I’ve watched a fair amount of Minnesota Twins second baseman (nee shortstop) Brian Dozier lately. It’s a frustrating, somewhat uneven experience, but for the first time since I first saw him last summer, it’s hard to deny that there might be a ballplayer in there somewhere. For the first time, too, it’s starting to become clear what that ballplayer might look like.

 

As Bill James was creating his Defensive Spectrum, the ranking of positions from most to least valuable (all else equal) on which WAR and a dozen other metrics we statheads hold dear are based, one of his measuring sticks was the offensive performance of players playing multiple positions. James found that even the same guy, forced to play a tougher defensive position, tended to see his plate production drop. Naturally, the reverse is also (generally) true.

 

Now, we’ve since discovered that that doesn’t apply universally. Many players do worse on days when they DH than when they play the field. Moreover, while I accept the findings as they stand, baseball is not like basketball or hockey. Defensive responsibilities and performance shouldn’t have any real bearing on offensive output. Carrying any glove problems to bat with you seems to me a fault of focus, not a natural or inevitable tradeoff.

 

But that’s how it goes. Players hit better when less of their energy and preparation is going into their defense, and more can be applied to their four or five trips to the plate per game. (I’m being optimistic there.)

 

Dozier is a middle infielder. That much has always been clear. It’s clear, because his batting skills don’t carry him if he doesn’t play there. It’s also clear because he’s a pretty decent athlete, not large, but not tiny, and of at least average quickness and speed.

 

In 2012, he played nothing but shortstop. It was ugly. It became immediately clear that Dozier lacked both the explosion and the arm strength to play that position well. Worse, he tried hitting with his shortstop’s mitt on, or so it seemed. In 340 plate appearances, Dozier batted .234/.271/.337, with six home runs, 58 strikeouts and 16 walks. That was his rookie year, his age-25 season, and given how it went, it would have been perfectly understandable if Dozier had never played in MLB again.

 

Luckily for him, though, the Twins are rebuilding right now, and none of their unexciting options for second base took the job by force during Spring Training. Manager Ron Gardenhire gave Dozier the gig, and whether because the view from the left side of the pitcher’s mound lent him special insight or because he no longer traded his last few cuts in the cage for rehearsals of plays three steps into the hole at short, Dozier has taken a big step forward.

 

I don’t want to overstate the case here. Please understand, I don’t want to understate it, either, but there’s a definite risk of the former that I want to head off at the pass. Dozier is not suddenly setting the world ablaze. He’s not even a league-average hitter. He has, however, improved substantially. Through Saturday, he had 234 plate appearances, 42 strikeouts and 20 walks. He had hit seven home runs. His batting average was basically static, but his OPS was up from .603 last season to .685. It’s less than half a season of baseball, but if this is real, it’s the difference between a guy who actively hurts any lineup, anywhere, and one who can actually help at the bottom of the order, mixing a modicum of power with just enough on-base ability to roll the lineup over now and then. It’s an important step.

 

Then there’s the defense. Funny thing, when Dozier is not worrying about being a better athlete than he is, he’s a pretty fine defensive player. In fact, the Twins’ middle infield is suddenly a defensive wonder. One reason Dozier got the shortstop job last year was the utter failure of Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Jamey Carroll to meet the challenge of manning the middle. It left a strain, though, on the fabric of the defense itself. With Pedro Florimon, the very picture of a glove-first shortstop, now in charge of the most well-pelted terrain on the infield, the double-play combination runs much more smoothly.

 

Dozier reminds me a bit of Darwin Barney, the Chicago Cubs second baseman (nee shortstop) who broke out last season with a strikingly similar profile. Barney’s glove is better; Dozier’s bat is better. From the wide angle, though, they’re not so different. Both have better power than plate discipline, though not much power. Both need to make consistent contact to be worth much at bat. Both run pretty well, but neither steals bases.

 

How do guys like this do once they pop up? I’m really not sure. I can tell you that of Barney’s 10 most comparable players (as listed on Baseball-Reference) through age 26, the average was to play eight more seasons in the big leagues, with an OPS about five percent worse than average, and overall value in the neighborhood of a win and a half annually. Most of the guys to whom Barney compares, though, come from the 1980s, which were a bit friendlier to the skill set in question than the current environment. These are guys who live on BABIP and volume of balls fielded, and those sources of value are mitigated by the strikeout epidemic in MLB these days. It also feels as though these comps are unusually uninstructive, because guys who get the sort of late start on their MLB career that Barney and Dozier have are inherently surprising. They’re unpredictable. The factors that led them each to take so long in arriving matter a great deal in explaining their successes and failures, but they’re often difficult or impossible to pin down. We’re also talking about players near the line demarcating everyday players from utility guys, so we might see one set as worse than the other simply because they got stretched too far into a role they could not handle. The reverse could also be true.

 

Anyway, Dozier reminds me of Barney in another way, a way not entirely salient to whether he is or is not useful, whether his improvement this season is or is not real. It’s more a narrative parallel than anything else. But here goes:

 

Like Barney, Dozier plays for a rebuilding team. Like Barney, Dozier is a player whose absolute ceiling is something like “average big-league regular, for between two and four years.” There’s no star potential in either of them, and neither even makes a good bet to have a long run with regular playing time. Yet, each is occasionally listed as part of the team’s long-term assets inventory. (Barney gets this treatment more often, but both get it.)

 

I think this is an anchoring bias thing, and I wonder whether it’s part of what perpetuates long runs of losing for some teams under some front-office regimes. Is it possible that, after seeing a certain amount of really terrible baseball played at a given position, average or average-minus production at that spot might start to shine a bit brighter than it warrants, especially in a limited sample? Is it possible that even smart baseball men sometimes buy too much into stats that say a particula player is playable, even valuable, when in reality, he’s filler the likes of which every team in the league has? I think it is.

 

It’s not just Dozier and Barney. Trevor Plouffe is a member of this club. So is Jason Castro of the Astros (never let him leave that team, or I’ll never get his name right again). So is Cubs backstop Welington Castillo. So is Mets outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis. I’m not saying a team needs a superstar at every position, but fans of rebuilding (or, removing euphemisms and being blunt, bad) teams tend to forget what the role players on good teams look like. They usually don’t have below-average bats and fringe profiles. They tend to be veterans whose time as a front-line talent has passed, but whose skill sets age well, or young players who would bat in the middle of other, weaker batting orders. They look like Torii Hunter and Todd Frazier, is what I’m saying. There’s this eight to 10 percent difference between what they are and what guys like them on bad teams are that can get washed out but really, truly matters.

 

The Yankees have players who have finally gotten big-league looks this season, named Corban Joseph, Zoilo Almonte and David Adams. That trio is every bit as good, and very possibly better, than the players I’m talking about here. But they’ll never get 800 big-league plate appearances to show that they can be average players, making up for their deficiencies with modest strengths and some positional value. Not even now, not even with the Yankees in as tough a spot as they have been in since George Steinbrenner was in exile, are any of them getting full-time roles or serious consideration for them.

 

Scouts sometimes use the terms first- and second-division regular. These classify guys with big-league futures, basically, as either regulars on good teams, or regulars on bad teams. I used to think the term somewhat unclear, since what it really seems to be trying to say is, “one of the 15 best players at the position,” or “one of the 15 worst players at the position.” I now get it a bit. There’s truly a division there, a difference deserving of distinction. There’s a line between good enough to play in the big leagues, and good enough to play for a team that wins in the big leagues. I think Brian Dozier, while definitely a big-league caliber player, is on the wrong side of that line.

 

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