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Understanding the new Hunter Dozier

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So what has changed?

Kansas City Royals v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

I was the high guy on Hunter Dozier for a few years. I consistently ranked him in the top five in the organization early on, but then he struggled when he got to AA so I moved him down (a mistake I admitted to in my next list) but then back up to third. It’s no secret I like college hitters, and Stephen F. Austin grad Hunter Dozier consistently performed well in the minors both offensively and defensively. Then he finally reached AAA and was just okay, maybe less so when you compare his age to level.

He got the proverbial cup of coffee in 2016 where he was bad, and an extended look in 2018 where he was worse.

Now 2019 has come and oh boy, who is this? Among all hitters, going into Tuesday’s action, Hunter Dozier ranks:

4th in wRC+

4th in OBP

4th in SLG

5th in WAR

11th in ISO

15th in Average Exit Velocity

23rd in BB%

So yeah...he’s doing well.

These types of drastic overnight changes always come with the caveat of “but sample size!” and while it’s still technically April, the production has come in a non-insignificant amount of a sample size. So what has changed?

Really there was always one thing holding Dozier back - his chasing issues. Advanced college hitters don’t typically strikeout 25% in the minors, particularly the low minors, but Dozier did. He had a good idea at the plate most of the time, but when he swung he often missed too much, even though when he did make contact he stung the ball.

Dozier isn’t really hitting the ball that much harder than he has in the past. He’s always stung the ball, and while his exit velocity is up this year, he was never that much of a slacker in that category to begin with. What has changed though is the quality of contact.

Barrel% by year (via Statcast):

2016: 9.1%

2018: 10.6%

2019: 14.5%

In 2018, Dozier was consistently getting underneath the ball. He has slightly raised his launch angle this year (from 14.6° to 16.8°), but that alone isn’t a big enough change to add 300 points of slugging to his line.

No, really his quality of contact has come from swinging at better pitches. Look, I could explain what he’s done in a hundred or so words, or I can just show you a graph:

and

Dozier is no longer swinging at pitches out of the zone as much, in fact he has cut down on his chase rate significantly. And while he isn’t actually making more contact, the contact he is making is better because he’s no longer swinging at as many bad pitches (which leads to bad contact typically).

This more patient approach has lead to his walk rate doubling and his strikeout rate dropping by 40%. Once a man had a strikeout issue, and then he didn’t anymore.

The followup question now is - can is be sustained? We’ve seen guys make O-Swing% changes only to give it all back the next year (Charlie Blackmon in 2015, Jonathan Schoop in 2017), and while plate discipline numbers stabilize after a hundred or so plate appearances, I still think there needs to be more time before we can call it good on drastic changes like Dozier has gone through.

While I’m confident he’ll continue stinging the ball, I’m mostly interested to see if the plate discipline remains. There are some cracks if you wanted to nitpick:

  • His BABIP is .371, far more north than his near league average BABIP of .296 last year. While good quality of contact can lead to better balls in play, .371 is probably a bit rich
  • He isn’t a 194 wRC+ hitter. No one expects that number to continue as he’s not prime Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, or Barry Bonds.
  • The projection systems don’t necessarily buy it yet. They project him going forward (this includes what he has done in 2019 by the way) for a 93-97 wRC+
  • He’s running a 20%+ HR/FB%, where the league average is more like 12-13%
  • He’s at almost double the league average infield hit%, which isn’t a big part of his game to be fair
  • He’s also yet to hit any infield flyballs, whereas a typical batter hits ~10% of his batted balls on the infield

Even though when you add all of that up, it’s still not that damning. Yeah, he’ll regress a bit in some areas, but the only thing I care about watching is if his chase rate sticks. If it does, then he’s a much different hitter than we’ve seen him before.