Will Hunter Dozier prove that he was worth his extension? (“Bounce Back Royals” series)

There’s no question that 2021 was a rough season for Hunter Dozier.

Even though the Royals showed their faith in the former 8th overall pick by inking him to a four-year, $25-million extension during Spring Training, Dozier struggled to produce both in the lineup and on the field in the first year of his deal.

For the season, Dozier produced a slash of .216/.285/.394 with a wRC+ of 82 in 144 games and 543 plate appearances. The number of games he played in was a career-high and the number of plate appearances was his second-most since 2019, his breakout season. Unfortunately, his 82 wRC+ was his lowest number since 2018, when he produced a 79 wRC+ in 388 plate appearances. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Dozier produced an fWAR of -0.2, which was amplified by a Def of -6.7, which signifies that he was 6.7 runs below average defensively last season.

The Royals signed Dozier to be a multi-position utility player who could have Whit Merrifield-Esque versatility but with Jorge Soler-Esque power upside (Dozier’s breakout season came during Soler’s home-run record-setting season). Unfortunately, Dozier didn’t really produce in either area and some Royals fans are wondering if Dayton Moore’s decision to sign Dozier to an extension may have been a “rash” one.

That being said, Dozier is at least transparent about his struggles, as chronicled in an interview with The Athletic’s Alec Lewis:

Though Dozier failed to find a real spot in the field in 2021 (more on this in a bit), the Royals will be needing Dozier to produce if they want to have any shot of being competitive in the American League Central division.

First off, the Royals will be paying Dozier $6.25 million in 2022, which is currently the fourth-highest deal on the Royals payroll on an AAV basis. They cannot afford to have him just sit on the bench.

Second, the Royals need production in the middle of the lineup, as their failure to get much offense in those 6-8 spots in the batting order held the lineup back from producing on a consistent basis last season.

Thus, it’s not a surprise that Moore is still touting Dozier as part of the Royals’ “core” next season, along with Whit and Salvy, as evidenced by his statement on the 610 AM Radio with Josh Vernier:

Can Dozier live up to that billing in year two of his extension? Or will Dozier eventually play his way out of the Royals lineup, and perhaps out of Kansas City by the 2023 season?

On an offensive end, a slow-start to the 2021 season plagued Dozier, and that is evidenced by his monthly splits, especially in April, May, and June:

As Royals fans can see from the table above, Dozier just failed to get in any kind of groove over that three-month span. While he did show some power in May (.290 ISO), that dramatically dropped in June, and it’s not surprising that he averaged a 49 wRC+ over the first three months of the 2021 season, which certainly didn’t help the Royals’ lineup, especially during a disastrous 7-20 June, which essentially sunk their playoff chances.

A big issue for Dozier, especially in the first couple of months of play, was an overly-patient approach at the plate that actually backfired on him.

In 2020, Dozier implemented a more diligent approach, and even though his ISO dropped from .243 in 2019 to .165 in 2020, he made up for it with a 5.1 percent increase in walk rate from 2019 to 2020. Dozier cut down on his swings in 2020 (41.7 percent swing rate) and as a result, chased less outside the strike zone (27.4 percent O-Swing%, a decrease from a 30.1 percent mark in 2019).

Granted, Dozier made less contact in 2020 than in 2019 (70.7 percent to 74.3 percent, respectively). That being said, if Dozier traded walks for “weak” contact (i.e. groundball or flyball outs), then the difference in contact rate would be worth it to Royals fans.

Unfortunately for Dozier and the Royals, pitchers took advantage of Dozier’s overly selective approach, and that is evidenced in his Statcast game logs during the first couple of months of the year, which is peppered with a lot of strikeouts (he struck out 42 times in April and May).

This backward strikeout against the Angels’ Dylan Bundy demonstrates Dozier’s pitch recognition struggles early on in the season, as he takes a pitch right down the middle on an 0-2 count:

And it wasn’t just a matter of not swinging at hittable pitches either during the first three months of play. Dozier also struggled with breaking balls, especially sliders low and away. Here’s Dozier’s performance against breaking ball pitches in April and May, via Statcast data:

In additiona, it was very common for Royals fans to see Dozier swing and miss badly on pitches out of the zone, as evidenced by this strikeout against the Twins’ Tyler Duffey at Target Field:

Whether it was poor pitch recognition, compensation for an early hand injury, or just pressing due to feeling the pressure from signing the extension before the season, Dozier’s early season struggles certainly didn’t help the Royals lineup, which finished 25th in OPS last season.

However, once the expectations of Dozier and the Royals lessened in the second half, Dozier finally started to be the hitter he was expected to be back in Spring Training. Take a look at his first and second half splits differences, via Fangraphs:

After posting a .586 OPS and 56 wRC+ in the first half of the year, Dozier improved those numbers to .780 and 109, respectively. He primarily flourished in July and September/October, as he posted season-high wRC+ numbers of 127 and 149, respectively. While he didn’t quite match his sensational 2019 numbers in the second half, Dozier at the very least showed that he could be an ideal 6-8 hitter in the Royals lineup after the All Star break.

A big key to Dozier’s success was a more aggressive approach, going to the opposite field more, and a focus on hitting line drives down the stretch, as pointed out in this Tweet below:

The “all fields” approach is what particularly stuck out as a key to Dozier’s turnaround in the second half, and that is evidenced in the data as well as on film.

Let’s take a look at Dozier’s batted ball splits from the first half and second half, via Fangraphs:

Notice how Dozier’s pull rate was nearly 10 percent higher in the first half in comparison to the second. Yes, Dozier hit more groundballs, but his focus on hitting more balls up the middle and to the opposite field paid off, especially as pitchers tried to beat him in those low and away zones.

Here’s an example from earlier in the year when Dozier pulls a ball from the Twins’ Matt Shoemaker that should be taken to the opposite field:

Now, let’s take a look at a game in the second half at Wrigley Field against the Cubs. Former Royals draft pick Alec Mills throws a slider low and away in the zone, and instead of trying to pull it, Dozier goes oppo-center with the pitch, and ends up doubling as a result:

Dozier has the potential to be a .780-.820 OPS hitter in 2022, which would be exactly what the Royals would need in the middle of the lineup to be competitive in the AL Central. While I am not sure if Dozier will be that 2019 version again, Dozier can be an effective hitter in the lineup, even if he has his flaws as a hitter (high strikeout rate; low BB/K ratio, etc.)

Hopefully, Dozier will continue to advocate this “all fields” approach to begin 2022, especially out of the gate, as a slow start eventually did in Dozier (and the Royals overall) last season.

Offensively, Dozier can bounce back and put his atrocious 2021 campaign behind him. Will he be a 123 wRC+ hitter next year like he was in 2019? Probably not. However, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see him being close to or slightly better than the 104 wRC+ hitter he was in 2020, even if the process is different (i.e. more aggressive). When looking at his percentiles via Baseball Savant, Royals fans can see that at the very least, Dozier made quality contact in 2021 (which is apparent in his average exit velocity, hard hit rate, and barrel rate), and that could be sustainable next year as well:

However, while Dozier can still be a productive, though flawed, power hitter in the middle of the Royals lineup, the big question regarding Dozier for 2022 is this: where will he play defensively?

When looking at his defensive metrics via Baseball Savant, Dozier was pretty atrocious at both third base and right field in 2021. While Dozier is still an impressive athlete (his sprint speed in the 77th percentile demonstrates that) despite his age (he’s currently 30-years-old), it hasn’t necessarily transitioned well on a defensive end in the field, especially last year.

Here’s a look at how Dozier fared on an Outs Above Average end in comparison to other Royals third baseman a year ago:

As Royals fans can see from the chart above, Dozier was by far the worst third baseman defensively from a year ago, as he was three outs worse than even Kelvin Gutierrez, who was eventually designated for assignment in the middle of the season. Unfortunately for Dozier and the Royals, he was not much better in the outfield, as his OAA metrics don’t look good in comparison to other Royals right fielders:

The fact that Dozier rated worse than Ryan O’Hearn and Soler, both known for their bats, not their gloves, demonstrates how much Dozier struggled in right field a year ago.

Hence, even though the Royals need Dozier’s bat, and they are paying him for another three years regardless, it still will be tough for manager Mike Matheny to find a defensive position for Dozier in 2022, especially considering how much he has struggled at his two primary defensive positions a year ago.

The easiest solution may be to move Dozier to designated hitter, which is available with Soler no longer on the 40-man roster. However, the Royals will want to keep that spot free at least semi-regularly for Salvador Perez, who will need games in the DH spot to save his legs behind the plate. Thus, if Dozier is going to play everyday, they will need to find a spot for him defensively when Salvy hits in the DH spot.

The other solution could be to make Dozier the regular first baseman, where he actually performed decently on an OAA basis last year (he was two outs above average at first base in 2021). However, Carlos Santana primarily managed the position a year ago, and considering Santana’s “veteran” status (and the fact that he’s due $10.5 million next year), it will be tough for Matheny to bench him in favor of Dozier on a full-time end.

Granted, Santana was not much better than Dozier on a wRC+ basis (83 to Dozier’s 82) last year. However, Dozier is younger (Santana is 35-years-old) and will be on this roster beyond 2022, which is unlikely for Santana, as he only has a club option for 2023 and it’s unlikely that the Royals will exercise it. The bold move would be for the Royals to just move on from Santana and for Moore to just trade him for whatever they can. But then again, the Royals need insurance in the lineup, and it would be difficult to watch Santana succeed somewhere else and for the Royals not get anything in return.

The latter is why Santana will stay on this roster in 2022, and will also be the reason why Santana will be the starting first baseman on Opening Day.

And that makes Dozier’s situation even more difficult.

The Royals need Dozier’s bat to find success in 2022. As bad as Dozier’s year was overall, his second half and last month of play should give Royals fans hope that he can turn it around next year. Dozier can hit 20 or more home runs, if healthy. He can be a 100-105 wRC+ hitter over a full season. He can be that consistent force in the 6-8 spot in the batting order, something the Royals lacked dearly a year ago.

But where will Dozier play defensively? And even if the Royals bite the bullet and put him in right, is Dozier’s offense worth the sub-par play in the outfield, especially with Kyle Isbel available, and the Royals’ recent emphasis on defense this past year (hence, why they gave Michael A. Taylor an early extension)?

Only Moore, JJ Picollo, and Matheny can answer that question…

I guess Royals fans will have to wait until Cactus League play being to see where Dozier will be regularly defensively in 2022.

Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

10 thoughts on “Will Hunter Dozier prove that he was worth his extension? (“Bounce Back Royals” series)

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