The line jumped out at me when I read it in the Minnesota Twins press notes earlier this week; “Brian Dozier has hit 30 home runs in the last 365 days.” A look at the stat sheet showed something else of interest: The 27-year-old second baseman is on pace to draw 100 walks.
Thirteen months ago, Dozier had seven home runs and two dozen walks in a little over 400 big-league plate appearances. His batting average for the season was barely over the Mendoza Line. Then came a skull session with hitting coach Tom Brunansky, accompanied by some serious film work.
“On May 20 last year, in Detroit, Bruno and I broke down everything,” Dozier told me on Tuesday. “It was kind of sink-or-swim for me. I was on the verge of getting sent down, so I knew I had to make an adjustment. We got me more grounded – more in my legs – which made my pitch recognition better and my power go up.
“It was about getting my foot down. My foot was up in the air when I started my swing. I’d see a ball coming into the zone and start to swing, and if the ball started breaking away I’d already be committed. Now I’m able to see the ball longer.”
Not being familiar with his old mechanics, I asked Dozier to clarify. Did he get rid of a leg kick he’d been using as a timing mechanism?
“It wasn’t really a leg kick,” responded Dozier. “It’s basically that I was coming down on my toe instead of flat-footed. My foot could be down with my toe, but it still wasn’t down. My hip would start to fly open as I started my swing and I couldn’t stop it. Now I’m more grounded. We call that counting clicks. The more clicks you have once your foot is down, the longer you have to see the ball. Six to eight clicks is a really good thing and at the beginning of last year I only had three or four.”
Once again I needed some clarification. Could he better define “counting clicks”?
“It’s about being on time,” explained Dozier. “You can have a leg kick like Jose Bautista or you could be as quiet as Joe Mauer. It’s once your foot is down — click, click, click – to the point of contact. If I’m starting my swing and it’s one, two, three, bam!, that’s three clicks. That’s not good. What I’m referring to is the in-between from the time you get your foot down to the time you make contact. More clicks means your foot is down early and you can see the ball more.”
I asked Dozier how he views the relationship between power and walks. Is he drawing more free passes because he’s hitting home runs, or is he going deep because he’s seeing more pitches?
“I think it’s all about sticking with my plan,” responded Dozier after a long pause. “This is my third year and I’m learning which pitches, so to speak, I can hit out. I have a better idea of what I need to lay off of. When I get a pitch in my zone is when I try to crank it.”
The home run numbers stand out – especially for a middle infielder – as does the walk rate. Batting average is another story. Dozier’s slash line is .243/.355/.449. Is that a concern?
“Batting average is probably the most overrated stat in baseball,” said Dozier. “Your job is to get on base, so you want to keep your OBP up. You obviously want a good OPS as well. Scoring runs and driving them in are the most important things.”
Dozier isn’t the only one counting clicks and putting up numbers. Detroit Tigers outfielder JD Martinez is hitting .312/.342/.596. He’s also red hot. The erstwhile Astro is 14 for his last 31 and has left the yard four times in his last six games.
Martinez’s emergence isn’t dissimilar to Dozier’s. Their backstories differ, but each has turned a corner thanks to mechanical tweaking. Not satisfied with the arc of his young career, the 26-year-old Martinez decided to rework his swing over the offseason.
“A guy I was working with showed me all these commonalities of great hitters,” Martinez told me last month. “I saw that there were good things about my swing, but also some bad things. My swing was too in-and-out-of-the-zone. When we slowed it down on film, I could see my bat was in the zone for one or two clicks. Good hitters are in the zone for six to eight clicks.
“It was a matter of bat path. I’ve changed my swing so it’s more of a slight uppercut to be level with the angle of the pitch. My swing used to be more east to west. The bat was in the zone from here to here, then it was out. Now I’m in the zone longer, which allows my margin of error to be greater.”
Martinez was a .332 hitter in the minor leagues and showed plenty of potential in parts of three seasons in Houston. But while he displayed occasional power, he was all too susceptible to slumps. Opposing pitchers were doing a good job of exploiting his cold zones. Changes were in order.
“At this level, if you have a glitch in your swing, pitchers are going to find it,” said Martinez. “The big leagues are the big leagues. Here, it’s not about talent. It’s not about whether you can hit a 95-mph fastball or whether you can hit a slider. It’s a chess game and about making adjustments. If a pitcher sees you can’t hit a fastball in, he’s going to keep pitching you in. He’s going to find that hole and exploit it. Basically, I needed to change my swing to adjust to how I was being pitched.”
Martinez brought his new mechanics to the Venezuelan Winter League and found he was able to handle the pitches he used to struggle with. He continued to fine-tune his swing when he returned stateside, and reported to spring training anxious to finally establish himself in the Astros lineup. He was never given the chance. Houston released him in mid-March and Detroit picked him up a few days later.
“There’s not much I can say about that other than they wanted to go in another direction,” said Martinez. “I wish I’d have been given more time to show what I can do, but that’s what they decided. I’m not a negative person, so I’m not going to say anything bad about the Astros. I’m just happy the Tigers picked me up and are giving me an opportunity. It’s been hard to keep my timing down, not playing every day, but I’ve been able to prove to myself that the changes I made will work.”
Kevin Plawecki is proving himself in Double-A. The 23-year-old New York Mets catching prospect is hitting .329/.373/.493 in Binghamton. Just as importantly, he’s displaying improved defensive skills.
Drafted 35th overall in 2012 out of Purdue, Plawecki projects to hit for average at the big-league level. The former Big 10 Player of the Year uses the entire field and has excellent bat-to-ball skills. But he does need to improve his plate discipline. In 1,013 professional plate appearances he’s fanned 104 times and has drawn 81 walks. He’s not exactly backing down from his approach.
“If you’re not striking out, you’re obviously swinging the bat,” said Plawecki. “You have to swing to make contact. I understand I don’t have a lot of walks, but I’m a hitter, not a walker. I’ll take walks, but I don’t think anybody gets in the box looking for one. If the pitch is in the zone, I see no reason not to swing at it. Ultimately you’re trying to get a hit every time you’re up to bat.”
Binghamton manager Pedro Lopez acknowledges the former Boilermaker is a free-swinger, but also sees a lot to like. One thing he expects to improve is Plawecki’s power production, which has been surprisingly sparse for a player with a linebacker’s build. Plawecki has six home runs this year and 21 since entering pro ball.
“He uses the whole field and is good at making adjustments,” said Lopez. “I think the home runs are going to come in time. We all know power is the last thing to develop, and Kevin has good size. He has a good understanding of how to control the barrel, so it’s mostly a matter of learning the strike zone better. Once he starts doing a better job of laying off the marginal pitches and focusing on his hot zone, the power numbers will go up.”
He’s already upping his caught-stealing percentage, which is a respectable 33 percent this season. A good receiver, Plawecki made great strides with his throwing in spring training. Working with big league bench coach Bob Geren, and minor league catching coordinator Bobby Natal, he turned a question mark into a positive.
“It was about cleaning up my arm action,” explained Plawecki. “I was a little too long and kind of getting caught on my front side a little bit. In a sense, my arm was having to catch up to my body. We eliminated that and got everything working together.”
How close to big-league ready is Plawecki?
“He’s close, but I don’t want to put a time frame on him,” said Lopez. “That wouldn’t be fair. We have to remember this kid was in the South Atlantic League at the beginning of last year. I will say that he’s making good progress.”
Matt Wisler didn’t look like the top pitching prospect in the San Diego system in his first four Triple-A starts. The 21-year-old righthander was promoted to El Paso in May and proceeded to allow 21 runs in 13-and-a-third innings. It was a rude awakening for a hurler who’d breezed through the California League and dominated Double-A.
This year’s Baseball America Prospect Handbook lauds Wisler’s mental toughness and poise, and both were evident in the way he bounced back. In five appearances since, the Bryan, Ohio native has allowed 10 earned runs in 31-and-a-third innings.
“It was definitely tough,” Wisler said of his four-game debacle. “I was kind of playing head games with myself, over-thinking everything and wondering what I was doing wrong. I was in my head too much.
“I had one big inning every game and that killed me. You have to be able to stop the bleeding once you get guys on base, and I was allowing four or five runs before I knew it. I was letting the game speed up on me rather than settling down and making my pitches.”
Wisler had a 2.03 ERA last year in the hitter-friendly California League. What made his transition to the Pacific Coast League so tumultuous?
“The Cal League is a hitter’s league, but the PCL is a hitter’s league with better hitters,” explained Wisler. “Here, your mistakes get punished a lot more, and I was leaving balls up to get punished. I was giving up doubles and triples with guys on. I gave up a lot of home runs as well.
“I couldn’t command my fastball down in the zone. It was up, flat, and easy to hit. I was maybe overthrowing a little bit, especially in the first couple of games. When things started to unravel, I’d try to do too much instead of taking a step back and just making a good pitch. I was trying to blow it by hitters, and that’s not going to happen at this level.”
El Paso pitching coach Mike Cather knows Wisler well, having previously served as the Padres minor-league pitching coordinator. He agrees the youngster learned a lot in the lambastings.
“He found out making pitches is a lot more important than trying to out-stuff somebody,” said Cather. “He took some damage, but his learning curve is extremely steep. He figured things out pretty quickly.”
According to Cather, Wisler’s changeup usage is improving and his slider is average-plus with more depth than run. His two-seam fastball has good late action and his four-seam fastball has “another three or four mph under the hood for when he wants to go for a punch out.” Cather likes Wisler’s increased abilty to add and subtract, varying his fastball velocity between 89 and 95.
Wisler’s two- and four-seam usage is determined partly by feel, partly by handedness.
“It kind of depends on the day and the hitters,” explained Wisler. “If there are a ton of lefties I’m probably going to throw 55-60 percent two-seams. If there are a lot of righties I’m probably going to be 70 percent four-seams. How many arm-side pitches I’m throwing depends a lot on the lineup.”
Will Wisler get an opportunity to face a big league lineup this summer as a fresh-faced 21-year-old?
“I think there’s a significant chance he could pitch in San Diego this year,” said Cather. “It could be a spot start, or a two-start stint, just to get his feet wet. It could also be out of the bullpen. There are different ways to break a guy into a major league environment.”
Karsten Whitson signed with the Red Sox yesterday. An 11th-round pick this year out of the University of Florida, the 22-year-old righthander reportedly received a $100,000 bonus. In 2010 he turned down a reported $2.1 million after being taken ninth-overall by the Padres out of high school.
If Whitson regrets his earlier decision, he’s not letting on. When I spoke to him last week, he professed to being proud of what he’s accomplished over the past four years. Any looking back is done with positives in mind.
“My time at Florida was great,” said Whitson. “I went to the College World Series, won two SEC championships, and graduated [with a degree in psychology]. It was a very tough decision, but after doing some self reflection I though it was the right choice. I’d always been a huge Gators fan and it was a dream of mine to play there. I was able to do that, and now I’m following my dream to play professional baseball.”
I asked Whitson if bonus parameters were discussed prior to the 2010 draft.
“No,” replied Whitson. “ I got picked and they just kind of threw a number at me – what they valued me at – and talking with my family it seemed like pursuing an education and a degree was more important at that time in my life.”
Whitson went 8-1, 2.40 in his freshman season at Florida. Then came the injury that threw his future earnings further in doubt.
“My sophomore year, I felt some discomfort in my forearm,” explained Whitson. “I had a little tendonitis, and being the young player I was, I came back from that a little too fast, which led to some shoulder issues. There’s always been a lot of torque in my delivery, and pitching around the forearm soreness led to the internal impingement in my shoulder. There was some build-up on the joint — a callus building up on the nerve – so I decided to go ahead and get it cleaned up by Dr. Andrews.”
The 6-foot-4 righty threw in the mid-90s before the injury. That dropped to the high 80s before he went under the knife and missed the 2013 season. I asked Whitson where his velocity is now.
“My last college start was against LSU in the SEC tournament and my velo was great,” said Whitson. “I was 93 to 97 and my slider was up to 88. It’s all starting to come together for me, not just my shoulder, but also my feel. I missed some time over the past few years, but I’m heading in the right direction. I’m with a great organization that’s going to develop me the right way.”
As for the money he passed up four years ago, that will matter even less if he reaches the big leagues and goes on to earn a multi-year contract. His response when I suggested as much?
“Absolutely,” said Whitson. “Absolutely.”
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