For the past three seasons, Brian Dozier has been a welcome surprise considering he was never considered a top prospect. You're likely already aware that he hit just 19 home runs in his minor league career, but surpassed that amount in both 2014 and 2015 and nearly tied it during his first breakout campaign in 2013. You probably also know that the power surge came from a change in philosophy at the plate, where Dozier transformed himself into a pull-happy hitter looking to take anything and everything deep to left field.
There are two main lines of thought when dealing with a pull hitter: You either have to pitch so far inside that he either gets jammed or yanks the pitch foul, or you have to pitch outside to make the hitter pop it up or roll over and hit a grounder to the shortstop or third baseman. There is no in-between, or else your next 20 seconds are spent watching the batter circle the bases after his latest visit to Souvenir City.
In spite of Dozier's evolution into a power hitting middle infielder, he has always fallen apart towards the end of the season. Last season, Dozier hit .256/.328/.513 with 19 home runs in the first half of the season, but fell to .210/.280/.359 with just 9 homers in the second half. In 2014, the splits were far less pronounced as his batting average and on-base percentage didn't suffer, but his power did evaporate as he fell from 18 HR and a .194 isolated slugging percentage (ISO) to 5 HR and a .143 ISO. You have to go back to 2013 to find a season in which Dozier actually improved as the season went on.
Due to the drop-offs in two consecutive seasons, some people believed that Dozier simply lacked the stamina to survive an entire season. Perhaps all those bumps, bruises, and general soreness added up to sap his effectiveness. However, that narrative has fallen by the wayside as Dozier has struggled at the start of the 2016 season, flip-flopping the timeline that we've witnessed from the past two years.
Dozier's batting average has never been good, a frustration of many Twins fans. After all, he's such a good power hitter now, so getting those base hits shouldn't be that difficult, right? Well... the problem is his approach. Dozier's goal is to pull everything and to hit it in the air with authority. Line drives are easily the most valuable result a batter can have when making contact as there is little time for defenders to react when fielding them. Grounders are a distant second place and fly balls bring up the rear in terms of batting average. In order to generate his power, Dozier has to hit a ton of fly balls. Unfortunately, that leads to plenty of can-of-corn flies to outfielders and infield pop-ups, destroying his batting average in the process. Thus, he had to make a decision: Sacrifice the batting average to hit a bunch of homers, or give up the fly balls and resulting power in order to earn more singles. With his batted ball profile, there's just no way that Dozier can be a high-average, high-power hitter.
This leads in to a suggestion as to why Dozier is struggling to start the year. He's not hitting for average or power right now, so pitchers have finally adjusted and have ceased to throw anything inside to Dozier. After all, if he's trying to pull everything thrown at him, it makes sense that pitchers would fight back by throwing nothing inside unless it was a mistake.
Well, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango. Dozier is fully capable of making adjustments himself and in fact that's exactly what he's done. The solution? To turn the outside strike into a pitch that's grooved right down the middle.
But wait, how could a hitter change where the pitch is thrown? Come on, I'm not actually trying to suggest something that violates the laws of physics. Rather, I'm saying that by adjusting where he stands in relation to the plate, Dozier has been able to easily pull pitches that would be classified as "outside." Behold noted pull hitter Trevor Plouffe, who drove this center-cut pitch to left field for a home run:
Now compare that to Brian Dozier, who also hit a home run on a center-cut (actually, arguably middle-out) pitch:
Comparing the two stances, you can easily see that Dozier is standing closer to the plate before the pitcher starts his delivery. Additionally, while each hitter's stride takes him slightly closer to the plate, we can see that Dozier's toe is nearly on the batter's box line while Plouffe's is still a good half-foot away. Oh, and that home run that Dozier hit? He lined it into Target Field's left field bleachers.
Simply put, pitchers might be pounding the outside of the zone to retire Dozier right now, but if their pitches drift even a few inches towards the heart of the plate, he's ready to pounce. This isn't a unique strategy either, as FanGraphs demonstrated with an excellent conversation between Eno Sarris and then-Oakland Athletic Brandon Moss:
"I get close to the plate, because people think I want the ball in, but it's really so that the pitch away becomes middle, and it's like a heart of the zone pitch. I hit in way better than I hit away, so I trust myself on the inside pitch and I make the outside pitch middle."
That is exactly the same thing that Dozier has done. Whether it's to counter the attack pitchers use on him or because it's a comfort thing like with Moss, Dozier stands very close to the plate in an effort to make more pitches easier to pull. In fact, he was quoted as saying that his struggles this season were caused by standing too close to home plate, as his stride left his front foot on top of the batter's box line instead of next to it. Whether it was due to Dozier just having some better luck at the plate or from his adjustment in the batter's box, he has hit .280/.379/.400 in his past two weeks prior to Tuesday's game. No, the power hasn't fully returned yet, but he's made up for that with an uptick in batting average and he's continued to draw walks at his above-average rate.
In short, it's entirely possible Dozier has/had been struggling with the outside pitch, but he's already been doing what he could to fight back against opposing pitchers. I get the feeling his slump at the beginning of this year was more due to some bad luck and with a little more time, we'll see him return to the standard Brian Dozier that we've come to love over the past three seasons.