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The Royals should probably stop yanking Hunter Dozier around on defense

Give him a position and stick to it.

Hunter Dozier #17 of the Kansas City Royals plays against the Cleveland Indians during the eighth inning at Progressive Field on September 10, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Royals defeated the Indians 11-1.
Hunter Dozier #17 of the Kansas City Royals plays against the Cleveland Indians during the eighth inning at Progressive Field on September 10, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Royals defeated the Indians 11-1.
Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

Hunter Dozier was drafted as a shortstop out of Stephen F. Austin University. This is not unusual, as the players who are athletic enough to go in the first round of an MLB draft also tend to be the most athletic player on their college team, and the most athletic players on any given baseball team tend to play shortstop.

Dozier, however, has played all of 78 professional innings at shortstop and none since the year he was drafted. This, too, is not unusual. The level of competition within every MLB organization is such that even the most athletic collegiate college players aren’t usually the most athletic players within an organization.

What is unusual about Dozier is that, at 29 years of age, he is a defensive nomad with no true home.

This is not Dozier’s fault—not really. In fact, it is Dozier’s athleticism that lies at the root of the problem. Dozier is in the top quartile of all MLB players in sprint speed per Statcast, and he matches that with an arm plenty strong enough to play the corners. However, Dozier is also listed at 6’4” and 220 lbs. In other words, while Dozier is much too large for the middle infield, he has the size and speed to play anywhere else on the diamond.

And boy, have the Royals capitalized on that athletic versatility. After years of exclusively playing third base, the Royals hastily taught Dozier how to play the outfield in 2016, and it was in right field that Dozier made his debut. In 2017, Dozier played his first professional innings at first base for Triple-A Omaha, and first base constituted a majority of Dozier’s defensive innings for Kansas City in 2018. In 2019, Dozier played primarily at third base.

Finally, after that new manager Mike Matheny finally had enough with Ryans O’Hearn and McBroom at first base, Dozier’s long days in the defensive wilderness seemed to be coming to an end in the last month of this year’s shortened season. Dozier started at first base every game from September 6 through the end of the year, and it seemed like he was gonna be the Royals’ choice moving forward at the position. Jeffrey Flanagan wrote this about Dozier’s

The Royals certainly like what they see defensively out of Dozier, who at 6-feet-4 has the same height, similar wingspan and likely even more athleticism than former Royals Gold Glove Award winner Eric Hosmer.

“I’d say potential Gold Glove there,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said, of Dozier at first base. “I’d say the way he moves --- he’s got some shortstop instincts, and he’s got that one-step quickness of a third baseman. We’ve seen him dive, we’ve seen him use his hands ... sure looks good there.”

That Dozier, who came out of Spring Training as the club’s starting right fielder, has ended up at first base came about because of two issues: Kansas City was not satisfied with its defense at first base when it was manned by Ryan O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom, and because the Royals needed to take a look a longer look at outfielders Edward Olivares, Nick Heath and Bubba Starling.

Saying that a player has “potential Gold Glove defense” is like catnip to the Royals organization. Furthermore, the things that Flanny pointed out—O’Hearn and McBroom’s lack of first base defense, and the need to try out multiple guys in the outfield—aren’t going away anytime soon.

So, it’s finished. Dozier is the new first baseman.

...or is he?

For now, too, Hunter Dozier is Matheny’s choice at first base. Dozier finished the 2020 season there, but the non-tender of Maikel Franco means Dozier could find himself back at third base, where his career with the Royals began.

“We told Hunter in the last week of the season to be prepared for anything in terms of a position,” Matheny said, “and he was great with that. It was, ‘How can I help this team?’

This year, Maikel Franco played third base and played pretty well. But with Franco due up to $8 million in arbitration, the Royals decided to save some money, wave goodbye, fill third base with less expensive options, and hope that wunderkind prospect Bobby Witt, Jr. is ready sooner rather than later.

Such a decision might force Dozier back to third base. But while Dozier is probably perfectly fine with being a second Swiss army knife for the Royals along with Whit Merrifield, it seems to me to be a bit of a missed opportunity to maximize his talent.

See, versatility is not in and of itself a benefit. Any MLB player can play any position on the diamond. There are no rules against that. But not every MLB player can play a position well. Close your eyes and try to picture Pablo Sandoval playing center field, Salvador Perez trying his hand at shortstop, or Eric Hosmer misplaying a ball in right field so badly that he got an outfield assist out of it. Any baseball player can play multiple positions poorly. The truly versatile ones are the ones who can play passable defense at multiple positions or play good defense at multiple positions.

And it is hard to play multiple positions well. I was curious about this, so I spent a much too long time in Excel with Fangraphs defensive data to get to the bottom of what I wanted to know. From 2010 to 2020, there were 99 players—including Hunter Dozier—who had at least 350 innings at at least three defensive positions, at least one of which was in the infield.

I then averaged those players’s Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved figures, prorating them to 1000 innings at the position to put everyone on the same playing field. From there, I chopped up each player’s defensive scores at each of their positions into three categories: “good” defenders who saved at least 3 runs per 1000 innings, “neutral” defenders who saved between 3 runs and -3 runs per 1000 innings, and “bad” defenders who were worse than -3 runs per 1000 innings at their position.

Of those 96 utility players, less than one third—27 players—rated as “good” at more than one of their defensive positions. And of those 96 players, more than half—52 players—weren’t good at any of their defensive positions. And only 10 players in the last decade played at least 350 innings at three or more positions and were definitively good at three or more of them:

  • Adam Rosales
  • Ben Zobrist
  • Chris Owings
  • Darwin Barney
  • David Fletcher
  • Enrique Hernandez
  • Hernan Perez
  • Javier Baez
  • John McDonald
  • Nick Punto

Dozier’s numbers, by the way, aren’t good. In right field, DRS and UZR indicate that he’s been worth -3.7 runs per 1000 innings; at third base, he’s at -9.5 runs per 1000 innings; and at first base, he’s at -2.3 runs per 1000 innings.

So what’s the point of these 1153 words and counting? It’s simply this: playing defense at the MLB level is hard. Being forced to bounce around and play multiple positions is hard. Most players who end up playing significant time at multiple positions don’t tend to perform well.

Some of it is self-selecting—the really good defensive players stick at the position they’re really good at, and the more iffy ones tend to be pushed around because they aren’t good enough to demand time at one specific position. But for some players, especially those like Dozier who don’t have a long track record at a few positions he’s been playing in the big leagues, it’s impossible to really improve without the reps to do so.

If Dozier is a first baseman, let him be a first baseman. If he’s a third baseman, let him do that. If he’s a right fielder, sure. Alex Gordon didn’t become a Gold Glove fielder by playing left field sometimes. Why should we expect it to be any different for Dozier?