When the Toronto Blue Jays visited Target Field last week, there was a battle between two of the American League’s leading home run hitters.
Toronto’s Jose Bautista is no stranger to the Minnesota Twins’ ballpark and has launched more home runs there (11) than any other visiting batter. Bautista had to slug his sixth of the season on Thursday against Twins starter Mike Pelfrey to reclaim the AL home run lead. One of the players he surpassed in doing so: Minnesota second baseman Brian Dozier.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that Dozier is near the top of the AL home run leaders early this year with five homers through 18 games, trailing only Bautista and Angels slugger Albert Pujols. After all, Dozier led the Twins with 18 home runs last season, setting a new record for most homers by a Minnesota second baseman.
"He obviously can do that, and he’s doing that again this year," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "He’s got the swing that can do that. It’s short. It’s to the ball. If they make a mistake with the breaking ball, he can pull the ball. In this ballpark, if you can pull the ball like that, you can do some things."
Yet at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, Dozier hardly looks the part of a slugger. Home run hitting was never a part of his game during four minor league seasons, when he hit a total of 16 in four years. In his first season with the Twins in 2012, Dozier had six home runs in 84 games while batting just .234.
Then, early in the 2013 season, a flip was switched.
Dozier was struggling early in the year and was hitting just .197 in late May. He had only one home run and had struck out 33 times in 137 at-bats. Dozier was missing fastballs down the middle that he felt he should have been clicking on.
So he worked with hitting coach Tom Brunansky to figure out what was wrong with his swing. After watching film, it was determined that Dozier needed to get his front leg down quicker during his swing and not rely so much on his upper body during his swing.
"Bruno said my foot was hanging in the air, which you lose so much power that way rather than getting it grounded," Dozier said. "When I start missing fastballs, especially on cold days, it brings it to light more that I’m not getting down in my legs and getting my foot down. That’s when if I’m going bad or anything and missing pitches, that’s the main cause for it.
"After I made adjustments and started creating power and really using my legs and using my whole body to hit rather than just my upper body and being a wrist guy, then everything kind of started to make sense."
The result since Dozier tweaked his swing last year has been a newfound ability to hit the ball out of the park, and he once again leads the Twins in that department through the first three weeks of the season. But Dozier has batted leadoff in all but two of Minnesota’s games so far this season. While it’s true that he really only leads off once a game, it’s important for Dozier to get on base often with players like Joe Mauer, Trevor Plouffe and Chris Colabello hitting behind him.
The home runs are nice, but the Twins care more about his .341 on-base percentage and .219 batting average than his five homers.
"I think ultimately what we’d like to see is him get his average up and on the base a little more leading off," Gardenhire said. "He’s a good enough hitter to be one of those, I think, .275 average guys. Because he can run a little bit, he can drop a bunt down and also still hit his home runs, too."
Dozier spent plenty of time in the leadoff spot last year, too — 74 games, to be exact. Twelve of his 18 home runs came when he was batting No. 1 in the lineup. Still, his on-base percentage of .310 was below what a prototypical leadoff hitter should have.
So as much as the Twins have enjoyed Dozier’s home run production, he insists that’s not his main emphasis.
"Obviously, first and foremost, I’ve got to get on base," Dozier said. "That’s something I’ve taken more pride in than anything this year. They came to me and wanted me to be the leadoff hitter. That was the main thing; the No. 1 job is to get on base, but also not lose the power aspect."