Even in loss, Dozier showing elite value
Royals’ breakout star goes 2-for-4, homers off Astros’ Cole
HOUSTON -- Hunter Dozier's work day typically begins three or four hours before game time, when he positions himself at third base in an empty ballpark and challenges coaches to get a ball past him.
They slap baseballs in front of him, to either side and even behind him. Again and again. And then when he fields a ball, he’s challenged to make an accurate throw across the diamond.
Dozier was the Royals’ DH on Monday when he hit his ninth home run of the season in a 6-4 loss to the Astros at Minute Maid Park.
Whether Dozier is ever going to be a great third baseman is a question the Royals can’t answer. On his way to attempting to be just that, the Royals have learned plenty about their emerging star.
To Kansas City manager Ned Yost, this commitment to defense speaks volumes about Dozier’s emergence as one of baseball’s best players in the first two months of 2019.
“This kid shows everybody at 3 o’clock and takes extra grounders and [makes] extra throws,” Yost said. “He has developed into a very, very serviceable Major League third baseman. The improvement with his defense, I would have never guessed it.”
On Tuesday, Dozier will be back starting at third base for the Royals for the first time since April 20, when the Royals play the second of a three-game series against the Astros.
Dozier has been limited to designated hitter -- he’s also played marginally at first base -- since then because of lower back tightness. Now, though, he’s ready to return as a player the Royals view as a cornerstone part of their future.
They began the day ranked 21st in MLB with 40 home runs, but led the league with 19 triples and 35 stolen bases. On Monday, though, all four of the Royals’ runs scored came via homers, with Dozier turning on a 97-mph Gerrit Cole fastball after an infield single by Alex Gordon in the top of the fourth.
"When you’ve got a guy throwing 97-98-99,” Dozier said, “that makes all his other pitches really good. I was just sitting heater, and he gave me a good pitch to hit. Did a good job getting a barrel on it.”
In the fifth, Adalberto Mondesi’s fifth home run followed a Billy Hamilton single. His came on a 98.1-mph Cole fastball and was the fourth-fastest pitch Cole has surrendered for a homer in his career. Only eight other players have homered on pitches that fast this season, and many of them are big-time sluggers, including Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo.
Dozier’s backstory is a reminder of why we love this stuff and why young players sometimes aren’t overnight stars. On Opening Day, Dozier was 27 years old, had played in just 110 big league games and had a .228 career batting average on his resume. For the eighth overall pick in the 2013 Draft, this wasn’t the career arc that the Royals had hoped for.
And now, there’s this: Dozier’s 1.135 OPS trails only Cody Bellinger (1.311) and Christian Yelich (1.232), arguably the Majors’ two best players thus far in ‘19.
Dozier’s ninth homer came in his 132nd plate appearance. Last season, he had 11 in 388 plate appearances.
“I think mentally I’m in a better spot,” Dozier said. “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.”
As to how it happened, the explanation seems to be that the Royals got it right when they made him a top 10 pick, and that if he hadn’t missed most of the ‘17 season with hand and oblique injuries, Dozier might have arrived at this point before now.
For Yost, the entire thing has been a process of finding the right balance between mechanics and allowing Dozier’s natural ability to take over.
“He’s just stopped thinking,” Yost said. “He was so mechanical. He always thought about mechanics, mechanics, mechanics. He just got to the point where he said, ‘I’m going to see it and hit it.’
“Now, he’s up there, he’s confident. He’s really worked hard on analyzing and understanding the strike zone. He’s still a young hitter. He’s gaining a better recognition of what a strike is and what a strike’s not. He’s done a really good job of trying to incorporate a two-strike approach. Has a great plan going into it. He knows he’s taken thousands and thousands of swings over his career, and his body knows how to hit.”
Dozier agrees with that assessment across the board, saying, “Just trying to keep my approach simple. Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s just going back to having good at-bats, swinging at good pitches. I’m not trying to hit home runs. I’m trying to hit the ball hard. Keep it simple.”