we talk about power shagging, boys, this is what it looks like,” Kuntz says. “You wanna wear the gold? This is how you attain the gold, right here.”

Said Royals pitcher Danny Duffy: “He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever met in my life. There’s not a close second.”

Gordon spent over two months in the minors in 2010 learning the outfield. Two months without a single inning spent in the infield. Two months of working with Rusty Kuntz to help him become the best outfielder he can be.

However, I do worry whether or not the Royals internalized the lessons that they learned about why and how Gordon became the outfielder he is today. They seem to think that Dozier can become an effective outfielder while also helping at other positions, too:

If the Royals are looking to make Dozier into a new Gordon of sorts, they’re gonna need to commit. Dozier has the skills to be a good outfielder, but he will not achieve his full potential if the Royals are going to continue using him as a utility player. Unlike Whit Merrifield, Dozier’s defense hasn’t come naturally to him. Dozier will need to work at it. It will be far harder, perhaps impossible, to succeed defensively if Dozier is forced to play such wildly different positions as third base, first base, and right field on a daily basis.

It is telling that the Royals spent $3 million on Maikel Franco rather than running Dozier back to third base next year. But Franco is only a supporting actor in this tale. Where Dozier plays is more important, as is how the Royals handle it.