Brian Dozier has reportedly been the subject of a more than a few trade inquiries, and it's not at all hard to see why. His 42 homers this past season tied for third in the Majors, and his .299 Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) was merely the best by any second baseman since 1929. He's a competent if unspectacular defender, and he's owed only $15 million over the next two years. Of course contenders are going to be interested in his services, and of course the Twins would ask for a high return.
But how, exactly, did a player who doesn't have elite distance on his fly balls and wasn't considered a power prospect turn into such a slugger? "His gap power should provide plenty of doubles," wrote a Baseball Prospectus scouting report in 2012, "but he rarely hits balls over the fence." The report wasn't wrong; Dozier hit only 16 homers in more than 1,600 Minor League plate appearances.
Well, we can tell you how. Hitting the ball in the air is good. Hitting the ball in the air for distance is better. And hitting the ball in the air for distance in the right direction? It's one way to get the most value out of every foot of travel. We're about to explain to you how a second baseman tapped into elevating the ball to his pull field to find power, and if that reminds you of Daniel Murphy, it should. It's a similar tale.
Consider this: When Dozier hits a fly ball, he averages 329 feet of distance. That's above-average, yet doesn't stand out as much as you'd think. It's 52nd of the 224 hitters who put at least 50 balls in play, and it's behind Seth Smith and Brandon Moss. Again, good, but not spectacular.
But remember, raw distance isn't everything. Not all fly balls at a certain distance are created equally. For example think how a 400-foot ball to center field just clears the fence (or, in some parks, is an out), but a 400-foot ball right down the line clears the wall by 60 to 70 feet into the second deck and looks like a blast. So, hitting a ball farther in the right direction has value. This is where Dozier shines, because he's famously led the Majors in pull percentage in each of the last two seasons.
Let's show you what we mean by that visually. The image below shows all of Dozier's batted balls that went 330 feet or more in 2016, which is to say higher than his baseline average. The dark red dots are homers; the rest are a combination of hits, outs and sacrifice flies. The takeaway there should be to see how much more likely Dozier was to find a homer to left rather than to center, simply because it requires less distance. At the extremes, he flied out 406 feet to center, and homered 350 feet to left.
The point is to say that if you can reliably hit your high-distance fly balls to a corner rather than to dead center, you may be more likely to find actual on-field value. That's not the case for just Dozier; it's true across the sport.
Across the Majors, the average was .694 with a slugging of 2.620 on fly balls hit at least 330 feet that were from the left-field power alley to the left-field line. (Defined as "negative 25 degrees" and farther left in batted ball direction, where 0 degrees is dead center.) Between the left-field power alley and the right-field power alley, which includes all balls hit to center field, those numbers drop to .330 and 1.129, respectively.
So if you can show a demonstrated ability to hit the ball down the line, in the air, with enough distance, you'll almost certainly find success. And when we call up a list of the righty hitters who did exactly that the most in 2016, using our same definition of 330 feet to the left-field power alley and toward the line, it's an impressive group of names.
Most fly balls 330 feet or more, LF power alley to LF line, 2016
None of this seems accidental, either. "A .300 hitter who slaps 5, 10 home runs is less valuable than a .250 hitter who hits 25-30 home runs," Dozier told FanGraphs earlier in 2016, and he's not wrong in the least. As we've seen over and over, players are realizing the value of elevating the ball to find power. We know it was a big part of Murphy's turnaround. We know sluggers like Mark Trumbo and Bryant have talked about launch angle. We know that Asdrubal Cabrera's late-season surge was fueled by much of the same approach.
Wherever Dozier ends up, he's not going to be the strongest player in the lineup. But he may just be the hitter who has learned how to maximise the power he does have more efficiently than most others. It's good to hit the ball in the air. It's a lot better to find the parts of the park that are much more conducive to the distance you have. That's how Dozier become a slugger -- and that's why he's so valuable.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.