FORT MYERS, Fla. – The pressure was mounting. Each swing mattered. The score was tied, and connecting on a fat pitch would win the game, electrify the tense crowd, crush the losers. “I was a little nervous, to be honest,” Brian Dozier said.
It didn’t show. Dozier let a couple pitches go by, then unleashed his high-in-the-zone uppercut and launched a blast that easily cleared the fence in left field and nearly carried over the one beyond it. His teammates cheered and congratulated him. Another Dozier walk-off.
You never got to see this one on “SportsCenter,” though, and it won’t show up on any stat sheet. It came Thursday on a back field at Twins camp, when bored players livened up off-day batting practice with an impromptu home run derby. Having already won the hit-the-base-on-the-fly-from-90-feet-away contest — bored players, remember? — Dozier’s squad outslugged a team that included muscular power hitter Miguel Sano.
“Little man,” Sano laughed later, shaking his head. “Big bat.”
That’s a decent description of Dozier or any of his second-base brethren these days. Last season, 23 second basemen reached double digits in home runs, led by Dozier’s record-setting 42, and 11 hit 20 or more. In the entire decade of the 1980s, only nine second basemen managed to reach 20.
“When I came up, second base, with just a few exceptions, was a defense-first position. [They were] glove men. A lot of them batted ninth, and making all the plays was how you earned playing time,” said Twins manager Paul Molitor, whose first three seasons (1978-1980) were spent mostly at second. “With the way offenses are now, you’re at a disadvantage if you don’t have at least occasional power [there]. It seems like a lot of teams have a middle-of-the-order guy there now, far more than I can ever recall.”
Just in the Twins’ own AL Central Division, Jason Kipnis of the Indians crushed 23 homers and added 41 doubles in 2016 while batting third, and Tigers leadoff hitter Ian Kinsler belted 28 homers. In the West, Seattle’s Robinson Cano enjoyed perhaps the best season of a great career, hitting 39 homers; Roughned Odor of Texas had 33; and Houston’s Jose Altuve won the batting title and collected 216 hits, 24 of them home runs. And in the East, there’s Jonathan Schoop in Baltimore (25 home runs), Starlin Castro (21) in New York, and the player Dozier considers perhaps the best of them all.
“Dustin Pedroia — he’s my kind of guy,” Dozier said of the Red Sox second baseman, the 2008 AL Most Valuable Player. “Not many people thought he would be a great player, and he is. He’s a leader and he does damage in the middle of the lineup. His mentality and mine are kind of the same.”
The National League is loaded with star-caliber second basemen, too, such as Washington’s Daniel Murphy and the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist, and up-and-comer DJ LeMahieu of the Rockies. So where are all these great middle infielders coming from? Is this a fluke or a trend?
“The game has changed. Power wins, at the plate and on the mound. We’re all looking for power now,” said Mike Radcliff, the Twins’ vice president for player personnel for the past decade. “Where [a scout] used to put a premium on speed or quickness, now you want guys who can profile with at least average power.”
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily explain Dozier, who wasn’t drafted at all as a junior at Southern Miss and lasted until the eighth round after his senior season, signing for the relative pittance of $30,000. One or two of the Twins’ in-house projections saw him developing into a 15-18 home run hitter, but the great majority of scouting reports put a ceiling of perhaps 10 homers — if he could somehow earn regular playing time.
“He’s got good hands, you can see that. But bat speed, power, range, arm, speed — he’s an average runner, not a stopwatch guy — there were no must-draft [recommendations],” Radcliff said. “I wish I could say we saw this. Our reports were, he’s got good makeup. He’s someone who might maximize what talent he has. And there’s no doubt, that’s what he’s done.”
Sure seems like it. The slightly-under-6-foot Mississippian might not look the part, but he is a bona fide slugger now, becoming the only Twin other than Harmon Killebrew to eclipse 40 homers in a season. And if you think Dozier’s record-setting 2016 season — no AL second baseman had ever reached 40 before — is a one-season bolt of lightning, know this: Dozier has now led the Twins in homers for four consecutive seasons.
Only one other player in franchise history has ever done that, too: Yep. Killebrew.
“It really is remarkable. I saw Barry Bonds in his prime. I saw [Mark] McGwire and [Sammy] Sosa get hot. And that streak he went through last season, he’s up there with them. I mean, hitting them every night,” Radcliff said of Dozier’s 36-game stretch from July 31 to Sept. 6, when he launched 22 home runs. “And he used to just smack them barely over the fence — now he’s hitting the ball a long, long way.”
Reluctant middle man
Funny thing is, he’s one of the best at a position that, if he’s being honest, he doesn’t want to play. Dozier was a shortstop in high school, college, and throughout the minor leagues, despite scouts questioning his throwing arm. When he arrived in Minnesota in 2012, he started exactly half the Twins’ games at shortstop, then went to winter ball to work on his technique.
When he got back, Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire conference-called the infielder, and their message was blunt.
“They said, ‘No more shortstop.’ From now on, everything is second base,” Dozier said. “I was driving during the call, and I still remember thinking they might have given up on me a little too quick. It was never like, ‘Well, let’s clean some things up, let’s work on a couple things.’ I don’t think I was given a shot.”
It was a blow to his pride, Dozier said, being told to revert to “a fallback position. … Deep down, it’s someone telling you you’re not good enough,” he said.
But he’s also grateful, if a little grudgingly, because he’s thrived at the position.
Yet the combination of a last-place team, a second-tier media market and a suddenly star-laden position makes Dozier a bit of an obscurity, still. He wasn’t chosen to join Team USA at the World Baseball Classic, despite his desire to go. He’s never appeared among the top five at his position in All-Star voting.
“You see top-10 lists come out, I’m not sure Dozier is ever very high on anyone’s list. He’s always getting overlooked,” Radcliff said. “Then he tomahawks one ball after another over the fence. Nobody else’s second baseman hits 42 home runs.”