First, a confession. This happened on opening day. A few of us sat around talking about the Royals and what would have to happen for a good season. We knew the bullpen could struggle again and the rotation featured too many unknowns. But the lineup. The mind kept going back to the lineup.
Hunter Dozier stood to be an outsized portion of the result. A former top 10 pick, big and strong and with a swing that looked the part, the Royals still saw him as part of the group that might pop champagne again someday.
But I’d started to see something different: a 27-year-old former prospect with a career .279 on-base percentage.
“You guys,” I said, “Hunter Dozier might be trash.”
Hunter Dozier is not only an important part of the Royals’ future, but so far — while the small sample size warnings flash in neon glory — he is one of 2019’s best baseball players.
His talent has unlocked. Before this season, Dozier was a .228 career hitter who struck out four and a half times for every walk.
In just over a month this season, he is hitting .337 with 20 strikeouts and 17 walks. Going into Wednesday’s impromptu doubleheader, Dozier ranked in the American League’s top five in hitting, on-base percentage, slugging, and various advanced metrics including WAR, wOBA, wRC, and more. According to MLB’s Statcast data, only 14 hitters in the sport are hitting the ball harder on average.
So, what the heck is happening?
“Something I’m trying to be a little better at is really only swinging at good pitches,” Dozier said.
This is a classic baseball explanation. It’s all in here. First, he’s mentioning something that quite literally every person who’s ever played baseball above coach pitch has tried to do. Second, he says it like it’s really that simple — just stop swinging at bad pitches, dummy.
But third and most importantly: he’s telling the truth, and shamelessly understating it.
The old Dozier swung at most anything close and, actually, he also swung at some pitches that weren’t close.
Before this season, he swung at 35.5 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, according to FanGraphs. Last year, only 30 of 140 qualified hitters swung at bad pitches more often.
This year, he is swinging at just 22.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone — only 25 of 183 qualified hitters have been better.
From the 21st percentile to the 84th, essentially overnight.
So, again: what the hell is happening?
“I think it’s just mentally having a better approach,” Dozier said. “Trusting yourself. For me, it starts with the hands. Really just competing in the box and not just thinking it’s all about mechanics. Really just trying to see it and hit it, honestly.”
Again, a very baseball answer. Oversimplified and honest. Basically, he’s talking about hitting with a clear mind. About trusting his swing mechanics so completely that he no longer thinks about them against the best pitchers in the world. Doing all of that allows him to focus more on the pitcher.
In the past, if he was looking middle-away and got that pitch, he’d usually hit it hard. But if the pitch was inside, he’d too often swing anyway. This year, he’s doing a better job of staying true.
“For the most part,” he said. “You still swing at pitches you don’t want to swing at. But I’m doing a little better job with it.”
For a while, Dozier was a bad-luck guy. He generally hit the ball hard well above league average rates but often right at defenders, and he struck out so much that the problem magnified. The frustration mounted.
So, on the advice of a coach he started a spreadsheet on his phone to track what he considers quality plate appearances: anything with hard contact, a hit, walk, hit by pitch, situational success, or seeing at least eight pitches.
This is a trick a lot of guys use. Athletes talk all the time about worrying only about what they can control. This is a way in. Forget the batting average. Process over results. Dozier wants to be above 50 percent. At the moment, he’s at 57 percent.
“It helps me just mentally to see it,” Dozier said. “That helped me stay positive and continue what I was doing.”
One more change you can see through numbers: Dozier is competing harder through the last pitch.
A year ago, he hit .142 when down in the count. This year, he’s at .320.
“Little subtle things,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Last year, he would continue to try to power the ball. This year if you notice he’s choking up a bit, shortening his swing. He’s trying to focus and concentrate on a really good two-strike approach.”
Hitters can cite a thousand advantages of being tougher when down in the count, most of which are not directly tied to statistics, but think about it like this. If Dozier had the same success as last year when down in the count, his batting average this year would be 60 points lower.
One more time: small sample size warnings apply. Dozier’s numbers will almost certainly fall back a bit.
But there is legitimate reason to believe this is real, that Dozier is going to be a productive hitter worthy of the middle of a lineup, and it all goes back to that plate discipline.
He’s always hit the ball hard when he’s made contact. It’s the making contact part that’s been a challenge. If he’s fixed that by swinging outside the zone less, then his strikeouts will continue to drop, and the hard contact will continue to rise.
The same way last season might be remembered for Adalberto Mondesi’s breakout, this summer could belong to Dozier.