The underlying metrics show improvement.
Making sense of early season happenings is hard. The best way to do it is to probably… not do it. That being said, after waiting months and months for baseball and finally seeing it, we can’t help ourselves from noticing (and probably overreacting) to performances in such a small sample size. Some good analysis can come from it, while a lot can be premature.
With that out of the way, it only took 20+ regular season batted balls for me to jump into a possible breakout. Premature? Maybe (probably) so. But that won’t hold my intrigue back 100 percent. Royals third baseman Hunter Dozier is not a household name to the casual baseball fan by any means. Though a former first round pick, he had a slow climb up the minor league ladder riddled with ups and downs that left him name fading in prospect circles. Opportunity struck on a subpar Royals team last year though and he found himself getting regular big league at bats.
But it was hard to get excited. He hit for an 80 wRC+ at an offense-oriented position. He struck out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances and wasn’t walking a whole bunch to help mitigate the issues. His few positives (quality of contact, elite athleticism for a corner-infielder, a finally healthy season) were all overshadowed by a pure lack of performance.
Look deeper though and you’ll find that while bad, his season wasn’t probably as terrible as the surface stats showed. His offensive stats were weighed down by a rough first half, in which he was playing regularly for the first time in 18 months, and posted a 62 wRC+. Things did look better in the second half, but again, even a 96 wRC+ wasn’t going to cut it.
Dozier has for a long time had the outlook of a potential plus-big league bat. He had the mentioned high-round pedigree, above average athleticism, some of the best raw power in the minor leagues, and a few impressive professional seasons under his belt. There was at least glimpses of this in the second half last year. And it’s only been about 1/16th of a season, but Dozier looked about as encouraging as can be (minus the surface stats, ignore the .130/.250/.261 slash line; I will explain).
We’re only halfway to the stabilization point for batted ball data on Dozier, but he’s been impressive 20 results in. So far, he ranks 28th out of 199 hitters in exit velocity (minimum 20 results), standing at a noteworthy 93.2 MPH. The biggest key here though is his launch angle, which currently stands at 19 degrees, an increase from his 13 degree mark last year. Put those two together and you get an ideal .423 xwOBA, compared to his actual wOBA of .235. Add his above-average speed in as a factor and you can easily come to the conclusion that he’s been extremely unlucky thus far. Only Franmil Reyes has a higher wOBA-xwOBA differential than him among 280 qualified hitters.
Now I’m about to break a second no-no in the rules of baseball analysis. That’s right, I’m throwing Spring Training stats into the mix, but only for the sake of furthering this sample size. This Spring Training was a good one for Dozier, as he slashed .277/.404/.638 in 57 plate appearances. More impressive on his part was his improved plate discipline, as he only struck out in 22.8 percent of plate appearances, while walking 14.0 percent of the time. Even more noticeable was a change in his batted ball profile, as he put up a 1:2 GB/FB ratio, ranking in the bottom five percent of qualified spring hitters. For referencing, his ratio only ranked in the bottom 40 percent last year.
This improvements in spring have showed in the early results. He’s only struck out in 14.3 percent of his plate appearances, while his walk-rate has jumped to 10.7 percent. His GB/FB ratio is also in the bottom five percent of qualified hitters.
If this sticks around, this could be an enormous change, as Dozier had a considerably greater amount of success hitting the ball in the air compared to on the ground, more than the average hitter.
The expected stats tell us Hunter Dozier is having one of the better starts for a hitter to the 2019 season. The surface stats tell us he’s really struggling. That shouldn’t be too concerning though, as if these metrics are even sustained to a shorter degree, the results should almost definitely start showing.