For years, there’s been a pretty easy answer to the common question of "Who is the most underrated player in baseball?" It’s Tampa Bay’s Ben Zobrist. It was Zobrist last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. It’s probably been Zobrist since his breakout year in 2008. If you want to win a bar bet — and you happen to be at a bar where the patrons know what Wins Above Replacement is — the "Ben Zobrist has a higher WAR than Robinson Cano over the last six years" factoid is a pretty good place to start.
But Zobrist is still human, and humans don’t age particularly well when it comes to athletic competitions. Next week, Zobrist will celebrate his 33rd birthday. His power is already starting to wane, as just 10 of his 40 hits this season have gone for extra bases, continuing a trend towards weaker contact that began last year. He’s also slowing down and is not the dynamic baserunner he was a few years back. While he remains an excellent defender and a player who can still control the strike zone, he’s becoming more of a good player than a great one. After years of being underrated, Zobrist is finally regressing into the player that people have thought he was.
And so now, it is probably time for him to pass the torch, and to anoint a new Most Underrated Player in Major League Baseball. Interestingly, the prime candidate looks an awful lot like the incumbent.
Meet Brian Dozier. The Minnesota second baseman is not a young, exciting prospect. He doesn’t have a great career track record. Two years ago, he hit .232/.286/.337. In Triple-A. At the age of 25. He wasn’t any better when the Twins called him up to the majors simply because they needed a warm body to play the infield. He was essentially the definition of a replacement-level player, the kind of guy that bad teams gave at-bats because their good prospects weren’t ready yet, or because they didn’t have any good prospects to begin with.
But then, last year, things began to change. Dozier won the Twins second-base job, again somewhat by default, but he didn’t look like the Brian Dozier of old. After never hitting more than nine home runs in any minor-league season, he launched 18 homers against major-league pitching. He stopped getting himself out, reducing his rate of swings on pitches outside the strike zone from 33 percent in 2012 to 23 percent in 2013. Dozier transformed himself from a no-power hack into a guy who could work counts in order to get a fastball he could drive, and then he actually put a charge into the ball when pitchers challenged him over the plate.
The positive growth has only increased this year. Dozier already has 11 home runs and is slugging .479, but even more notable is the massive spike in walk rate; he’s drawn a base on balls in 14.2 percent of his plate appearances this year, nearly double his 2013 mark, which was already nearly double his 2012 walk rate. For the first two months of 2014, Dozier’s overall line looks eerily similar to what Zobrist was doing in his prime. Here’s Dozier’s current season, compared with what Zobrist did over his five-year peak, ranging from 2008 through 2012.
Of course, it’s easy to cherry pick any player who is off to a hot start to the season and make them stack up favorably to a guy who did it for five years. But Dozier isn’t just some two-month flash in the pan.
Date back his performance one calendar year, rolling the last four months of last season and the first two months of this season into a total line, here’s how he did from May 21, 2013 through May 20 of this season: 158 games, 696 plate appearances, 35 doubles, two triples, 28 home runs, 80 walks, 130 strikeouts and 23 stolen bases.
Maybe Dozier hasn’t put up All-Star numbers from Opening Day through Game 162 of the same season, but a full year worth of performance data suggests that Dozier isn’t the same guy he appeared to be a few years back. He’s made a leap, not unlike the one Zobrist made at a similar point in his career. Dozier is excelling in the exact same way that allowed Zobrist to become baseball’s under-the-radar superstar.
Baseball loves to exalt starting pitchers and power hitting first baseman, focusing heavily on guys who are great at one particular aspect of baseball. Throw 98 miles per hour or hit a ball 450 feet and the highlights will find you. But diversify your value and simply be above average at everything, and you’re not as likely to draw the same kind of attention. Defense and baserunning aren’t sexy, and despite the "Moneyball" revolution, people still prefer guys to hit their way on base rather than ones who force the pitcher to walk them. Like Zobrist, Dozier doesn’t do the kinds of things that will earn him regular accolades. He just does the things that help teams win baseball games.
By all rights, the Twins have no business being in second place in the AL Central. That they have more wins than losses in late-May is amazing, especially considering that Joe Mauer hasn’t hit at all and Josh Willingham has spent most of the year on the disabled list. This offense should be dreadful, but instead, they’re seventh in MLB in runs scored per game.
This is what having a guy like Dozier will do for you. Quietly, he’s become not only the Twins’ best player, but one of the best players in baseball. Zobrist can turn over his crown; his successor has been found.