KANSAS CITY -- There was a time last offseason when some of the Royals fan base and even some in the media wondered if Hunter Dozier, a first-round pick in the 2013 Draft, would ever meet his expectations.
But the Royals saw the potential shift toward the surface toward the end of the 2018 season when Dozier posted an .821 OPS in his final 27 games with nine doubles, three triples and four home runs. And Dozier followed that up in 2019 with a breakout year: an .870 OPS with 26 home runs and 84 RBIs. He also tied for the Major League lead with 10 triples.
Most impressively, though, was Dozier’s improvement on defense at third base.
“There was a time [in 2018] when we really had no idea where we would play him,” former manager Ned Yost said. “We thought about right field or maybe first base. His defense just wasn’t good enough to consider him an everyday third baseman.
“But all of that has changed. His defensive improvement has been phenomenal. He’s a guy now who has the third-base job. He can still play some other positions, but he has grown into third base. There isn’t a play he can’t make now, and he’s making them. And he has gotten better through hard work.”
What went right?
Just about everything. Dozier, in his first full season in the big leagues, became a convincing middle-of-the-order threat for Yost.
“I think mentally I’m in a better spot,” Dozier said during the season. “I’m not so much worried about the results right now. I’m just trying to do the right things, have a good game plan, worry about the process.”
Then again, Dozier said he is certain his breakthrough season came as a result of not worrying much at all. Dozier has gained a reputation among Royals coaches as a video junkie, always examining his swing for flaws while also dissecting other hitters’ swings in search of potential improvements to his own swing.
Catching coach Pedro Grifol finally put an end to it.
“We actually had to ban him from the video room,” Grifol said, laughing. “He’s got a perfect swing, probably the most flawless swing on the team. He doesn’t need to mess with it. The more he messed with it, the less effective he was.”
Dozier admits that Grifol was right.
“I’m better when I go up there and think less about mechanics,” Dozier said. “I got to the point early in the season where I just went up there and tried to compete on every pitch. That’s all hitting is.”
What went wrong?
Not much. Dozier did miss three weeks in early June because of a thorax injury. And he struggled a bit when he first returned from the injured list.
But during a 37-game stretch from the beginning of August through the middle of September, Dozier hit .313 with a .972 OPS, including seven doubles, four triples and 10 home runs.
“It was important for me to finish strong,” Dozier said. “I think was able to do that.”
Dozier had plenty of monster games. But the one moment that stands out was on June 25 in Cleveland when he blasted his first career grand slam off Indians closer Brad Hand in the ninth inning, helping the Royals come back from a 6-3 deficit to win 8-6 before a stunned crowd at Progressive Field.
Dozier has solidified his hold as the team’s third baseman of the future, not just because of his breakthrough offensive season but also because he proved he can carry the load defensively.
“There are certain plays he can make now,” Royals infielders coach Mike Jirschele said, “that he wasn’t comfortable making a year ago. He’s got a long body so he’s had to learn how to get lower to the ground more quickly. He can charge balls now much better, he can make the pivot step to his left on tough hops, and overall, he’s much more accurate in his throwing. He has a very strong arm, a shortstop’s arm.”