Hunter Dozier’s Leash May Be Much Shorter Heading Into 2022

An up-and-down year for the Royals' third baseman and outfielder leaves his future with the team as a hot topic of discussion.
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Hunter Dozier was a well above-average hitter in 2019. So good, in fact, that his .870 OPS trailed only the 48 home run-hitting Jorge Soler in the team rankings that year. 2020's abbreviated campaign saw Dozier's numbers come back down to earth, as he posted a 99 OPS+ and a 104 wRC+. He was far from unplayable, but failed to live up to the bar set by his previous production. 

Despite a somewhat limited sample size of sustained and quality performance, the Royals rewarded Dozier's in the form of a somewhat lucrative four-year, $25 million contract extension before the beginning of the 2021 season. There's no dancing around the fact that the first year of that deal was a disaster.

At the plate, Dozier struggled immensely. His season-long line (.216/.285/.394) was mostly saved by a September in which he had a very impressive .922 OPS. On August 31, Dozier's line was .203/.271/.352. While it's been discussed that an early-season thumb/hand injury essentially derailed much of his 2021, does that excuse a dreadful month of August? Not quite.

The question: "Will the real Hunter Dozier please stand up?" certainly wasn't answered in the batter's box this past season. He was ineffective at the plate, which contributed to his -2.6 bWAR on the year. A great month of September provides promise, but it doesn't necessarily strike confidence into anyone regarding the 30-year old infielder/outfielder.

Notice the infielder/outfielder? Not only is Dozier's long-term position in question — it will almost surely be a few different spots — but the numbers weren't kind to him in the field, either. He's notoriously a poor defender at third base, and a -2.3 UZR and -8 Outs Above Average combination backed that up this season. If Dozier isn't playing at a good-to-great level with the bat, sticking him at the hot corner only drags his value down more.

What about first base? Dozier is solid, as he's been a slight positive in both UZR and Outs Above Average there over the past couple of years. He has shortstop experience, so his athleticism plays particularly well at first. With that said, the Royals already have Carlos Santana manning that spot for now and both Nick Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino are promising prospects who project to play well there, too. It isn't really an option. 

So, that leaves right field. By UZR standards, Dozier has fluctuated between a very slight positive and a very slight negative throughout his career. Conversely, he posted a career-worst Outs Above Average (-6) there in 2021 after totaling -2 in 2019 and 2020 both. Baseball-Reference's Defensive Wins Above Replacement ruled this season as Dozier's worst ever in general, with a large chunk of that data coming from his time in the outfield. While he's better in right field than at third base, he has yet to prove he can hold down a corner outfield spot without struggling.

When combining a struggling bat with a defensive deficiency at his two most-played positions, it's easy to see why people are down on Dozier. He's 30 years old and has declined in each of the past two years after having one good season. The injury narrative doesn't sit well with everyone. The contract is a sore spot for many. That line of thinking is fair.

On the other hand, September was a very good month for Dozier. Perhaps he can parlay that newfound confidence into a bounce-back 2022 season. Due to the team's investment in him, it's safe to assume that the Royals will give him a chance to prove that 2021 — and not 2019 — was the fluke. If the organization is serious about winning games and contending, though, Dozier's leash will be much shorter than it has been in the recent past. Time will tell which version of him reveals itself next year.

Read More: Adalberto Mondesi’s 2021 Left the Royals With More Questions Than Answers