Fans of the Twins haven't had much to cheer about in 2016. Their club has the worst record in the American League, their electric center fielder has flopped in his first major-league trial, and every starting pitcher on the staff has struggled (save Ervin Santana, in fairness). But there is hope for the future in Minnesota, thanks to a trove of young hitters — and one veteran.
Brian Dozier has had another solid year for the Twins — he's amassed three fWAR for the third straight season — thanks to his 132 wRC+, a career best. Since the All-Star Break, however, the second baseman has been elite: His 169 wRC+ in the second half is the eighth-highest in the majors. Dozier's bat has been on fire over his last 36 games, at long last allowing him to fulfill his potential.
Does this sound familiar? Dozier has broken out before — or, at least, he's appeared to. To kick off 2015, he tallied a 137 wRC+ over his first 61 games, prompting me to write about him. That wouldn't last, however, as he plummeted to an 80 wRC+ over his final 96 games. Dozier is a streaky hitter, so this analysis could look foolish in a few months. But I think this new breakout might stick, because he's finally adopted what seems to be a stable approach at the plate.
Let's look at some rolling averages. Obviously, this 36-game stretch has a precedent in Dozier's recent history:
He remained at the 170ish level throughout much of his early-2015 explosion, and he finds himself back there again. But this time, he has more hard contact to support his case:
That's certainly something in Dozier's favor. Still, solid contact alone won't make you a great hitter — you need to make that contact count. Even in Dozier's first-half breakout last year, the harbingers of regression were present. When I wrote the aforementioned article, he had a ground ball rate of 25.8 percent and a pull rate of 62.6 percent. The former was one of the lowest marks in the majors; the latter, the absolute highest.
While I praised those aspects at the time, in retrospect I should have predicted how they'd sink Dozier. No matter how hard he clubbed the ball, he would never have long-term success with that approach. In the age of the shift, a hitter who goes to the pull field that frequently will see his BABIP take a nosedive. And when fly balls stay in the yard, they tend to find their way into a defender's glove, depressing that BABIP further. At the time of that article, Dozier had a .273 ISO to go along with a .287 BABIP; his batted-ball profile supported the former but would eventually undermine the latter.
Nowadays, though, Dozier might be on to something. Here's a final rolling average graph, this time a little messier:
Notice the yawning chasm in ground ball rate, and the mountainous peak in pull rate, during his hot hitting streak last year. Then compare that with his current status. From the 2016 All-Star Break to today, he's run a 32.8 percent ground ball rate and a 56.9 percent pull rate; those are still extreme figures, but acceptably so. Now that Dozier is capable of putting the ball on the ground and shooting it the other way, he's worked a deserving .296 BABIP — in addition to a .389 ISO.
This ground ball rate hasn't come out of nowhere, nor has this pull rate. Dozier saw each of those regress toward the mean during the second half of the 2015 campaign. Simultaneously, however, he lost a sizable chunk of hard contact. He's never been able to hit the ball hard without sacrificing grounders and opposite-field hitting — until now, that is.
Lest we forget, Dozier had some offensive trouble in the early part of 2016. Before that 169 second-half wRC+, there came a less-nice first-half mark of 110. The factors behind that — satisfactory ground ball and pull rates, sans the high hard-hit rate — mirrored the causes of his second-half slump from the prior year. To right the ship, Dozier forced himself to take a more even approach, and he looks to be reaping the rewards. Via the Star-Tribune's Chip Scoggins:
He studies more video pregame of the starting pitcher in search of tendencies and has changed his approach in batting practice. He tries to hit balls off the center field wall, rather than "see how far you can hit it to left," he said.
The biggest thing, though, is that he trained himself to "stay behind the ball." In layman’s terms, he stopped trying to jerk the ball 450 feet to left field every time.....
"To become a complete hitter, I finally realized and got over the hump of taking what the game is giving," he said. "If the game is giving you a single, take a single instead of trying to do too much every single pitch."
Will Dozier fall off from this level of play? Oh, definitely; no one can keep up a .389 ISO, even in this home run-friendly environment. But the even strategy he's taken at the plate should cushion the drop. Should Dozier maintain this combination — a ton of hard contact, a respectable amount of grounders, and a high-but-not-too-high pull rate — he'll continue to put up a decent BABIP along with his power. Once Buxton and co. come around, he'll be another strong cog in a potent Minnesota lineup.
. . .
An earlier version of this article stated Ricky Nolasco had not struggled this season instead of Ervin Santana. For the sake of his sanity, the author prefers to spend as little time as possible thinking about the Twins rotation.
All statistics as of Monday, August 23rd.