OAKLAND, CALIF. – Brian Dozier likes to apply pressure on pitchers right from the first pitch.
“He puts everyone on high alert when he comes up to hit,” Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky said.
That’s because Dozier could swing at that first pitch — and deposit it in the stands.
“Everybody in our dugout is on the top step when he comes up to lead off a game because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “A lot of times, it’s something really good.”
Dozier, fresh off making his first American League All-Star team in his fourth year, already has hit 20 home runs, only three below his career high set last year. The second baseman has led off a game with a homer five times this season.
The Twins dropped two of three games to Oakland over the weekend, but the game they won came after Dozier belted a leadoff home run off fellow All-Star Sonny Gray. That was Dozier’s 11th home run in his past 39 games, a torrid power-hitting pace that likely was the reason he was named an All-Star as an injury replacement (it’s actually 12 home runs in 40 games if you want to count his blast in the All-Star Game off Pittsburgh’s Mark Melancon).
That stretch also included a pair of walk-off home runs, one on July 6 when he connected for a two-run shot off Baltimore’s Tommy Hunter in the 10th inning, the other on July 10 when he hit a three-run homer off Detroit closer Joakim Soria — on the first pitch — to cap a five-run, ninth-inning rally. In a span of five days, Dozier hit the first pitch of the game and the last pitch of the game for home runs.
With 70 games to go, Dozier has a chance to be the first Twins player to hit at least 30 homers in a season since 2012, when Josh Willingham hit 35.
Dozier has been the Twins’ most valuable player to this point, the reason why they are in the wild-card hunt as they prepare to face the Angels on Tuesday in Anaheim, Calif.
He isn’t a typical leadoff hitter. He can draw walks, but he goes to the plate looking to punish the baseball rather than work for a free pass. The Twins are 34-14 when they score first, so Dozier’s first-inning thunder should not be underestimated.
“When you see a guy go out there and be aggressive, it puts [opponents] on their heels,” Brunansky said. “It puts us in a good frame of mind. And it puts a run on the board. Now it’s like, ‘Who’s next?’ ”
While a leadoff hitter in title only, Dozier demonstrates what the Twins want from their batters: Get a good pitch to hit and pound it.
“When there was a runner on second and nobody on, I was trying to get him over,” Dozier said. “And that was the first thing Mollie said: ‘Don’t try to get him over unless I tell you to get him over. I want you to drive him in. I don’t want you to be the leadoff hitter.’ ”
Dozier appreciates Molitor allowing him to be his own hitter.
“My swing doesn’t work when I’m not aggressive,” Dozier said. “I like trying to get the ball out in front.”
He’s not kidding. Dozier pulls the ball 62.3 percent of the time, easily the most in baseball. The Yankees’ Mark Teixeira is next at 56.4 percent. In response to that, teams have shifted their infield defenses around to the left against Dozier, sometimes putting three fielders between second and third base.
Does it bother Dozier? “No,” he said.
He’s trying to drive the ball over them anyway.
And fans might miss something if they show up late to the park with Dozier in the lineup. While his home run off Soria is his only first-pitch homer of the season, he regularly takes a cut at the first pitch he sees. He’s batting .344 with the count 0-0 this year. That mentality also came at Molitor’s behest.
Midway through last season, Molitor asked Dozier why he didn’t swing at the first pitch more often, and Dozier replied that he was batting leadoff.
“He said, “I used to swing almost every time,’ ” Dozier said. “He said since I’m a fastball hitter, I should go up and ambush. Ever since then, if I get one over the plate, I’m whacking.”
So don’t be late and don’t leave early when Dozier’s in the lineup. Because he can start and end a game by putting a ball in the seats.
“I love making pitchers feel uncomfortable,” Dozier said.