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Johnny Bench's favorite current MLB catcher is...
Tuesday July 5th, 2016

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One of the most confounding set of monthly splits so far this season belongs to Brian Dozier. The Twins second baseman was an absolute mess for the first two months of the season, hitting .191/.276/.340 in April, and was one of the chief culprits in the team’s terrible start. He was no better in May, slashing .215/.315/.316. Through Minnesota’s first 51 games, Dozier, who hit 28 homers last year and 23 the season before that, had five home runs, putting him on pace for just shy of 16 roundtrippers.

Something changed for Dozier on June 1, as he went 1-for-3 with a double and a walk on the first day of the month. He hit his sixth homer of the season on June 2, and his seventh five days later. Dozier closed out the month with a slash line of .369/.435/.728 and eight homers. He had more multi-hit games in June (11) than in April and May combined (six), and nearly twice as many extra-base hits (19 to 10). You don’t need to look beyond the surface numbers to see that Dozier was a different hitter—the best version of himself—in June.

How Junior Guerra became the best pitcher in Milwaukee

You must look deeper than the surface, however, if you want to know why Dozier is improving. From his first days in the majors, Dozier has been an extreme pull hitter. When he’s driving the ball, he’s almost always doing it to the left side of the field. Take a look at his home run spray chart for each of the last three seasons.

There’s really no question here—when Dozier squares a ball, it’s going to left field. His pull rate in 2014 was 53.8%, and it jumped to 60.2% last year. It’s typically hard to have as much success as Dozier has enjoyed with this extreme a pull tendency, but he has been so good when pulling the ball, in fact, that it’s a red flag when he isn’t doing so comfortably more than 50% of the time.

Below is Dozier’s spray chart for all his hits in 2015, when he slugged .444 and posted a .209 isolated slugging percentage. Pay close attention to the cluster of extra-base hits between the left-field line and straightaway left field.

Compare that with his the spray chart of all of his batted-ball outs last season.

Dozier made outs all over the field, but he only drove the ball to his pull side—even his singles. The majority of the time, when Dozier didn’t pull the ball, he made an out, and he certainly didn’t hit for any meaningful power to the opposite field.

In April of this season, Dozier’s pull rate was 47.4%, his lowest monthly split since Sept. 2014, when he was at 47%. He raised it to 53.1% in May, but that was still lower than all of his monthly splits last season, and all but two (with one statistical tie) of them from two years ago. Dozier simply was not pulling the ball for the first two months of this season and, as we’ve established, that’s a problem for him.

Remember earlier when we said Dozier turned it around instantly in June, going 1-for-3 with a double and a walk on the first day of the month? Let’s take a look at that double.

That’s the Dozier who surged to fantasy prominence over the last two seasons. The pitch is a center-cut changeup from Sean Manaea, and Dozier is all over it. The pitch he hit out of the yard the following day for his sixth homer of the season was nearly identical.

It’s another center-cut changeup from a left-handed pitcher—Matt Moore this time. Dozier yanks it into the left-field corner, just barely clearing the fence. The only practical difference between this and the double was he got more elevation and a little less topspin in this instance. Taken together, especially since we know what Dozier did the rest of the month, they were the surest signs that he was finally starting to get right at the plate.

No hitter can pull every pitch, even someone so adept at pulling the ball like Dozier. Pitchers have always tried to stay away from him, and that won’t change the rest of the season. The key for him will be making the most of the pitches he can pull. He didn’t do that in April and May, but he did in June. If that’s the Dozier we see the rest of the season, he’ll be looking at his third straight year with at least 23 homers.

Hitters to watch this week

Danny Espinosa, 1B/2B/3B/SS, Nationals

Espinosa provided the fireworks in Washington’s four-game series with Cincinnati over the weekend, going 7-for-18 with five homers and 15 RBI. He has the highest OPS in the majors since June 1, and is now slashing .242/.341/.477 with 18 homers this season. Espinosa’s job appeared in jeopardy just a few weeks ago with prospect Trea Turner making a play for the starting shortstop gig in Washington, but it’s safe to say the team won’t be making a change any time soon. Turner has been working in center in at Triple A, and that’s likely where he’d see his most playing time if and when he returns to the majors. Espinosa’s glove has been trusty all season, but the bat has really started to come around over the last month.

Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs

Bryant hit his 24th homer of the season Monday, putting him in a tie with Mark Trumbo for the major league lead. Bryant left the game early after Albert Almora ran into him in the outfield, but Joe Maddon said he should be right back in the lineup on Tuesday. Bryant’s slashing .279/.373/.575 with 63 RBI to go along with his league-leading 24 homers. With the first half set to wind down this week, Bryant is firmly in the NL MVP race.

• ​WAIVER WIRE: Hyun-jin Ryu’s return from injury just around the corner

C.J. Cron, 1B, Angels

Cron had himself a night on Friday, going 6-for-6 with two homers and five RBI in the Angels 21-2 stomping of the Red Sox. He entered the game hitting .268/.324/.429 and finished it with a .287/.340/.473 slash line. Cron isn’t far off Espinosa’s OPS pace since June 1, checking in fifth at .962. His hot streak likely isn’t built to last, but it should be fun watching him this week after the series he had in Boston.

Charlie Blackmon, OF, Rockies

The 30-year-old Blackmon is having the best season of his career, slashing .304/.373/.502 with 12 homers, 14 doubles, 42 RBI and 48 runs. Blackmon was a late bloomer, but he has steadily progressed in his career, impressing in an 82-game stint with the Rockies in ’13, making the All-Star Game in ’14, and following that up with a nearly identical performance last season. Blackmon’s on pace to surpass all of his previous career highs despite spending a couple weeks on the DL back in April.

• Rangers’ Cole Hamels continues to improve in twilight of his career

George Springer, OF, Astros

Springer has homered in both of his last two games, and is now just one roundtripper away from the second 20-homer campaign of his career. Unlike in ’14, however, Springer isn’t likely to stop at 20 home runs this season. The 26-year-old has jumped a level this year, slashing .263/.360/.481 while increasing his walk rate and decreasing his strikeout rate for the second straight season. The Astros have surged back into the AL Wild Card race over the last month, sitting at 44-39. Springer has been a huge reason why the Astros have been able to turn their season around.

Prospect watch 

Austin Hedges, C, Padres

We just talked about Hedges a few weeks ago, but he demands further attention. After going 4-for-5 with a homer on Sunday, Hedges upped his slash line to .407/.456/.841 in 32 games with Triple A El Paso this season. The 23-year-old already has 14 homers, averaging one every 8.07 at-bats. Hedges has two multi-homer games, hasn’t gone more than nine straight games without leaving the yard, and has cleared the fences 11 times in his last 15 games.

There’s no question that Hedges will get back to the majors at some point this summer. He got 152 plate appearances with the Padres last year, but slashed just .168/.215/.248 with three homers. It’s safe to say he has once again found his stroke in the minors. Adding Hedges 21-game sample with El Paso in ’15, and he’s a career .375/.431/.717 hitter at the highest level in the minors. Once he arrives in San Diego, he’ll be immediately relevant in all fantasy leagues.

GIF of the week

Brandon Drury has made some noise with his bat this season, hitting eight homers in 239 plate appearances. On Sunday, he let his glove do some talking.

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