Will Hunter Dozier prove he is legit in 2020?

No Royal made a bigger improvement in 2019 than former first-round pick Hunter Dozier. While Jorge Soler’s record-setting 48-home run season certainly caught and captured Royals fans’ attention a season ago, he was starting to show signs of living up to the massive hype from his Cubs days during the 2018 season, until a broken toe ended his season prematurely. If people look at Soler’s 2018 and 2019 triple slashes, it is possible that Soler would have put up a similar stat line in 2018 to his 2019 campaign had he played a full 162 games. Soler’s 2019 was more of a confirmation of the power prowess he possessed rather than a shock to Royals fans, though it was surprising that Ned Yost and the Royals waited until a month into 2019 to take him out of the field and make him the primary DH, considering his poor reputation as a fielder as well as his injury history.

Dozier on the other hand is a different story. A combination of injuries and ineffectiveness dogged his Royals career prior to the 2019 season. After putting up a .294/.357/.506 slash in Omaha in 2016, he earned an eight-game late September call up, though he didn’t see much time on the field with the Royals trying to compete for a final playoff spot (they didn’t, as they finished 81-81). Dozier only played in eight games in 2016, but there was some hope that with a full Spring Training, Dozier could compete for a utility position in 2017 with the big league club.

Unfortunately, injuries plagued Dozier in 2017, as he played in only 33 games total in 2017, all in the minors, spread out between Triple-A Omaha, Double-A Northwest Arkansas, and High-A Wilmington. 2017 for Dozier was not about development or growth as a player. Instead, it was about recovery and just getting him back to where he was as a player in 2016.

The residuals of the injury-plagued 2017 season seemed to affect Dozier in 2018, a season where Dozier was not blocked at any position for the first time in his professional career. Dozier spent a majority of the season with the Royals as he played 102 games and accumulated 388 plate appearances, playing everywhere from third base to first to the outfield in an attempt by Royals management to see where he could become a fixture for the Royals beyond 2018. However, while he proved versatile enough to play multiple positions defensively, his hitting floundered, as he put up a .229/.278/.395 slash with a 79 wRC+ and a WAR of minus-0.8.

Yes, Royals fans, you read the right: in 2018 Dozier COST the Royals wins.

You can see why his 2019 was such a surprise to the faithful at Kauffman Stadium.

Last season, Dozier proved to be a revelation for the Royals in more ways than one. First, he solidified the third-base position in the wake of Mike Moustakas leaving, as he played a majority of his innings at third base when he was healthy. Second, Dozier exploded offensively, improving upon all his metrics from 2018 significantly. He posted a slash of .279/.348/.522 over 586 plate appearances, while also adding 26 home runs, 84 RBI, a 124 wRC+ and a WAR of 3.0. When it came to offensive value on the Royals, according to Fangraphs, only Soler ranked higher, as Dozier even surpassed Whit Merrifield offensively despite playing in fewer games than the Royals’ franchise player.

Furthermore, Dozier’s advanced Statcast metrics also paint him as one of the game’s more powerful hitters in 2019. He ranked in the 64th percentile of hitters when it came to xSLG, 73rd percentile when it came to hard hit percentage, and 85th percentile when it came to exit velocity. Add in the fact that he hit more flyballs than groundballs in 2018 than 2019 (his GB/FB ratio fell from 1.13 to 0.78), and he also increased is HR/FB ratio (11.8 percent to 15.6 percent), it makes sense that Dozier ranked up there as one of the better power hitters in the American League.

Thus, with Dozier fresh off this near-All Star campaign (he finished runner up in fan voting to Alex Bregman but he wasn’t selected as a substitute; that honor went to Whit), it would make sense that the projections and outlook for Dozier should be sunny for the 28-year-old Texan in 2020, right?

Well…not exactly.

Despite a breakout 2019 campaign, ZiPS projections were pretty modest for Dozier in 2020. ZiPS projects to Dozier to put up a .251/.321/.468 clip with a projected OPS+ of 110, which would be second-highest on the team (behind Soler, who ZiPS projects a 130 OPS+). ZiPS believes that Dozier’s power is sustainable and will continue into 2020, as Dozier is projected to hit 24 home runs, which would be second highest on the team (Soler is projected to hit 33). That being said, Dozier’s strikeout and contact issues could continue to be a problem, as they project a 153 strikeouts, which would put him behind only Soler (156) and Brett Phillips (169) of projected big league regulars (and that ZiPS projection is based on Phillips getting a regular spot in the lineup which seems unlikely with the return of Alex Gordon).

The strikeouts are a particular concern, even if Royals fans ignore the ZiPS projections in their outlook for Dozier this upcoming season. One reason Dozier excelled in the start of the season was due to his improved batting eye from the previous, as he chased less out of the zone, and made pitchers pay for getting behind. In the first half of the year, his walk percentage was 11.5 percent and his strikeout rate was 22.8 percent, good for a BB/K ratio of 0.52, which is well above league average. Thus, there was thought in baseball circles that Dozier had finally figured it out, and was on his way to living up to his lofty first-round pick status from here on out.

However, a chest injury sidelined him around the All-Star break, and when he returned in the second half, his disciplined approach in the first half disappeared. His walk rate dropped to 7.3 percent and his strikeout rate spiked to 28 percent, which produced a mediocre BB/K ratio 0.26. Yes, Dozier still put up gaudy power numbers, and his BABIP (.350) kept his average respectable in the second half (.276). But his batting eye in the second half of 2019 was more akin to his batting eye of 2018, and there is some worry that if BABIP regresses (which it probably will) and if pitchers are smarter in their own approach to him, then Dozier’s average and contact numbers will plummet accordingly.

The big issue for Dozier in 2020 will be how he hits breaking balls and offspeed stuff. Dozier made considerable leaps, according to Statcast, when it came to hitting fastball, as his whiff percentage was only 13.8 percent on the pitch. This produced impressive metrics for Dozier on fastballs, which included a .399 wOBA on the pitch, according to Statcast. His wOBA was also strong on breaking balls in 2019, as he saw an improvement in wOBA on the pitch from 2018, as his wOBA increased from .239 to .343 from 2018 to 2019, respectively.

However, while Dozier’s results on hitting breaking balls were positive, the process definitely could be questioned, as Dozier had a whiff rate of 44.3 percent on the pitch in 2019. So while he missed the pitch often, when he did make contact on it, he made it count at least. That being said, that’s not exactly a sustainable practice, and Dozier needs to do a better job of recognizing and laying off breaking balls out of the zone if he wants to maintain the decent batting averages and metrics he produced a year ago.

Offspeed pitches (split, changeups, etc.) were the biggest headache for Dozier in 2019, as he not only had a whiff rate of 35.6 percent (a near 15 percent increase from the year before), but he only posted a .268 wOBA on the pitch as well. His contact percentages on those two pitches will be an interesting development in 2020, as Dozier did see a decrease in fastball percentage seen from 2018 (where it was almost 60 percent) to 2019 (where it was a little over 52 percent). Without a doubt, opposing pitching coaches will be telling pitchers to throw more breaking and off-speed stuff to Dozier in their scouting reports, especially early in the count to get him chasing and behind in the count. If Dozier doesn’t make the proper adjustments, then it is possible that his line in 2020 could be closer to 2018 than 2019.

Most of Dozier’s value and impact in 2020 will be tied to his bat. While the move to right field will probably be a better fit for him defensively, he projects to be an average at best fielder. That is tolerable for the Royals, as Whit and Gordo should be able to cover considerable ground in the outfield to make up for Dozier’s inexperience. Thus, as long as Dozier is not a “Soler-esque” disaster, the move to right will be worth it for Dozier and the Royals.

However, Dozier continuing to mash in 2020 will have a big impact on the Royals if they hope to touch that 70-plus win mark next year, something most experts don’t project. Dozier’s power seems to be legitimate, but as we baseball fans know, raw power only does so much. Without a good eye or approach at the plate, a hitter’s power is pretty much meaningless. After all, just look at how Seuly Matias’ star plummeted in a year after his poor plate discipline was exposed in Wilmington in 2019.

Now, Dozier is obviously a more sure thing than Matias. And Dozier, even with regression, most likely will not touch his 2018 numbers. Dozier proved that he grew as a hitter last year and it’s obvious that Dayton Moore and Mike Matheny believe that he will be one the top run producers for the Royals in 2020.

However, the issues with the breaking balls and offspeed pitches should be noted. And Dozier’s growth as a hitter in these two areas will be important areas to pay attention to. Will he make some adjustments to those two pitches, especially as pitchers most likely will throw him more of them in 2020? Or will his swing and whiff issues with them continue to persist next season and turn him into a slightly above average hitter instead of a potentially great one?

If Dozier can make that improvement, then the Royals will have one scary and productive top of the order with him, Whit, and Soler in 2020.

Maybe we can get Soler and Dozier to do their own Bash Brothers campaign this season?

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