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Hunter Dozier is quietly turning into a star

Who’s the AL leader in slugging percentage and OPS? None other than Hunter Dozier.

Cleveland Indians v Kansas City Royals Photo by John Sleezer/Getty Images

It’s safe to say most devout followers of Major League Baseball didn’t have high expectations for the Kansas City Royals this season — and it’s not as if they really had any good reason to, seeing as they were coming off a 104-loss season in 2018. Still, there were reasons to be excited. Whit Merrifield led the majors in hits and steals last season. Adalberto Mondesi had a torrid second half, hitting 11 homers with 27 steals and an .835 OPS. After debuting on the night of the trade deadline, Ryan O’Hearn was coming off a two-month stretch to end the season where he posted a .950 OPS. And Brad Keller threw for an ERA just over 3.00 and made a strong case to earn Rookie of the Year votes.

At best, Hunter Dozier — who the Royals took with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2013 draft — might’ve been the fifth-most intriguing young player on Kansas City’s roster entering the spring, and you could make a case that he was even lower than that. A spring earlier, he’d basically been a castoff. Ranked as the Royals’ top prospect by MLB Pipeline as recently as the end of the 2016 season, Dozier had a rough cameo in the big leagues to end ’16, posting a .549 OPS with eight strikeouts and two walks in 21 plate appearances, then he struggled through a 2017 campaign during which a strained oblique and a broken wrist combined to cost him four months, and he did not receive a September call-up following the conclusion of the minor-league season. He seemed to be in a “make-it-or-break-it” situation last spring training, as he got the first chance to take over for the departed Eric Hosmer at first base. But after he struggled during the early part of the spring, the Royals went out and signed free agent Lucas Duda to play first, and they ended up optioning Dozier back to the minors on March 13 — much earlier than expected for a guy who was a projected starter on the depth chart less than two weeks earlier.

It’s not as if he thrived in his third turn at Triple-A Omaha, posting a .724 OPS with just one homer, but when Duda hit the list then referred to as the DL on May 14, Dozier was recalled and never went back (though that’s more because the Royals literally didn’t have anyone else to fill out the big-league roster than it was because he was playing really well the whole time). Finally getting a full-time opportunity in the big leagues for the first time at the age of 26, Dozier didn’t exactly post eye-opening numbers in 2018 — he had a .229/.278/.395 slash line with 11 homers, 109 strikeouts, and 24 walks in 388 plate appearances. Especially before the trade of Mike Moustakas in late July, Dozier struggled to find a regular spot on the field, bouncing around to first base, right field, and DH as well as his regular position of third base, and his defensive WAR suffered (it was a team-worst -1.1).

But if you paid attention, you could see things begin to turn around for Dozier down the stretch in 2018. After settling in as the Royals’ regular third baseman in August, he had his best month of the season, hitting .280/.321/.467 with three homers in 81 plate appearances and his lowest strike rate in any month (23.5%). He had more trouble making contact in September but kept the slugging percentage up, hitting .234/.265/.447 with three homers in 98 PAs, while keeping his strikeout rate (24.5%) low relative to what it’d been earlier in the season — he struck out in a ridiculous 37.7% of his plate appearances in July and had a combined 31.6% K-rate prior to August 1.

Of course, those late-season numbers pale in comparison to the offensive performance that he’s put together through the first five weeks of the 2019 campaign. He’s not only been better than expected — he’s been the best hitter in the Royals’ lineup and has been the main catalyst for a Kansas City offense that, despite what the team’s American League-worst 9-20 record might lead you to believe, has actually been quite decent, ranking eighth in AL in slugging (.422) and OPS (.737). Entering play on Wednesday, Dozier ranks fifth in the AL in batting average (.349), second in on-base percentage (.447), first in slugging (.686), and first in OPS (1.133). He’s tied for 12th in the AL in home runs and tied for the Royals lead with seven, tied for third among American League players in WAR at 1.6 (as calculated by Baseball-Reference), and tied for second in FanGraphs WAR, also at 1.6. Perhaps most importantly, Dozier is exhibiting discipline at the plate like he never has before: His 17.4% strikeout rate is the lowest one he’s posted since Class A, and his 14.6% walk rate is by far the highest he’s ever had in the major leagues. Sure, it’s still early enough that you can ruin all of the fun and yell “SMALL SAMPLE SIZE! SMALL SAMPLE SIZE!” until you wear your lungs out. A couple things are undeniable, though: Dozier looks like one of the best hitters in baseball — if not the best — right now, and with his production over the first month-plus of the season, he’s already given himself a pretty good chance at making the AL All-Star team this July.

It’s anyone’s guess as to whether Dozier will maintain production even close to what he’s done during the season’s first five weeks. He’s always looked like a guy with real power potential, as he hit 23 homers and slugged .533 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2016, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s turned into a fearsome slugger at the major-league level — especially with a juiced ball likely in play. He has a relatively high .371 batting average on balls in play right now, and it feels safe to assume that he won’t end the season as a .349 hitter, but if he can maintain the vastly-improved plate discipline that he’s shown early on this year, it’s not impossible to envision him — perhaps not to the same extent, but in kind of the same manner that Aaron Judge did a couple years ago — being the type of once-highly-regarded prospect who, after facing some significant adversity during his early days in the big leagues, goes on to become a serious threat at the plate.

If Dozier can hang on and be this type of imposing threat at the plate for the long term, it’d be a massive boost for a Royals organization that 1) needs all the offense it can get for now as it deals with a severe lack of major-league-quality pitching depth in the upper minors and 2) could really use a more experienced superstar in his mid-20s, since their four brightest position-player prospects — Khalil Lee, MJ Melendez, Nick Pratto, and Seuly Matias — are all 20 years old. And seeing as Merrifield is essentially the only impactful position player the organization developed between the arrival of Moustakas, Salvador Perez, and Eric Hosmer in 2011 and the beginning of their rebuild last year, it’d be a major win for the front office if both Mondesi and Dozier were to entrench themselves as legitimate long-term difference-makers this season.