When Aaron Hicks struggled through the first couple weeks of his MLB career, the options for finding the next leadoff hitter seemed slim to none. Manager Ron Gardenhire had a couple light-hitting middle infielders, a handful of slow-footed corner infielder’s and outfielders, and a three-time batting champ in his catcher Joe Mauer to choose from. At the time, in my mind I thought Mauer might be the most logical choice, mainly because he sees so many pitches, and is by far the most efficient Twins hitter at just getting on base. Gardenhire did not in fact go with his talented catcher, he decided to go with one of his light-hitting middle infielders.
At the time it was April 13th, the Twins were 3-6 after a four-game losing streak against the Royals and the Mets. Converted second baseman Brian Dozier hit .161 through those first nine games, struck out 9 times, and walked just twice. After struggling through much of his rookie season in 2012 before being sent back down to Rochester in August, Dozier seemed like possibly the most illogical candidate to place at the top of the lineup in front of Mauer, Josh Willingham, and Justin Morneau.
Gardenhire made the move anyway, selecting Dozier to spell Hicks at the top, moving Hicks down to mainly the 7th or 8th slot in the lineup. Since the change/promotion, the Twins are 9-6, back to .500; and Dozier has hit .273 with a double, triple, 4 walks (.327 OBP), and just 7 strike outs. He’s also one of five Twins hitters in the top 30 in the American League in pitches seen per plate appearance, averaging 4.08. Mauer, known for his patience at the plate, ranks 3rd in the AL at 4.37, not that far ahead of Dozier. He’s only put the first pitch of an at-bat in play 6 times this year, in fact, and 2 of those resulted in sacrifice fly RBI’s, while another was a triple.
After making 15 errors at shortstop last season in just 83 games, the transition to second base has also benefited Dozier, who has made just 1 error this year in 20 games. According to Fangraphs, his Range Rating is already 2.1 (runs above average), and his Ultimate Zone Rating (Double Play + Range + Error) is 1.8 (14.8 UZR/150 games). His defensive Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is currently tops among all Twins players at 0.4. I would say he passes the eye test defensively as well, making a handful of spectacular plays, but potentially more importantly making all the routine plays – not giving away outs.
The switch in the lineup also freed up rookie Aaron Hicks to settle in. Since Hicks’ move toward the bottom of the order, Hicks went on a 10-game streak where he reached safely, hit an improving .219 with 8 walks and just 7 strike outs, and raised his average 73 points from .047 to .120. He’s obviously still in a place demanding improvement, but the pressure seems to be lifted, and he even yanked a 101 MPH fastball from Bruce Rondon into the right field corner for a triple on Wednesday.
I wouldn’t say by any means that Dozier is an ideal leadoff man just yet, but I must congratulate the manager on the move. It’s worked out wonderfully for two of the younger players on the 25 man roster, who are still learning the game at this level. As Hicks continues to improve, I imagine he will eventually take over that spot in the lineup, as soon as this year still. But, for the time being, a light-hitting second baseman has turned himself into a pretty nice leadoff guy who takes some really good at bats.
Follow Twins Rubes on Twitter @twinsrubes.