There’s this town in Wisconsin near where I grew up. To put it bluntly, it stinks. Not in the high school sports “you stink!” sense, the town actually smells bad. It is home to some paper mills, and the byproduct of paper mills is a certain odor. I don’t mean to make it as if the place smells like a garbage dump or sewer, but it’s pungent enough to cause a nose wrinkle. That is, it wrinkles the noses of the outsiders. The people who live there, the people exposed to it every day, they don’t notice it anymore. It’s the phenomenon known as the shifting baseline. When a town has smelled the same way for so long, people tend to shift their perspectives about how towns should smell. This idea, of course, applies to pretty much anything. But for this town in Wisconsin, it’s the smell. For the Minnesota Twins, it’s the middle infield.
The Minnesota Twins have put up some pretty poor seasons as of late. But they were pretty good not that long ago having made the playoffs six times between 2002 and 2010 (what they did in those playoff games is a different story). They have employed Johan Santana when he was good, Francisco Liriano when he was good the first time, Joe Nathan, Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter, a pre-concussion Justin Morneau, and even squirreled some late-career heroics out of Jim Thome in the past few years. They were a mid-market team in a fairly
week weak division, and some good development and some luck swung in their favor. Their middle infield has been an exception, however.
The middle infield for the Twins has been a veritable wasteland for the past 15 years. Players like Luis Rivas, Alexi Casilla, Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes, Brendan Harris, Cristian Guzman, Juan Castro, Adam Everett, Eduardo Escobar, and Tsuyoshi Nishioka have been the Twins’ representation up the middle. They traded Carlos Gomez for J.J. Hardy. They then traded J.J. Hardy for two relievers who have yet to make the majors. Nishioka was supposed to be their next big hope, as they paid $5.3 million in posting fees to negotiate bringing him over from Japan. He stunk, broke his leg, came back and continued to stink. They sent him and his $3 million salary to Triple A for 101 games, in fact, to no avail. It’s been a rough going, is the point of this paragraph.
And so when one Brian Dozier provided even the faintest hint of being close to decent, the Twins looked like they may have shaken their no-hit-infielder blues. Dozier was drafted as a college shortstop in the 8th round of the 2009 draft. He played multiple infield positions in the minors, but got most of his work in at shortstop. When he was called up in 2012, he was deposited at short. It did not go well. He had a dismal 64 wRC+ while being so-so defensively. The Twins were struggling as a team, so they had no problem letting Dozier try and work things out during the season. It never happened. It seemed as if Dozier was destined to succumb to the destiny of Twins infielders past.
In 2013, Minnesota decided to place Pedro Florimon‘s glove at short. Florimon can’t hit either, but the Twins saw his glove as at least some kind of asset at the position. Dozier was moved to second base, and, at least in comparison to past performances, flourished. His defense improved. He started hitting for more power, knocking 18 homers in 623 PA. He nearly doubled his walk rate. Everything was coming up Brian Dozier. By now, you’ve clicked on Brian Dozier’s player page and seen that his 2013 performance ended with a 101 wRC+. This is true. But for Twins fans, he must seem like a godsend. The baseline has shifted a little over the past 15 years.
These are the Twins second baseman since 1998 who have accumulated at least 400 PA in a season.
Dozier comes in tied for second in WAR, and tied for second in hitting. I’m going to repeat that for clarity; over the past 15 years of Twins second baseman, the second-best hitting performance came in at 101 wRC+.
So, what changed? What turned Dozier from a failed experiment at shortstop to a viable option at second? He turned 26 near the start of the 2013 season and had three full seasons in the minors, so it’s not as if he was rushed. Though he could just be a late bloomer, that’s not out of the question. He cut down on his overall swing percentage, with a 10% drop in swings at pitches outside of the zone. It could be that he needed more time against major league pitching to figure things out. Another component could come from his switching defensive positions.
While it’s hard to quantify, there are many stories of players turning things around offensively after switching to a position they were more comfortable in. If defensive metrics are telling a true tale, Dozier didn’t seem all that comfortable at short. One of his bigger problems was getting the ball to first. While errors certainly don’t tell the whole story, he committed nine throwing errors at short in 2012 versus just one at second in many more attempts in 2013. It could be that his arm just wasn’t strong enough, or it could be that his lack or range lead to hurried and off-balance throws. He seems to have decent enough range, but could also have been getting help from Florimon in reducing the ground he needs to cover.
It could be that the reduced pressure of playing second helped him at the plate. Perhaps not having to work as hard on defense allowed him more time in the cage, or just a clearer head in the batters box. It could be that these things are mutually exclusive, but it’s probably a safe bet that the defensive move helped his hitting at least a little.
Steamer, Oliver, and ZiPS project Dozier to regress offensively. Oliver sees a big jump in defense, but the others see it staying about the same. He’s only had one season at second, so it becomes hard to project, especially if the uptick in offense thanks to the defensive switch is a real thing. The Twins are on the upswing, but still have a good amount of things to address. Their bullpen was pretty much the only bright spot last season. They have some heavy hitters coming up in the system, and have switched philosophies slightly when it comes to pitching — looking to collect more hard-throwing pitchers rather than their usual low-velocity strike throwers. If Dozier can play well enough to keep his spot, he may be around long enough to see the team’s latest renaissance. If he does, the middle-infield baseline will have shifted for the first time in a long time for Minnesota.