An All-Star is born? The rise of Brian Dozier
As impolitic as it is to say, what with all the "Boston Strong" hullabaloo and the heartfelt and fortunately peaceful return of the Boston Marathon last week, one thing in baseball remains true: It's pretty difficult to like the Red Sox.
Tony Nelson Brian Dozier (second from the left) at the Twins 2014 home opener
Still, the Sox have one of the most exciting and respectable players in the game, a second baseman named Dustin Pedroia. He plays the game hard, always seems to come through in the clutch, and is the spark plug of the team that is, after all, the defending world champion.
The Twins have a guy at second who can now give Pedroia a run for his money as one of the best in the position in the American League: Brian Dozier.
The club drafted Dozier, a Mississippi native, in 2009. Even though he was chosen in the eighth round, he established himself as a top prospect for the club quickly and was the organization's minor league player of the year in 2011.
In 2012, he played 84 games for the major-league team and had middling results despite some high expectations. He often seemed lost at the plate, batting just .233 with an on-base percentage of .271. In fact, it wasn't clear where he was going to play, often looking lost at shortstop as his main position.
Last year was a breakout year for him, when he actually led the team in home runs with 18 to his name. It's more of a testimony to how power-free the Twins were last year - a second baseman is your power hitter, for criminy's sake? - but it showed that Dozier had unexpected talents at the plate. Moreover, the move to second made him a valuable fielder that the Twins needed desperately up the middle - he had a .992 fielding percentage and just six errors in 1,255 innings, that last number being a Twins record low.
The Twins have trotted out some quality fielders at the position in recent years, but all were black holes at the plate, and none seemed to really be an anchor for the team. The team really hasn't had a useful second baseman since they got rid of Chuck Knoblauch in 1997.
Knoblauch was the Twins number-one draft choice in 1989, and won the American League Rookie of the year at age 23, batting .281 with one homer and 50 RBI. It should be noted that the Knobber was playing on the team that won the World Series that year.
There are more upsides to Dozier, who is 26 years old. His fielding percentage is better in his first two years than Knoblauch's, and he's had fewer errors in that time. He also has more home runs in his first two seasons, and the two share comparable on-base percentage in that time. (And a relative bargain by today's standards, with a contract of just over half a million this year.)
More than that, Dozier has that somewhat intangible thing in baseball that is sometimes called grit, which Boston's Pedroia has in spades. Two Saturdays ago in Kansas City, Dozier made probably the best play by a second baseman thus far in the year. Moving to a sharp grounder to his right, he stabbed the ball with his glove behind second pass and, while on his chest, tossed it to the shortstop from his glove for a double play that wasn't even close.
People are seriously talking about him for a Gold Glove. His added value is at the plate, where he is the Twins lead-off hitter, an unusual spot for a second baseman. But Dozier has responded. His on-base percentage is .354, despite a .217 batting average, with 19 walks. He's getting on base, which is what lead-off hitters have to do. Because of this, he leads the American League in runs scored, with 24.
Then there's that grit thing coming through. Of his seven home runs this year, five have been lead-off dingers in the first inning.
Dozier may be the tough leader the Twins have been searching for ever since they let Torii Hunter get away. "This is a different team," Dozier said after a recent Twins win, adding that he understands why fans are skeptical after the last three seasons. "This is a good team, and I think we're one of the best."
If he believes it, maybe we should too.