After journey from Tupelo to Target Field, Brian Dozier is rocking
He hits home runs. He steals bases. He gets on base, and he plays good defense. He solves Rubik's cubes in 90 seconds. He sings, he plays the guitar, he plays the piano. Last week in Toronto, after a game in which he hit a big two-run home run in a win for his team, he went to the grand ballroom of his hotel, sat down at the grand piano and played Ray Charles tunes until two in the morning. This is what Brian Dozier, the most underrated and underappreciated player in baseball, does to unwind.
Dozier is the 27-year-old home-run belting, base-stealing, piano-jammin' second baseman for the Minnesota Twins, and he is a many of many talents. He does many things very well, but he does not do one thing spectacularly, which is perhaps why he is not better known in baseball, even though over the last year he has been one of the best players in the game.
Next month, if there's any justice in the All-Star selection process, one of the best stories of All-Star week in Minnesota will be the presence of the home team guy who after a devastating college injury wondered if he'd even be drafted and who, after flaming out at shortstop his rookie season in the majors, switched to second base to save his career. This year, however, Dozier has emerged as baseball's most valuable second baseman, as he leads all players at the position in WAR (2.7) as well as home runs (15) and runs (56) and ranks second among AL second basemen in steals (15) and third in on-base percentage (.352).
This year's breakout players who should be first time All-Stars in Minnesota include other late-bloomers like Brandon Moss, Michael Brantley and Todd Frazier. Dozier's path to becoming an All-Star talent is perhaps the most improbable of all.
Born in Tupelo, Miss., the birthplace of Elvis Presley -- "If you don't know all of Elvis' songs and everything about him from where I'm from, then you better hit the road and move out of town," he says -- Dozier was an all-state shortstop at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Miss., and went on to the University of Southern Mississippi, where he was the star shortstop for the Golden Eagles, as well was the lead guitarist in a short-lived band called Silky Smooth ("We weren't great," he says, "but we weren't terrible -- we could carry a tune and we made sure all of our followers had enough alcohol to make us sound ever better").
Dozier was an intriguing collegiate talent, a shortstop with speed and power, and after his junior season, the Cubs wanted to take him in the seventh round of the 2008 draft, but Dozier opted to stay in school for a shot at leading Southern Miss to the College World Series. The next year, 30 games into his senior season, Dozier broke his collarbone. "I was like, here we go, another guy that turns down the draft to come back and he gets hurt," said Dozier, who had to beg coach Corky Palmer for a few at bats in Omaha, where the Golden Eagles were making their first-ever appearance. "It was tough."
After his injury-plagued senior year, Dozier wasn't sure exactly how far his stock had fallen. Twins scouting director Deron Johnson has a rule that the team always pick a college shortstop within the first 10 rounds of the draft, and in 2009, when it was Minnesota's turn to pick in the eighth round, Dozier happened to be the shortstop left at the top of their list. And that's how the Twins ended up with the kid from Mississippi with the 252nd overall selection.
Dozier always thought he would be a perfect match for the organization. "I knew I fit the mold more than anything of a Twins-type guy," he said. "When I was in college and growing up, you looked at Twins players, and they were all the same -- Torii Hunter, Nick Punto, those type guys all seemed to run balls out and play the game the right way. A blue collar organization. That's kind of how it was for me in high school and even at Southern Miss -- two very blue collar teams. It only seemed fitting that I ended up on the Twins."
The defining moment for Dozier in Minnesota's organization came after the 2012 season, when the team asked him if he would consider a move to second base after he struggled at Triple A Rochester and in the majors after his rookie year. "I played shortstop since I was 12 years old, that was the only position I knew, and I felt like my struggles were just the typical rookie stuff, trying to slow the game down," he says. "But all the sudden they come to me in the offseason and say, 'We don't want you to play short, we want you to play second base.' At first I was like, Wow, they've given up on me -- they don't think I can play short at the big league level. I guess you could say it left a chip on my shoulder."
Dozier later sat down with Twins manager Ron Gardenhire that offseason. "He was really optimistic about me playing second," he says, "and to hear it from the horse's mouth, I was like, You know what? A lot of people have made a position change, and that's how they've stayed in the big leagues. I had to get that young mentality out of me and became more mature, and say to myself, 'If I'm going to stay here, I'm going to try to be the best second baseman I can be.'"
Dozier handled the position change beautifully, and he has bloomed into an above average fielder at the position. It is, however, his turnaround at the plate that has been most stunning. After hitting a meager .234/.271/.332 with six home runs in 316 at bats in 2012, Dozier broke out in 2013 with 18 home runs. What happened? Dozier points to the night of May 1, 2013 as the turning point. "We were playing the Tigers, and it was Anibal Sanchez that night, and I swear to you, he threw me seven, eight fastballs down the middle -- and I swung through every one of them," he says. "These weren't painted on the black -- they were right down the middle, and I knew something was up."
Dozier and hitting coach Tom Brunansky hit the video room to find some answers. "We spent a lot of time on the film, dissecting everything -- we compared me to other guys I'm built like, guys I swung like. And we came to the conclusion that when I swung, my foot was on my toe, meaning that I wasn't grounded. We call that like a spin hitter -- not using your backside to drive into your front side. We worked on getting my foot down, flat-footed, and trying to be really strong in my legs, rather trying to hit all upper body. And ever since then it's created more power not just with the home runs but with driving balls, rather than hitting lazy singles. That's kind of transformed everything."
Since then, Dozier has been the best power hitting second baseman in baseball, with 33 home runs, five more than the next-highest second baseman. He is hitting .239/.352/.451 this year with 15 home runs and ranks fifth in the majors in walks (45), is tied for first in runs (56) and, with 15 stolen bases, is on pace to become the Twins' first ever 30-30 player.
Despite those numbers, Dozier is currently fourth in the All-Star Game voting, well behind frequent participants Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia, even though he has been arguably better than all three this season. Certainly, Dozier has the credentials to be a first-time All Star just two years after his career seemed to be hanging in the balance.
"It's been a long road here," he says. "The most important thing for me was coming to the realization a few years ago that I was struggling. Just because I was starting [in 2012] didn't mean I was doing a good job. This game is all about ad-libbing, making adjustments and improvising. That's a lesson I had to learn. If I hadn't come to that realization, I honestly don't know where I'd be today."