On the roller coaster ride that is the Washington Nationals’ 2019 season, the performance of some players has been strapped in on the same up-and-down track. One of those is Brian Dozier, whose season has done a sharp U-turn.
After signing in the offseason for $9 million, the second baseman was off to a bleak start with the Nationals. He collected just two hits in his first 26 plate appearances and was slashing .169/.222/.288 through his first 17 contests.
Dozier has always been a slow starter in his career. In March and April, he owns a career .680 OPS, the lowest of any month in his career. His .723 OPS in May isn’t far behind, coming in at second-lowest. But even by his standards, this sluggish start was worrying.
Even with the struggles, the Nats kept him in the lineup regularly to try and get him going.
It certainly wasn’t an easy decision to do so, and it was one that was made tougher by Howie Kendrick’s incredible season. However, it finally seems to be paying off with the way Dozier is hitting right now.
“If I didn’t have that confidence in him, he wouldn’t have played as much as he has,” manager Dave Martinez told reporters when asked if he had confidence in a turnaround.
“I always say things about numbers. At the end of the year, you are who you are,” Martinez explained. “We know he’s going to hit, and the numbers, like I tell them, ‘Hey, your numbers are going to be pretty much the same as what they typically are, barring injuries, so just play.’”
But lately, Dozier has been one of the better hitters on the team, if not the entire National League. Since May 17th, the second baseman has been scalding hot, slashing an impressive .339/.391/.677 with five home runs and 16 RBI.
In that same stretch, he has a 172 wRC+, which ranks 11th in the NL over that span, just behind teammate Anthony Rendon. His stellar stretch has been highlighted by a strong series in San Diego, going a combined 5-for-12 with two home runs in the three games so far.
“He gives [the lineup] length,” Martinez said following Saturday’s game. “But here’s a guy who his whole career has hit home runs. What I like is that he’s playing good defense, he’s doing all the little things, and now he’s starting to swing the bat really well.”
“That’s what we knew about a healthy Brian Dozier, that he can do those things.”
The lofty slash line he’s put up lately is hardly a fluke either. According to Statcast, Dozier owns a .325 expected batting average so far in June, as well as a .472 expected wOBA.
“He’s on time every pitch, which is helping him stay back and see the ball a little bit better,” Martinez said following Thursday’s game. “We’ve said this before, he’s a very slow starter, and we knew that, now all of a sudden things are starting to click for him.”
“He’s going to hit his homers, you now, but I love the fact that he’s starting to use the whole field, especially with guys on base.”
Early on in the season, Dozier was continually rolling over the ball, causing a huge spike in grounders which pointed to a mechanical flaw in his swing. So it looks as though some work with hitting coach Kevin Long has helped him get back towards his old self.
“He’s starting to swing the bat better,” Martinez said of Dozier in May. “He’s working with K-Long, and they’re trying to really stay in the middle of the field, and he’s actually had some really good swings as of late, so hopefully he keeps going.”
Since those awful first 17 games, he’s slashed .263/.363/.489 with eight homers and 21 RBI. The mechanical change has caused an increase in launch angle from 8.4° to 20.7° as Dozier sips on some of the Kevin Long Launch Angle Kool-Aid.
To put that stretch in perspective, in 2016 and 2017 - the two seasons he finished in the top 15 in AL MVP voting - he slashed a combined .269/.349/.522. Pretty similar to his slash line since the early season struggles.
And while he’s in a groove at the plate, he’s also providing solid, if perhaps unspectacular, defense. Put it all together, and you have a player who is third in the NL in fWAR among second baseman and seventh in the majors since April 21st.
“The beautiful thing about him is he’s a grinder, he’s a gamer,” Martinez said last month. “If you watch him play, he takes pride in defense and today he made some really good plays, but he’s starting to swing the bat better.”
There’s still a lot of season left to go and Dozier probably won’t quite keep up the tear that he’s on over the last couple of weeks. But what he has proven is that the player he was at his peak in Minnesota is still alive and well. Buckle up, he’s going to be fun to watch.