The Royals had high hopes for the former first-round pick after signing him to a four-year, $25 million contract extension in February. The optimist reacted to the signing by pointing to his remarkable 2019 season, in which he hit .279./348/.522 with 26 home runs and emerged as one of the top power threats in the organization, and dismissed his lackluster performance in 2020 as a small sample size that was affected by a COVID-19 infection. The pessimist reacted to the signing by noting Dozier’s age is past the point most players are in their prime, that he was defensively limited, and that he was coming off an underwhelming season.
There is still time for Dozier to make good on the deal, but the first season of the new contract proved the pessimists right. Dozier went 0-for-16 to start the season, and never really seemed to get on track. He blamed the performance in part on a thumb injury he suffered on Opening Day. Even when the thumb healed, Dozier couldn’t seem to find a groove.
“Nothing felt right,” Dozier said.
Subconsciously, he believes now, he was trying to protect his thumb. And in doing so, the mechanics of his swing shifted. In Dozier’s words, he “didn’t want it to hurt. I didn’t want to get blown up again. Then I started doing stuff in my swing, trying to not get jammed. Coming off the ball, creating bad habits.” His inability to hit showed in the form of a .474 OPS in April, and the lack of results dented his psyche.
He searched for things to change. He was willing to do anything to lift him out of his funk. He would enter the stadium, beeline to the cages and grind through swings in hopes of finding his stroke. An 0-for-4 performance would send him to his car, tormented by endless doubt.
The cycle was vicious.
He did recover a bit to hit .272/.346/.576 with six home runs in September to pull his batting average over the Mendoza Line. But his overall line of .216/.285/.394 led to the sixth-worst wRC+ among qualified hitters at 82.
His exit velocity, which took a dip in 2020, rebounded this year, as did his hard-hit rate. Dozier is swinging at more pitches than he has in the past, and making less contact, which could be a result of him pressing. His 14.8 percent swinging-strike rate was by far the highest of his career and the 15th-highest in baseball.
They say “defense doesn’t go through slumps” but that doesn’t help if you are already a poor defensive player. Over the past three seasons, Dozier has -22 Defensive Runs Saved, ninth-worst among anyone with at least 1,000 innings. According to Baseball-Reference, he has been worth -3.7 dWAR over that time, the second-worst in baseball behind only Jorge Soler.
That didn’t improve in 2021 with Dozier finishing with the worst dWAR in baseball, splitting time between third base (60 games), right field (57), first base (19), and left field (14). With Bobby Witt, Jr. likely breaking into the big leagues at third base, and Adalberto Mondesi getting some action there as well towards the end of last season, it seems Dozier’s days on the hot corner may be done. But he has not proven himself to be any more proficient in the outfield, ranking as the worst outfielder in baseball in getting a jump on the ball.
Hunter Dozier will likely be the Opening Day right fielder for the Royals in 2022, and with three years left on a multi-million dollar deal, they’re probably stuck with him for a while. But he has not been a viable big league starter, and if he continues to flounder, the Royals could turn to Mondesi in right, or perhaps a young outfielder like Kyle Isbel, or possibly even a position change for MJ Melendez. Hopefully Dozier can turn the page on a disastrous 2021 and come back stronger in the new year.
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