If there is one relationship that defines and explains the Twins’ unexpected six-week display of excellence, it is the bond between their Hall of Fame manager and the rising star who plays his old position, and role.
When Paul Molitor was a coach, he and Brian Dozier were tied at the hip.
Now they’re tied at the fingertip.
“We’ve got the handshake,” Dozier said. “The ‘Ignitor.’ ’’
That was Molitor’s nickname when he batted leadoff for Harvey’s Wallbangers in Milwaukee. When Molitor gifted that mentality to Dozier, he became the rare player capable of leading a big-league team in home runs and steals.
“It took me until the middle of last year to become really aggressive,” Dozier said. “Even when I was put in the leadoff spot in 2013 for most of the year, I was real tentative. I always wanted to take pitches, draw walks.
“Mollie sat me down halfway through the year and said, ‘Why do you keep letting that first-pitch fastball go by?’ I said, ‘Well, ‘I’m trying to work the count, see pitches.’ He said, ‘Man, I used to swing at that pitch all the time.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re a Hall of Famer, so I must be doing something wrong.’ Since then, I’ve been more in attack mode.”
Dozier is leading the Twins in home runs for the third consecutive season, with nine. He is hitting .251 with a .503 slugging percentage and an .833 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
Dozier might currently be the best second baseman in the American League, and he credits his former coach and current manager with more than making him an effective leadoff hitter.
“Mollie also transformed the way I prepare for games,” Dozier said. “A couple of years ago, I was fighting for a roster spot and moving from shortstop to second, and he started teaching me how to prepare for a game. It used to be, I’d get to the field, study the opposing pitcher and take batting practice, and I thought I was ready.
“Mollie changed that. Every stadium, he’d have me measuring leads from the infield cutouts, measuring out to 14 feet from each base so you could visualize it. We’d roll balls down the lines to see which was the grass was leaning. Throw balls down the right-field line to see how far the stands jut out and where the ball would bounce.”
Twins history is filled with effective-yet-unconventional leadoff hitters, and so was Target Field on Tuesday.
Radio broadcaster Dan Gladden led off for the two World Series champs despite a relatively low on-base percentage. Jacque Jones, who visited the clubhouse Tuesday and shook Dozier’s hand, seemed more likely to hit a home run than walk.
There are two theories about lineup construction. One holds that the leadoff hitter should be the player with the highest on-base percentage. Another suggests that what is most important is getting your best hitters as many at-bats as possible.
Would Dozier bat Dozier leadoff?
“Yeah, I would, but eventually I think the best 1-2 is Danny Santana and myself,” he said. “He is going through some things right now as far as getting on base, and you have to get on base at the top of the order, but Danny is going to be the future leadoff hitter, in my opinion, for quite a while. He’s got tremendous talent.
“For now, I enjoy being the spark of the team, trying to get things going. I like that pressure.”
Once tentative, Dozier has become a first-pitch swinging, extra-base taking demon.
“The thing I love about Mollie as a manager is that he’s very aggressive,” Dozier said. “Failure? So be it. It’s a game of failure. He wants you to be aggressive, wants you to take extra bases, wants you to go down swinging. He wants you to attack. And that’s my game.”
It’s a handshake agreement.