There are some players whose numbers look bad but have some sort of saving grace. It can be good defense, good baserunning, or one category where they excel. You can usually find something to defend as to why they occupy a roster spot.
This is not that type of column.
Hunter Dozier is having a no-good, rotten, very bad season. There is no saving grace. There is no sugar-coating the kind of season he is having. He has regressed across the board from his breakout 2019 campaign. His defense is bad. He is not an elite baserunner. Every position he (sort of) plays has a younger, more promising player knocking on the door of the majors.
Simply put, there is no use anymore in trotting him out every day, where the bar is so low that your expectations for him are “just please hit above .200.” We are at the point where this disaster of a play was likely caused by Edward Olivares going after a ball he had no business catching, but the fan base almost universally blamed Dozier anyway, because it has been a frustrating season and he is an easy scapegoat.
Right or wrong, it has been earned. When you play a whole season and do not even cross the Mendoza Line until August, you have lost the benefit of the doubt.
How Bad Has Dozier Been?
Pick your numbers. Whether you are old-school, new-school, or somewhere in between, there are hardly any numbers that have been kind to Hunter Dozier this season.
Batting average? Third-worst out of 138 qualified MLB hitters. OPS? Fourth-worst out of that same group. WAR? Baseball Reference rates him at -2.9 WAR, far and away the worst in baseball. Fangraphs is not quite as harsh, but his -0.7 fWAR is the 31st-worst of over 1,400 MLB players and the worst among all qualified hitters.
Most of his Statcast numbers are way down on the wrong side of the league average. In all 17 of the main percentile rankings, Dozier’s 2021 percentile ranking is lower than his breakout 2019 season.
Even at his best, Dozier swung and missed considerably more than the average MLB hitter. Though, as we looked at with Salvador Perez, that does not prohibit a player from being productive, especially in the 21st century boom-or-bust game that baseball has devolved into.
However, when you already have holes in your swing, your walk rate falls below-average, your hard-hit rate goes down considerably, your barrel rate plummets, and your chase rate sinks considerably, you are in big, big trouble.
Also concerning is how Dozier stopped feasting on the two pitches he sees the most: the fastball and slider. In 2019, Dozier batted .289 and slugged .620 against four-seam fastballs, with the latter number putting him in the top 50 among nearly 300 players. Against sliders, he was one of the best hitters in baseball, batting .311 (fourth in MLB), and slugging .576 (third in MLB).
In 2021, those numbers have flipped. Against fastballs, Dozier is batting just .229 and slugging .441. Against sliders, he’s hitting .211, slugging .407, and has whiffed on a staggering 47.2% of them, the second-highest whiff rate in baseball on that pitch.
If we go back to bWAR, Dozier has been not just the worst player in baseball, but one of the worst in baseball’s modern era, dating all the way back to 1901. His ghastly -2.9 WAR is the 11th-worst in the past 120 years. The only comparable seasons in the 21st century belong to two famously bad seasons: Adam Dunn‘s 2011 season (-2.9 WAR) and Chris Davis in 2018 (-3.5 WAR), which is the only season worse than Dozier’s since 1998.
Where Did He Go Wrong?
The easy question to answer is why has Dozier has been so bad. The question that is tougher to tackle is where he went wrong and why did it happen.
The answer could very well be multi-pronged. First, Dozier dealt with a bout of COVID-19 that was symptomatic and delayed the start of his 2020 season. It appeared that even after recovering, the residual effects sapped his strength, resulting in lower power numbers and average exit velocity and hard-hit rate that both ranked in the 14th percentile during the shortened 2020 season. At the same time, though, Dozier had one of the top walk rates in baseball (89th percentile) and an above-average chase rate, showing excellent plate discipline.
Looking to put that behind him to start 2021, Dozier instead injured his thumb on Opening Day, probably came back a too early, slid into a miserable start and never recovered. Whether that’s an excuse or a legitimate reason why he is still struggling mightily several months later, it sure didn’t help matters.
At the same time, it is also possible that 2019 was a bit of fool’s gold to start with. Perhaps in large part due to his already shaky swing-and-miss tendencies, his expected batting average (.255) and slugging percentages (.463) were considerably lower than his actual figures (.279 batting and .522 slugging). Now, those figures, with Dozier’s walk rate from 2019 would still make a productive major league player, but maybe the Royals were a little higher on him than they should’ve been.
With 2021 being a total bust, the Royals now face the ugly truth with Dozier: he’s already becoming an albatross. That’s because 2021 was the first year of a four-year contract extension that Dozier inked on March 1. The worst part about that deal? It really wasn’t necessary.
Dozier was not due to hit free agency until after the 2023 season. The extension only added one addition season, plus a team option for 2025. Not counting his $2.5 million he made this season, the Royals are now on the hook for a minimum of $21.75 million, including a $1 million buyout of the 2025 option, plus another $1.5 million if Dozier makes 1,575 plate appearances from 2021-23.
That contract is bad and getting worse every day, but at the same time, it is not prohibitively expensive either. As things stand, the Royals have $46.2 million committed in 2022 to Dozier, Perez, Carlos Santana, Mike Minor, and Whit Merrifield. The Royals also have eight players who are arbitration eligible, including Adalberto Mondesi, Brad Keller, and Scott Barlow.
However, having a relatively low amount of guaranteed money and with a 2021 payroll of only $85 million means that 2022 will likely still fall below $100 million. If the Royals decide to move Minor ($10 million) or Santana ($10.5 million) during the offseason, then the guaranteed dead money figure gets cut nearly in half.
Additionally, the Royals have help coming. Dozier’s primarily positions are first base, third base, and right field (none of which he plays terrible well), and the Royals have younger, cheaper, and higher-upside options who are very close to the major leagues.
The Royals are currently playing Adalberto Mondesi at third base down the stretch, and a shortstop logjam makes it likely that either him or Bobby Witt Jr. will be the Opening Day third baseman in 2022. Additionally, outfielder Kyle Isbel, likely the right fielder of the future, is back in the majors and has held his own in Kansas City so far. He seems like a likely starter there for 2022.
Finally, another former first-round pick in Nick Pratto has enjoyed a breakout season, with 29 homers and a .965 OPS across the two highest levels of the minors, putting him in line for a debut early in 2022, maybe even Opening Day. That means either DH or the bench for Dozier. The former will likely be filled on a rotating basis similar to 2021, with Salvador Perez getting primary reps, and others rotating through, with minor league home run leader MJ Melendez being a strong candidate to join that rotation next year.
The Royals have a lot of young talent ready to bust down the door to the big leagues, and when it all comes, there is simply no place for Dozier. The Royals certainly don’t want to pay him $7.5 million in 2022 and $9.25 million to ride the pine in 2023, so the best option for the Royals is to cut bait.
That decision won’t be easy for the Royals, especially with the capital invested in him as a former first-round pick and with the extension. But let’s face it: Dozier is 30 years old with only one good MLB season and a career -1.7 WAR. It’s time for the Royals to admit that Dozier is a bust and that continuing to trot him out every day is only going to hinder their efforts at contending in the near future.
Dayton Moore has repeatedly said that he intends to contend in the very near future. If he truly believes so, then he also needs to believe that Hunter Dozier just stands in the way of that goal.
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