NEW YORK -- Back in 2012, then-Minnesota Twins shortstop Brian Dozier hit .234/.271/.332 with six home runs. Robinson Cano hit .313/.379/.550 with 33 home runs. So it seems pretty remarkable that since 2013 began, Dozier now leads Cano in home runs by a second basemen, with 30 to Cano's 29.
The power surge, accompanied with a development of broad-based skills that have made Dozier a legitimate candidate to play, if not start, at second base for the American League All-Stars at his home stadium this July, came as a big surprise even to his manager, Ron Gardenhire.
"No, I don't think we all thought he'd hit 20 home runs," Gardenhire told me in the visiting manager's office at Yankee Stadium on Friday. "I don't think anybody thought that. I mean, 17 [actually 18] last year, something like that. He can drive a ball, he can turn on a ball, he can get the bat head out there. But that's not something I envisioned."
The power, it turns out, is a happy byproduct of a dramatically revamped approach. To expect it from someone who never cracked double digits in home runs in the minor leagues, whose season-high in home runs in college was five, wouldn't have made much sense. Nor is Dozier, visually, someone who looks like a power threat. He's listed at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds. See his 6-5 teammate Joe Mauer walk past him, and you'd figure Mauer is the home run leader on the Twins, but it is Dozier who leads the team in home runs with 11.
Standing in front of his locker, Dozier's intensity as he talks is constant. He's bought into what the Twins want him to do, at the plate and in the field, where the lifelong shortstop has transitioned to second base. He has the stats of a cornerstone player at age 27 and communicates like one, too.
To hear Dozier tell it, the team moving him to second served as the catalytic event for all of his growth as a player. It was striking to hear him speak with such honesty about his own unwillingness to change in the big leagues at first.
"To be honest with you, and in this dugout, across the league, they do the same thing," Dozier said. "They're young, we think that what you think is always right. And it's tough to come to the big leagues, let's do this different, this different -- well, let me test what I've got first, instead of being all ears like you should be.
"Everybody goes through that, and not saying I wasn't watching film, because I was, day-in and day-out. But it's the time that I really wanted to implement it, to do what it takes to be a true professional. You have to do it. It's night and day, to be honest with you."
So when Dozier sat down with Gardenhire and Twins general manager Terry Ryan following the 2012 season, he quickly realized his chance to succeed with the organization -- perhaps his final chance to start -- was in front of him. They asked Dozier to go down to Venezuela for winter ball and learn second base, with a chance to win the regular job at second if all went well.
"Once I really got the feeling, so to speak, where everything comes positioning-wise, where every ground ball I know to go this way, this way, this way," Dozier said, gesturing in different directions. "Where I knew where step-pull was for a left-handed hitter, where I knew where step-two-oppo was for a right-handed hitter, I just got comfortable over there, instead of the field feeling lopsided, everything kind of took off."
One key to that transition: Gardenhire made sure Dozier could focus on second base, and only second base.
"Once I got down to spring training that year , before workouts started, I was taking a bunch of ground balls at second, he was watching. And then I went over to shortstop, took a few. And he called me over and said, 'I never want you to take another groundball at shortstop until I tell you otherwise.' And to be honest, that's the last one I've taken."
I asked Gardenhire what he saw that convinced him Dozier would adapt so well to the new position. Certainly, having a manager who'd played both positions in the major leagues, as Gardenhire did, helped him evaluate Dozier's middle-infield options.
"Well the one thing, shortstop, you need to be a little more aggressive," Gardenhire said. "You have to come get the ball that's on the other side of the field. And Doz is one of these fielders that would kind of lie back. And every play at first base from shortstop would be bang-bang. And there'd be times when he'd lie back and a guy would beat it. So you start thinking about at second base, would be perfect, because you do lie back there a lot more.
"He's very athletic. He's turned out to be perfect for it. But you never know. You say, we'll put you over here and see what happens over here. You know at shortstop, we constantly tried to get him to move up in the field, play shorter, because he'd back up so much. And he was never comfortable there. He'd always go back, go back ... we knew he was a good player, good hands, good arm, he could swing it a little bit, he could run. So now you just have to find a fit for him. So you try the other side. ... It's worked out for him."
If that new fit in the field was an immediate success, the head-turning improvement at the plate took some additional adjustments. Dozier, playing second in 2013, hit .227/.277/.293 through May 1, with just six walks and no home runs in 84 plate appearances. He hit rock bottom as a hitter in Detroit, with consecutive multi-strikeout games, and an 0-for-9 over his first two games against the Tigers.
That's where he and hitting coach Tom Brunansky sought, and ultimately found, answers within the video he probably wouldn't have scoured quite so voraciously just a year before.
"Me and Bruno dissected all kinds of film," Dozier said. "I went 0-for-5 that night, couple of strikeouts. And all the strikeouts were fastballs down the middle. And that's one thing, I always thought I could hit a fastball. The other stuff always gave me trouble, but I could always hit a fastball. And I wasn't hitting them, so I knew something was wrong.
"So we dissected my swing for days upon days, that whole week in Detroit. And we saw I wasn't getting my foot down -- meaning, I was getting my foot down, but my toe. My whole foot wasn't flat, so when I started my swing, my whole foot wasn't down, I started [and] everything kind of collapsed. We made it muscle memory for a week, trying to get the foot down, and ever since then, I started seeing the ball more, creating more power, walks up, strikeouts down, just because I could see the ball better."
This is no exaggeration. He went to Cleveland next, and had a three-hit game in that series opener. Two days later, he collected another two hits, including his first home run of the season. Over the final 539 plate appearances of Dozier's 2013, he hit .246/.317/.433, with 18 home runs. His walk rate, which had been 4.7 percent in 2012, jumped to 8.2 percent.
It was the kind of performance, absent context, that would seem like a fluke. But Dozier's mechanical change allowed him to get into hitting position earlier. That extra time has allowed him to recognize pitches better than before, and do so while "being grounded, having a hitter's base," as Dozier put it. It has him swinging at the pitches he wants to hit, not just pitches that look like strikes.
Dozier swung at 47.6 percent of all pitches he saw in 2012. That's down dramatically, to an even 37 percent in 2014, below even the 39.5 percent he swung at in 2013. Much of that drop comes from fewer swings on balls out of the strike zone. Even on pitches within the zone, he's at 50.3 percent in 2014, down from 59.7 percent in 2012.
"As a young hitter, anything around the plate I'm trying to hit," Dozier said. "Now that I've gotten older, I know when to take shots, know when to crank one, so to speak, or know when, I know this guy throws 85 percent -- I know from studying film, statistics, all that stuff -- I know he throws 85 percent middle half of the plate. And know laying off of the pitches inside he wants to get in on your hands. As opposed to another guy who works in, works in, lay in wait outside. Or a guy like Tanaka, his splitters, his sliders are all in the dirt, so you just wait and recognize the fastball. Stuff like that that makes it not just the strike zone, but makes it your pitch."
Thus, his 2014 numbers are actually up over what he did in his 2013 breakout season. He's at .246/.345/.446, with 12 home runs in 264 plate appearances. A batting average on balls in play of just .241 entering Tuesday suggests his overall numbers should rise further as the season progresses. That walk rate is up to 12.5 percent.
"You don't succeed at this level by hitting breaking balls," Dozier said. "You succeed by not missing fastballs. And that's what I had to really come to terms with. Instead of trying to hit the hanger, you stick to your plan. Those guys are good on the mound, but they're not superhuman. They make mistakes."
He's certainly making pitchers pay for those mistakes. But he's also looking at how to become a more complete player. When I asked him what his biggest focus was at the moment, he told me it's on the basepaths. He stole a respectable 14 bases last season, getting thrown out seven times. So far in 2014, in roughly a third as many games, he already has 12 steals, getting thrown out four times.
"I want to really, not just stealing bases, but going first to third, knowing when to test a guy's outfield arm. But the biggest thing is stealing bases. Me and [Paul] Molitor and [third base coach] Joe Vavra, we've been working -- I mean, night and day compared to where I was, working on tendencies, times, everything for pitchers, what pitches to go on, what counts to go on. And I want to continue to get better, the next two or three years, to max out on my running game."
Suddenly, Brian Dozier profiles less like a marginal regular, and more like a potential 20-20 guy, if not 30-30. Gardenhire has been hitting him leadoff or second, but acknowledged he wouldn't hesitate to hit Dozier third, either. I asked him if merely the idea of Brian Dozier, No. 3 hitter, would have occurred to him 18 months ago.
"The great thing about the game is, you let guys play out, they make their own way in the game," Gardenhire said. "Everybody tries to project, but until a guy starts getting it done at this level, then you can start to project. And he's getting it done."