What's the Key to Brian Dozier's Breakout?
Quick experiment time, kiddos! I want you to go back to 2013 and look at the Major League Baseball home run leaderboard. Memorize the top ten names on that list. Now, look at the 2014 leaderboard. Spoiler alert: you won't see a single duplicate name. Not a single dude that finished in the top 10 in home runs last year is in the top 10 this year.
Yeah, part of this is due to a small sample size and all of that vibe-killing schmuck, but it's also because some of these dudes are legitimately breaking out. One of those guys that falls into that category is Brian Dozier.
Through 185 plate appearances, Dozier is already halfway to his 2013 home run total of 18 with his 9 bombs placing him in a tie for eighth in the league right now. Sure, he's doing it for a team that's currently ranked 24th in numberFire's Power Rankings, but, don't put that on Dozier. He is a different hitter than he was his first two years in the show.
In his 2012 rookie season, Dozier recorded 340 plate appearances. He finished the season with a .265 wOBA largely due to his 3.625 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Even though he put up good numbers in the lower levels of the minors, the rumbles that Dozier would be another Twins middle infield prospect disappointment were beginning.
Things were a lot better for Dozier in 2013 to say the least. In addition to the aforementioned 18 bombs, Dozier upped his wOBA to .319 including a 41-point bump in his on-base percentage. Not too shabby. This (and in part his tasty defensive play) helped Dozier post a 2.8 WAR. Things were looking up in Twinkie Town.
Then 2014 happened. How has Dozier gotten to where he is now? He has followed the Twins' new offensive philosophy of keeping the bat on your gosh durn shoulder.
Let's take a look at Dozier's swing breakdown for each of his three seasons in the league. In the chart below, o-swing percentage is the percentage of pitches outside of the zone at which the batter swings, z-swing percentage is the same except for pitches inside the strike zone, and swing percentage is just the percentage of times the batter swings the bat when he sees a pitch.
This isn't to say that Dozier's o-swing percentage is earth-shattering - it's not even in the top 30 this season. But it's rather to illustrate how different he is now than he was the previous two years.
As it sits right now, Dozier has the fifth-lowest swing percentage in the league. Who's directly ahead of him? Fellow Twin Kurt Suzuki. Joe Mauer, Trevor Plouffe and Josmil Pinto are also within the top 30 in the league right now.
This brings up a pretty obvious question: How the heck does swinging less make you hit more yack jobs? Simple answer: I have no freaking idea. But what I do know is that, when he does decide to swing, Dozier is doing so with authority.
Part of this power increase is due to an increased fly-ball percentage. Dozier has upped this rate to 44.1 percent from 41.3 percent last year and 37.9 percent in 2012. It's generally pretty tough to hit a home run if you don't get it in the air, so there's part of your explanation.
The other part of this is that Dozier's home run to fly ball ratio has nearly doubled this year. Last year, this ratio for Dozier was 9.9 percent. It's up to 17.3 percent this year. This is a bit of a red flag for Dozier moving forward as you wouldn't expect such a huge spike in this area. It's not that his total by itself is inordinately large, but the increase for Dozier is.
One thing that even further complicates how Dozier is turning fewer swings into more home runs is when he's hitting them. Of Dozier's nine home runs this year, four have come on either the first or second pitch of the at-bat. Only two of his home runs have come when he has had a three-ball count, and both of those were full counts. Four of the home runs have come when Dozier has had two strikes against him. How does any of this make sense?
From a fantasy perspective, Dozier would be far more valuable from a run-production perspective lower in the order. Four of his long-balls have been lead-off home runs in the first at bat of the game, and an additional three more have come in the first at-bat of a different inning. This led to Dozier not hitting his first non-solo home run until May 10th, his ninth and most recent jack. Of course, for the Twins, there aren't a lot of other options in the lead-off spot (except for Mauer, which would be my dream come true), so this seems like an okay move for them. But it's really capping what he can do in fake baseball.
What does this mean for our evaluation of Dozier moving forward? Not a ton, in all honesty. It's possible that his home run numbers may go down, but Dozier's contributions this year have gone far beyond his power. When you can get on base at a .368 clip in front of Mauer and others, you're going to score a lot of runs. He's currently on pace for 122 of those based on 625 plate appearances.
In addition, even if Dozier's power does go down a bit, he still is nearly a lock to be at least a 20-20 guy. To do so, he would need only 11 more home runs and 12 more stolen bases. With 124 games left, that shouldn't be too much of a problem. Going 30-30 seems like a long-shot for a guy whose career highs are 18 home runs and 14 stolen bases, but if he were to keep up his current pace, that would be well within the realm of possibilities.
By the end of the season, Dozier probably won't be within the top 10 in home runs. But that's just fine. Either way, he has provided stability and a spark at the top of the Twins order they haven't had in nearly a decade. When you've got hair like this, that's good enough for me.