After being blessed with a resurgent Daniel Murphy for the previous three seasons, the Washington Nationals had to go searching for a new second baseman this offseason.
With Carter Kieboom still a little way off of being major league ready, Brian Dozier was the ideal one-year candidate. The former Minnesota Twin was hoping to bounce back in the nation’s capital after a down-year in 2018.
Unfortunately, his performances have continued to crater, starting the season with a measly .121/.171/.212 slash line. Despite this lackluster performance, the Nationals are still sticking with him in the second spot in the lineup.
“He’s going to play, and we need him,” manager Dave Martinez said following Monday’s game. “I know Doze, he’s going to hit his share of home runs, he’s going to play good defense, and he’s a big part of our offense.”
Now, there is a little bad luck involved as his BABIP currently sites at just .136, which is far from sustainable. Unfortunately, his peripherals don’t exactly paint a particularly promising picture and explain the dangerously low BABIP.
Following Tuesday night’s game, Dozier has a lowly 69.4% contact rate, according to Fangraphs. That’s a significant difference from his career 80.9% figure.
He also has a troubling 65.2% ground ball rate, a huge difference from his career 37.6%, per FanGraphs. That comes from a pitiful average launch angle of 0.5º compared to 17.7º figure since the start of 2015, with the MLB average in that time being 10.9º.
On top of all of that, his average exit velocity of just 83.4mph ranks 273th out of 305 qualifiers, according to Baseball Savant. It’s just ugly reading for all involved.
Looking at Baseball Savant’s xwOBA, which combines all these factors to provide an expected weighted on-base average, he currently holds a .212 figure. To put that in perspective, over his career, he sports a .317 xwOBA.
It seems clear that something mechanically has changed, resulting in the increase in soft contact, as well as the frequent swings and misses.
In the following GIF from the third game of the season, there are a few red flags:
First off, Dozier appears to be taking up a relatively closed stance, compared to previous seasons, which we’ll compare with in a bit. With a closed stance, he’s attempting to stay on pitches away and hopefully, pull the ball a bit less.
But instead, it’s throwing off his other mechanics, as you can see during the second pause, his front arm is getting extended very quickly. That means that when he begins to rotate, his back arm is playing catch up, which causes him to roll over into an easy groundout.
If we compare those mechanics to a GIF from his days as a Twin where he blasted a double off the wall, it’s easy to see why he looks uncomfortable:
In this clip, Dozier essentially does the opposite of both of the points we raised above about his groundout against the Mets.
His stance is almost square here as you can barely see his back foot, which seems to loosen him up a lot. And clearly, given the high-and-away location of the pitch, Dozier doesn’t need that closed stance in order to get to the pitch on the outer-part of the zone.
On the second freeze in the GIF, it’s a very subtle difference, but his front arm doesn’t fully extend until he makes contact. The way to tell is seeing less of his skin between his elbow guard and gloves compared to the first clip.
Now, we just saw Dozier hit his first home run of the season against the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday evening. It was a towering blast off of Pat Neshek in the ninth to pull the Nats within one, though they would just fall short.
In the game, he was still using the closed stance that we saw in the first GIF against the Mets.
You can see that in the clip below from a chopper Dozier hit to third baseman Maikel Franco in the sixth inning.
But what we want to focus on during this swing is the fact that as he’s making contact, he maintains that closed stance, keeping his front foot planted. That’s causing the early extension as he essentially fights around that planted leg to make contact.
The pitch from Seranthony Dominguez was pretty much middle-middle in the zone, though it did have some vicious sliding action. The closed mechanics and the nasty slider caused yet another grounder he could only weakly roll over.
However, on his home run swing, despite that closed stance, he was able to muscle the ball over the wall in center. There’s a small difference that allowed him to do it in the below GIF.
On this particular swing, as he was making contact, his front foot opened up slightly, giving him more freedom to let loose that prestigious power he has. That allowed him to keep his back hand underneath the baseball, rather than rolling over into a soft groundout.
With that in mind, a change that would seem to make a lot of sense for Dozier to try is a slightly more square stance. That would have a similar effect to his plant-foot opening up as it did on the home run, but allow him to do it more consistently moving forward.
As we saw in the GIF of Dozier with the Twins, using this squarer stance worked to great effect, so going back to that may be the key to getting the Nationals’ second baseman right.
Doing this may result in him becoming a pull-heavy hitter again, just as he has been much of his career. But that would be perfectly fine if it means he can get back towards the success he had in 2016 and 2017.
He was also able to track the changeup well from Neshek with it’s break back into the hitter.
That’s something he’s been making an effort to do better lately, working with Nationals hitting coach, Kevin Long.
“He’s been working with [Long] on just staying on the ball” Martinez told reporters on Monday.
“Trying to use the whole field, and like I said, his first at bat he hit the ball pretty well to right field and that’s a good indication that things are coming.”
“I said, ‘When you start doing that, it’s coming,’ so and then he was able to hit the home run there in the ninth inning, so that’s great.”
Now the Nationals are hoping that the home run, as well as the infield single on Tuesday night, will help boost his confidence and get the second baseman rolling this season.
“There are little things, nuances in the game when you’re hitting, you say, ‘Oh, I stayed on that ball, that’s a good sign, here we go,’” Martinez said. “He did that, and he got a ball off of Neshek, which isn’t easy for a right-handed hitter, and hit it over the center field wall.”
At the time, Dozier looked like a great bit of low-risk, high-reward business for one year and $9 million. But he’ll need to start hitting soon, or he risks losing his hold on a top-of-the-order spot in the lineup, or worse, a starting job if Kieboom rakes in Fresno.