2021 Breakout Candidate: Hunter Dozier

The Royals may not know where to play him, but they might have a monster in the batter's box.

A lot of this will become a little clearer after games start and we have an opportunity to see swings and new changeups and everything else, but I always like to sit down and look at seasons past at players who could break out in the upcoming season. I’m not always right. If I was, I’d probably have a job working for some team instead of writing this article here. There have been a couple frequent flyers that I’ve thought would break out and those are Adalberto Mondesi and Jakob Junis. Both have had their moments, but neither has truly broken out to this point, so I’m going to do them a favor and not mention them this year so they have a chance to shine. 

I am, however, going to put those bad vibes on Hunter Dozier because that’s just how I do.

I really don’t know what it is about Dozier. Maybe it’s that he looks the part, but I think he can become a consistent high level contributor. I guess that’s not all that surprising given that he was quite good in 2019, but I think there’s a more steady level he can get to. I think Covid wreaked havoc with Dozier in 2020, so I’m hardly even looking at anything he did, but one thing stands out to me and it’s his chase rate. 

In 2019, he improved from his previous seasons to better than league average at 26.8 percent, but last season, that got even better as he only chased 24.4 percent of pitches outside the zone. If you use Fangraphs’ plate discipline metric, he chased 27.4 percent of pitches outside the zone, down from 30.1 percent. Wherever you’re looking, he got better at taking pitches he’s supposed to take than he ever had before. 

Love what you’re reading but haven’t subscribed yet? Why wait?

So we’ve got the plate discipline seemingly figured out for Dozier, but what if he can pair that discipline with the batted ball numbers he posted in 2019? You’re talking about a monster there. Take a look at all the red here:

You’re teling me the Royals have a player with a full season of hitting the ball hard (and batted ball stuff like this tends to normalize quickly, so there’s enough data here to trust it) and who has a good eye at the plate? Wait, that sounds sort of like Jorge Soler. Okay, Dozier probably doesn’t have the pure power of Soler (not many do honestly), but where he lacks that, he might make up for it in athleticism. Look at that sprint speed percentile above. What I’m talking about here is to take the guy who hit .279/.348/.522 in 586 plate appearances in 2019 and give him the plate discipline of the guy who had a 14.5 percent walk rate in 2020. 

What does that look like in terms of comps? Good question. 

Taking into account his walk rate, strikeout rate and average exit velocity (there are some limitations here, but just go with it), some of the hitters who fall into that range over the last few years are 2018 Paul Goldschmidt (.290/.389/.533), 2019 Bryce Harper (.260/.372/.510), 2019 Josh Donaldson (.259/.379/.521) and 2018 Brandon Nimmo (.263/.404/.483). There are some others too that don’t have the same lofty numbers, but many of them aren’t in the same range as Dozier on barrel percentage as well, which is something I believe to be very important.

I wrote about this on Royals Review after Dozier’s strong 2019 season that one of his areas of perceived struggle before that year was on the inside pitch. When he got hurt, he was actually hitting the inside pitch quite well and had an overall line of .314/.389/.589 (the type of season he could have in 2021 if things all work together). But when he came back, he hit .260/.319/.485. That’s perfectly acceptable, especially for his place in the lineup now, but it’s a dropoff.

I mentioned both in that very paragraph above your eyes right now and in that article about the inside pitch. On pitches on the inner third of the plate, Dozier hit .323 with a .635 SLG in 2019. In 2020, that dropped to .310 with a .448 SLG. And remember, these pitches include those very attractive breaking balls that seem to hang forever that allow a guy to get his hands in and just pummel the ball. 

It may seem like wishful thinking that he can just combine the good from 2019 and the good from 2020 and leave behind the bad, but I can’t help but wonder how much Covid impacted his strength there. He did talk about how hard he was hit by it, so I’m just guessing here, but it easily could have played a role.

Look at average fly ball distance, in 2019, he ranked 15th in baseball with an average distance of 202 feet. In 2020, he fell to 69th at 172 feet. Other players dropped, but only 10 players had a lower percentage of their average fly ball distance in 2020 compared to 2019 than Dozier. A couple were stars like DJ Lemahieu, Juan Soto and Trea Turner, but many were huge 2020 underperformers who could also potentially be big bounceback candidates.

I understand that it’s easy to see the similarities between 2018 and 2020 for Dozier and think that 2019 was the outlier. He hit .228 in 2018 and .229 in 2020. He slugged .395 in 2019 and .392 in 2020. Obviously his ISOs were similar with those in mind. But I just keep coming back to the plate discipline and that loss of strength that theoretically should be back in 2021 to get him back to his batted ball numbers that we saw in 2019.  

The trendy pick to break out is going to be Mondesi until he does it, but I think Dozier has a chance to be the best position player on this team if he can just put it all together.