On some days, Hunter Dozier would show up to a baseball field in Arkansas and adjust his hands. On others, he would open his stance and refashion his leg kick and analyze his approach, down to the most granular details.
In the marathon grind of a baseball season, frustration can manifest itself in many symptoms. For Dozier, a former first-round pick and third baseman in the Royals’ minor-league system, the first symptom was anxiety. The necessary antidote, Dozier thought, was change. So every day, Dozier changed something else.
“That was probably the worst thing I could have done,” Dozier says now.
It was the summer of 2015, and Dozier was at Class AA Northwest Arkansas, buried in the deepest slump of his professional career. His batting average hovered just above .200 before finishing the year at .213. His power numbers waned. At the age of 23, his status as a top prospect had plummeted.
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Dozier had been drafted by the Royals with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2013 draft. Three years later, he was repeating a level in the minor leagues, his career at a vexing plateau.
“It was extremely frustrating,” Dozier says. “Mentally exhausting.”
One year later, Dozier can view the struggles with a new perspective now. Perhaps he needed them, he says. Maybe it was for the best. His career arc looks different, his reputation rebuilt. On Sunday afternoon, Dozier, 24, stepped onto the field at Petco Park for the MLB Futures Game, the annual showcase of the game’s best prospects.
“Last year, I definitely wasn’t consistent in anything I did,” Dozier said. “My main goal was to be consistent all year.”
So far, the approach is working. In 57 games at Class AAA Omaha, Dozier is batting .341 with eight homers and a .942 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage on-base percentage). The offensive performance followed a hot start at Northwest Arkansas and a promotion in early May. The production has rehabilitated his status as an intriguing talent in the Royals’ system.
“He didn’t have a fantastic spring,” said Royals manager Ned Yost, who viewed Dozier’s progress during major-league camp in Surprise, Ariz. “But once the season started, something clicked for him. He’s just really been playing great.”
So what changed? The factors are many, but in simple terms, Dozier says he ditched the constant tinkering, the non-stop analysis of his swing. He started over with an old formula.
“I’m just kind of doing what I was doing before last year,” Dozier says. “It’s what I was doing in college, when I first got drafted. I’m just trying to keep it simple, not trying to do too much, and just really enjoying the game of baseball again.”
For the Royals, the emergence of Dozier is both a welcome sight and an intriguing development. A shortstop in college at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, Dozier made the transition to third base during his first season in the minor leagues. At 6 feet 4 and 220 pounds, he possesses the frame of a corner infielder and is most comfortable at third base.
And yet, the Royals are suddenly stocked with third basemen. Cheslor Cuthbert emerged after a season-ending knee injury to Mike Moustakas. Dozier took Cuthbert’s place at Omaha and has continued to rake. The glut of third basemen sets up an interesting scenario.
Three years ago, Yost quipped that there was no such thing as a “third baseman tree,” arguing the point that big-league players are not always readily available. The comment came while Moustakas was struggling in 2013. The Royals, Yost said, had few alternatives.
Now there are options. Moustakas is a former All-Star, under contract through 2017 after signing a two-year deal last winter. (He is set to make $8.7 million next year.) Cuthbert is still just a rookie, the Royals controlling his rights for five more seasons after this one. And then there is Dozier, who has yet to make his big-league debut.
“What happens to a tree when you plant it and water it? It grows,” Yost said. “Our organization does a good job of recognizing areas where we need to stock up the pantry.”
For the Royals, clarity at third base will come later. Dozier is open to whatever comes next. Earlier this year, the Royals approached him about spending time in the outfield. He welcomed the opportunity, making six starts in left field at Northwest Arkansas and another four at Omaha.
“I like playing out there,” Dozier said. “I kind of feel like an athlete out there. I get to run.”
The athleticism, of course, was what turned the Royals onto Dozier in the first place. As a high school athlete in Denton, Texas, Dozier split his time as the quarterback on the football team and the shortstop on the baseball team. He excelled in both sports but went mostly overlooked by the in-state college programs. Perhaps it was a collar-bone injury that limited him during his junior season. Maybe it was partly his size, Dozier said. He was a lithe 6 feet 2 as a senior in high school. He would grow into his body at Stephen F. Austin.
In 2013, Dozier hit .396 with 17 homers in his final season at Stephen F. Austin. The Royals snagged him with the No. 8 overall pick, a decision with some calculation. Kansas City signed Dozier for $2.2 million, $937,800 below the slot value for the eighth pick. The savings helped the club sign their second-round pick, left-hander Sean Manaea, who was viewed as a top-10 talent.
In one tangible way, the decision was a boon. Last summer, the Royals sent Manaea to Oakland for Ben Zobrist, a move that fortified a championship lineup. Dozier is still here, waiting for his opportunity.
On Sunday, he stood inside a major-league clubhouse, one of two Royals prospects in San Diego, joining outfielder Jorge Bonifacio, his teammate at Omaha. Bonifacio started at designated hitter for the World team and finished with two walks. Dozier reflected for a moment, looking back at his own path. A year ago, he was flailing in Arkansas. In May, he was on a golf course in Washington when Whit Merrifield, his Omaha teammate, was summoned to the big leagues.
“That’s when it really sunk in,” Dozier says. “I really am just a phone call away. One step away.”