Brian Dozier hit his first homer of the season Wednesday on a 2-1 fastball from reigning AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fullmer. It was Dozier’s 20th career leadoff home run, tying Jacque Jones’ club record.
Dozier has led off 324 times since he joined the Twins — nearly 60 percent of the games he’s started in Minnesota — and the second baseman looks entrenched there after a 2016 season in which he batted .261/.325/.592 and hit 27 home runs from the top spot.
Although he has stolen a league-leading (for whatever that’s worth on April 13) three bases in three chances in 2017, Dozier isn’t your prototypical, fleet-footed leadoff hitter. Dozier doesn’t want to hit the ball on the ground and run around all quick-like. In his six-year career, the Itawamba Agriultural High School graduate has posted a 0.57 GB/FB ratio. He prefers The Air Up There to Joe Dirt, I guess is what I’m saying.
Ignoring the pointless 2017 data, Dozier’s batted-ball profile is trending in an obvious direction: more fly balls, fewer grounders. Brian Dozier, leadoff hitter, likes dropping his shoulder and whooping spheres into the stratosphere.
Dozier coupled that increase in incline with a propensity to yank balls to left.
The desire to elevate the ball to the pull side while batting atop a team’s order isn’t unusual in modern baseball; as the Ringer’s Zach Kram wrote a couple weeks ago, today’s MLB leadoff hitters are hitting for more power and drawing more walks than ever while also eschewing the steal. Wee Willie Keeler these fellas are not.
But, unlike a Carlos Santana or a Kyle Schwarber, Dozier doesn’t use his No. 1 spot to force pitchers to rack up high pitch counts or to try and work a walk if he can’t smash a round-tripper. Dozier ain’t got time for that.
Last season, Dozier led off 73 games for the Twins. In those 73 leadoff plate appearances, he hit six home runs; he did not walk once.
Dozier Leading Off Game
Jon Jay was the only other MLB leadoff hitter who didn’t walk once in a leadoff plate appearance in 2016, and he played four fewer games than Dozier, per the Baseball Reference Play Index.
Leadoff Hitters Who Hated Walks in 2016
Look at all those #oldfriends! It’s like the Twins have a type or something...
Unlike Jay — who not only didn’t walk but also couldn’t muster a single dinger and honestly probably had no earthly idea why he was continually being allowed to lead off — Dozier ignores walking in hopes he can pepper the outfield bleachers more regularly.
Brian Dozier came here to do two things: smack dongs and gel his hair, and he’s all out of hair gel. (Just joshing. He’s never out of hair gel.)
Dozier enjoys the leadoff spot not because he likes working counts, but for the preponderance of straight balls, especially early in the count. Last year, Dozier hit everything pretty damn hard, but he’s always mashed fastballs, per Fangraphs’ weighted pitch values.
Dozier knows that the first pitch of the game is usually a fastball and he’s ready to jump on it. (h/t to Twins Daily’s John Bonnes, who mentioned Dozier’s leadoff aggressiveness in a recent episode of “Gleeman and the Geek” and got me thinking about the topic.)
Here’s Ian Kennedy’s first pitch of the April 5 Twins-Royals game.
Hmm. That is not a traditional get-me-over fastball. Perez is set up on the outside corner, knee-high, and Kennedy misses down and away. Now why would Kennedy be skittish throwing a first-pitch cookie to Dozier to lead off the game?
Oh, goodness. I see.
That moonshot came on Sept. 5, 2016, two starts earlier. I’m sure Kennedy hadn’t forgotten Dozier’s cold welcome the season prior.
Kennedy avoided Dozier on the first pitch because Dozier has developed a bit of a reputation: as his power has grown, so too has his first-pitch boldness, according to Brooks Baseball. (The following charts are from 2013-2016, starting with ‘13.)
From 2013 to 2015, Dozier became a batter looking to jump on that first-pitch fastball, and opposing pitchers obliged him by generally throwing the ol’ No. 1.
But in 2016, Dozier saw far more first-pitch junk and adjusted his approach accordingly by laying off more initial offerings.
Even with the slight change in approach, Dozier was a terrific first-pitch hitter last season, ranking 11th in MLB in first-pitch OPS, per the Play Index.
But everyone’s OPS is better on the first pitch; you only swing at the first pitch if it’s a cookie and it looks tasty. If you hit it, it generally goes well.
Dozier’s desire to do damage to open the game — and not to work a count or get on base any way possible — actually hurt his team last season. He didn’t walk, as mentioned above, and his OBP was a putrid .274. Not ideal for a No. 1 hitter. When leading off a game, Dozier’s OPS was 12 percent worse than his other plate appearances.
When Dozier’s aggressiveness pays off, like on Wednesday against Fullmer, batting him leadoff feels like a perfect marriage between approach and opportunity. Dozier likes fastball, and batting leadoff provides him with more. There is also the perfectly sound argument that batting your best hitter in the top spot allows him the maximum number of plate appearances and optimizes a team’s lineup.
But solo homers are solo homers, and “20 leadoff home runs” is just another way of saying “20 solo home runs.” And if the leadoff spot emboldens Dozier to the detriment of his on-base abilities, and the best we can hope for is a solo home run, is the leadoff spot the best place for Dozier?