“It’s like a dance partner,” said Nationals first base coach Tim Bogar, who also works with the team’s infielders. “With a double play partner, you have to always be more worried about them than you are about yourself. You have to know what they are doing, how they are doing, what they like, and you have to know how to get it done.”
Bogar is the one hitting those groundballs each morning, watching Turner and Dozer get acclimated, Turner as the franchise shortstop and Dozier as a seven-year veteran at second base. Bogar knows how critical this is for the Nationals. He feels it acutely, especially after last season, when the Nationals got subpar middle-of-the-field defense and saw that spread in every which way. When Manager Dave Martinez justifies the defense-first approach for this spring training, he often reaches for one telling statistic from 2018: In 38 games played by starting second baseman Daniel Murphy at that position, Washington had just one double play go from second to shortstop to first base. Murphy and Turner made up that team’s double play combination. It wasn’t nearly good enough in what became a disappointing 82-80 season.
Dozier, 31, signed a one-year deal worth $9 million in January. He should help fill the power void left by departed outfielder Bryce Harper — he has hit more than 20 home runs in each of the past five seasons. Yet his defense could be even more important, specifically how well he and Turner can gel in spinning double plays. The Nationals’ stated goals only depend on it.
“It’s really just getting the feel for one another and all the aspects for everything up the middle,” Dozier said. “I’ve played with a lot of shortstops, and every single one of them is completely different.”
So what does Turner need from his second baseman?
“Oh, it’s not about me at all,” the 25-year-old said in late February. “Brian has a much harder job. I need to figure out what works for him.”
So if that’s the case, what works for Dozier?
“It’s all about what makes Trea the most comfortable,” Dozier said a day earlier as Turner hung by his nearby locker. “That’s what I’m focused on.”
Spoken like good partners.
“It’s also a bit like making a marriage work,” joked Bogar, who played both shortstop and second throughout a nine-year major league career. “It just takes constant communication.”
They do have preferences, however reluctant they are to prioritize them and however nuanced they may seem. Dozier likes to take feeds behind or even with the bag, instead of coming through it, because it lets him use the base as protection from sliding runners. He estimated that he turns 98 percent of his double plays this way. He also likes to get feeds “uphill” — meaning the ball comes on an upward plane from Turner — so he can quickly transition into a chest-high throw. Dozier is feeling out whether Turner prefers to throw or flip his feeds, how far away he is willing to flip from, how much he opens up his body before feeding, the angle of his feeds and so on. There is something to analyze with every repetition, and Martinez has kept the pair together as much as possible since exhibition games began.
Turner likes to burst through the bag to turn double plays, a change he has tirelessly worked on with Bogar. Last season, Turner and coaches said they thought he wasn’t getting enough momentum toward first base as he received feeds. Now he wants to get through the bag without a hitch and before the runner barrels in so Dozier knows which direction to lead him.
“He loves to really gain ground going to first base,” said Dozier, who had always played shortstop until he transitioned to second in 2013 and won a Gold Glove four years later. “So me feeding is not over the bag. It’s more out in front so he can run up underneath it and just go.”
There are some quirks to get used to, none bigger than Turner’s jump throw. When a grounder takes Turner forward and toward third base, going away from second, he likes to backhand the ball and leap into the air to feed. Bogar has never seen a shortstop consistently start double plays that way. Dozier isn’t too familiar with it either, and those feeds will come downhill instead of uphill, forcing him to adjust his hands and arm slot. But it saves time if Turner’s throw is accurate and his athleticism makes the quicker exchange possible.
Those milliseconds will be the difference between getting outs and not, winning and losing, Turner and Dozier improving the Nationals’ defense or offering more of the same. The result is what matters, nothing else, not how selfless each player was in February or whether every preference was met. The ball has to beat the runner, at second and first, and Turner and Dozier have a few more weeks to make sure it does way more often than not.
“It shouldn’t be too, too big of a curve,” Turner said. “Just a spring training’s worth of groundballs. I think that would be enough to get to know anybody.”