Vahe Gregorian

Three years after wondering, 'Is this for me?' Hunter Dozier gains traction with Royals

Early career struggles have helped Hunter Dozier cope playing in the majors

Kansas City Royals first baseman Hunter Dozier struggled in 2015 and said on May 29, 2018 that he questioned his ability to play baseball. After being called up this year, he would like to stay in the majors.
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Kansas City Royals first baseman Hunter Dozier struggled in 2015 and said on May 29, 2018 that he questioned his ability to play baseball. After being called up this year, he would like to stay in the majors.

When it comes right down to it, a fundamental reason the 2018 Royals are 19-36 and submerged in rebuilding is that only one of their last 10 first-round draft picks is on the current 25-man roster.

Not that all the first-round choices in that span have been in vain.

Of course, Eric Hosmer (2008) signed a lucrative free-agent deal with San Diego only after being a transformative force in the organization and a catalyst in two pennant-winning seasons.

Brandon Finnegan (2014) was traded to enhance the chances of winning the 2015 World Series, and Christian Colon (2010) made key postseason contributions only to ultimately be discarded for his regular-season play.

But then there is Aaron Crow (2009), now pitching in Mexico. And the sad tales of Bubba Starling (2011) and Kyle Zimmer (2012), whose ultimate success now seems far-fetched.

Meanwhile, it’s too early to know what awaits Foster Griffin, the Royals’ second first-round pick in 2014; Ashe Russell (2015), who left baseball last year before quietly returning this spring; and Nick Pratto (2017).

As of now, though, it’s a trend that amplifies the pivotal importance of next week’s draft — in which the Royals have five of the top 58 picks.

It also magnifies the story of the lone (current) exception in the last decade: Hunter Dozier, who along with Alex Gordon (2005) and Mike Moustakas (2007) are the only homegrown No. 1 picks on the team.

While Dozier may or may not be here to stay, may or may not even be at the position he’ll ultimately play, he is making plenty of what has become an extended opportunity in the wake of an injury to Lucas Duda — who was signed in large part because Dozier wasn’t deemed ready coming out of spring training.

With the Royals losing routinely, with their more-established players being subject to trade as the franchise seeks to replenish its farm system, Dozier's audition is one of the more compelling tales to follow this season.

Dozier, who is hitting .240 with four doubles in 15 games and coming off three straight multi-hit games last week, was disappointed to be left behind in the spring, he said Tuesday.

RoyalsYankees 1524 5-20-18
Kansas City Royals' Hunter Dozier connects on a single in the eighth inning during a baseball game against the New York Yankees on May 20, 2018, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. John Sleezer

But he had the equilibrium to roll with it and zoom in on the things he could control.

Because that was only a blip to Dozier after what he learned through a wretched 2015 season.

Dozier, 26, was the eighth pick overall in 2013 and had known nothing but success throughout his baseball life.

He excelled with the Royals’ affiliates in Idaho Falls and Lexington that first year. Up another rung to Class A Wilmington in 2014, he was the team’s player of the year.

Then he plummeted in 2015, hitting .213 with Class AA Northwest Arkansas and striking out 151 times in 475 at-bats and feeling lost.

“I lost complete confidence; I didn’t think I was a good hitter anymore,” he said. “I was thinking stuff like, ‘Is this for me?’”

With considerable help from then-manager and current Royals bullpen coach Vance Wilson, Dozier came to appreciate the ups and downs of the game in a new way — and that “sometimes (it’s) just baseball is beating you.”

“The biggest thing was making sure that he understood everybody goes through what he’s going through,” Wilson said. “Don’t feel alienated. Don’t feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.”

Dozier learned to trust his talent and make adjustments, not radical changes, as he set out to “kind of re-invent myself in the off-season.”

If you ask him now, it was the best thing that ever happened to him — something with which Wilson agrees, saying having experience with adversity in your toolbox makes it easier to deal with going forward.

“I know how to deal with failure now, because in this game you’re going to deal with a lot of failure,” Dozier said. “And for me to fail for a whole year was a struggle. It was really hard, hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with.

“But it’s good. It made me stronger mentally.”

Don’t just take his word for it.

In 2016, Dozier was hitting so well at Northwest Arkansas that he was quickly promoted to Class AAA Omaha (.294, 15 home runs and 54 RBIs in 103 games) and got the call to join the parent club in September.

The experience of 2015 also made him more patient and better equipped to handle whatever may come — whether it was the injuries that sidelined him most of 2017 or handling the ever-changing demands of being a multi-position player.

The Royals' Hunter Dozier keeps several gloves available in his locker. Which one he uses depends on which position he is going to play.

Dozier was drafted as a shortstop and spent most of his minor-league career at third base, where he could end up as soon as this season if the Royals, as expected, move Moustakas for prospects.

Never mind that before being called up on May 14, Dozier had played only 16 games at first in his entire minor-league career.

As of Tuesday, he’s started nearly as many (13) at the major-league level.

He’s got a long way to go before establishing himself, he knows, but he’s also come a long way from 2015 — when even manager Ned Yost would later say he’d come to doubt Dozier.

“The last couple of springs, nothing impressed me about him,” Yost said when he was called up in 2016, adding that the 6-foot-4 Dozier had gotten “big and bulky and slow and choppy. But he’s worked hard to get his body back alive.”

Now his career is well-alive. And even if his trajectory remains uncertain, at least for now he’s the outlier in a pattern that has to change if the Royals are going to enjoy another revival any time soon.