Mackey: Once critical, Tom Kelly has changed his tune on Brian Dozier
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In his role as a special spring training instructor, former Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly is obsessed with minutia and rarely pulls punches.
Earlier this week, shortstop prospect Danny Santana singled, walked and scored a run against the Tampa Bay Rays, but Kelly was more interested in how he could possibly get picked off first base by the catcher in the bottom of the seventh inning.
"He's talented, but this is why he's not close yet," Kelly said.
In spring of 2006, Kelly was hitting groundballs to offseason free agent acquisition Ruben Sierra -- a 40-year-old DH with a first baseman's glove who had very little interest in actually bending over to stop a rolling baseball. Kelly ended the charade after a few minutes and said, "That's enough, Ruben. You don't want to be doing this, and neither do I."
Last spring, when a bystander in the clubhouse praised Brian Dozier's work in the field during morning drills, Kelly pounced -- in his trademark monotone, matter-of-fact style -- to detail multiple reasons why Dozier still had a long ways to go.
"TK's got that personality that he says some funny things out there that you don't know if it's derogatory, you don't know if he's trying to help you," Dozier said Saturday. "Sometimes you're just like, 'Oh man, is he getting on me? Or is he trying to help me? Is he making fun of me? What is it?" But that was last year -- my first time really thinking about, 'Hey, I might have a shot to make the club' and stuff. This year, with a lot more experience, I think it's helped out a lot."
As it turned out, Kelly was right about Dozier last spring.
Along with hitting just .234/.271/.332 in the first 83 big league games of his career last year, Dozier also committed 15 errors at shortstop while rating below average defensively in Ultimate Zone Rating and plus/minus.
Debate over whether he should be demoted to Triple-A Rochester was settled in mid-August in a game against the Rays when Dozier, playing shortstop, chose to get a sure out at first base in the top of the 10th inning, allowing the go-ahead run to score from third. Twins coaches believed Dozier should have thrown home or attempted to start what would have been a difficult 6-4-3 double play.
Dozier also admitted to often swinging too early in counts and abandoning a patient approach at the plate that had him drawing nearly as many walks as strikeouts throughout the minor leagues.
In an effort to make sure those struggles don't continue, Dozier spent time this offseason working with Paul Molitor on footwork and other nuances at second base, his new position. Dozier also spent the offseason re-evaluating his approach at the plate, saying he plans on taking a lot more pitches this year.
The early reviews are positive, particularly from former skeptic, Kelly.
"I will say, in my opinion, Mr. Dozier has improved immensely at second base," Kelly said. "I don't know if his little sessions over the winter time with Mr. Molitor helped or what, got through to his young man. But he looks much better. I don't know how everything's going to shake out here. ...
"But I've never really been big on Dozier, and I was the first one to tell him about a week ago, boy, Dozier is 100% better. So in my opinion, he's done a real nice job from the transition from last year to this year."
Dozier will need to translate the offseason work to the field in April -- a task that carries no guarantees -- but it's always comforting to have the approval of a man who doesn't grant it freely.
"TK can have his way of being hard on a lot of people," Dozier said. "But at the same time, he's full of knowledge. We all learn from that. Last year, I mean, me and TK weren't all that close as we are this year, but it's good. It's awesome that he said that, because I feel that it's just kind of reassurance for me that I feel like I've done a complete 180 from last year."