When the Royals signed Hunter Dozier a 4-year, $25 million extension back at the beginning of 2021, I was not as angry as most. For the same reason that I wasn’t angry when they signed Michael A. Taylor.
Because not all unsexy contracts are bad. The Royals are paying Taylor $4.5 million. He’s been worth 1.1 fWAR. In 2022, the cost of one WAR was around $8.5 million per WAR for players projected to be 2+ fWAR players. Now, this logic is a bit flawed because some of those guys include Corey Seager or Kris Bryant who got huge money. But it shows what teams were paying for a single win.
Taylor was a projected 1.3 fWAR player and was being paid around half of what those 2+ projected fWAR players were being paid. Not sexy, but he’s giving you great defense and is a good stopgap for a team whose talent wasn’t yet in Kansas City.
That’s where my mind was with Dozier’s contract, even after his dreadful 2021 season. The reality is that $2.25 million just isn’t a lot. Not inspiring, but when have the Royals ever been inspiring?
But the thing is, I was dead wrong. The Red Sox and Dodgers paid Carl Crawford nearly $150 million for 4.3 fWAR. They paid him premium money to be terrible. Kansas City didn’t have that pressure. He needed to be his 2020 self: replacement level. That’s all he needed to be for that contract to not be terrible. And he’s somehow managed to make it terrible.
Thus far, he has been worth negative $12.5 million, according to Fangraphs, thanks to a -1.6 fWAR in 2021 and 2022. In that span, there have been 131 qualified batters. Dozier ranks 130 in fWAR, just edging out the aging Miguel Cabrera. And Dozier has been over a full 1.5 wins worse than #129 ranked player, Randal Grichuk, and his -0.1 fWAR. The gap between Dozier and Grichuk is larger than the gap between Yordan Alvarez and Nicky Lopez.
There are three groups of players here. There’s Aaron Judge, who is a full 1.4 fWAR better than the next best player in baseball. Then there’s a group of 128 players, none of which have more than a 0.9 fWAR gap to the next. Then there’s Dozier and Cabrera. He has been as bad as you can be.
So I was wrong about that contract. It was reasonable money, but reasonable money only applies to players who have posted a better fWAR than me (0.0). But the contract isn’t the real problem.
The Real Problem: Hunter Dozier is still in the lineup
Since the beginning of 2021, there have been six qualified Royals batters. He is dead last in fWAR, unsurprising, but trails the next lowest player by nearly four full wins. And that player is Bobby Witt Jr,, who is only ranked fifth because he has played in just 115 of the 324 potential games during that span.
Dozier, meanwhile, has played more games than any Royal not named Whit Merrifield or Nicky Lopez. He has played in 102 of 126 games this season after playing in 144 out of 162 last season. Watching the Royals trot out a terrible baseball player night after night isn’t new, but watching him get at-bats over guys like Michael Massey or Nate Eaton or Nick Pratto or MJ Melendez is.
Dozier spent much of the season as a fringe league-average hitter thanks to a league-wide offensive drought. The average player’s OPS is down a full 22 points from 2021 and 30 from 2019.
But as of late, the bat has fallen off a cliff. Dozier is slashing .151/.216/.226 with a wRC+ of 23 since the All-Star break. He’s played in 18 of the 22 games he could have played in, dismissing the time he missed on paternity leave. During that same stretch, and despite missing three games on paternity leave, Dozier has come to the plate more times than Michael Massey, Nick Pratto, and Kyle Isbel.
Dozier’s contract is small potatoes. The meat is what he represents: an organization’s stubborn commitment to poorly performing veterans at the expense of young players.
We know what Dozier is. We don’t know what the young guys are. There’s no justifiable reason to keep Dozier in the lineup. He has arguably been the worst player in baseball since 2021. And once Vinnie Pasquantino gets back, any at-bats to Dozier will specifically block younger players.
Put him at third base and it bumps Massey or Pratto from the lineup, and sometimes both. Put him in right, and it bumps Isbel or Pratto or Melendez from the lineup, and sometimes two of them. His presence on the roster, along with fellow stowaway Ryan O’Hearn, already sent Eaton packing for Omaha.
Dozier’s contract, on its face, wasn’t the worst contract ever when he signed it. And from a money perspective, it’s still not as bad as some of the bigger contracts given to players that bust. But for the Royals' future, it has been damaging. Dozier should be fighting to stay on a Major League roster, not getting regular at-bats. And as long as he continues to get those at-bats, the kids on the bench will suffer, and the Royals' future along with them.