Warne: Josh Willingham struggling to lower high pop-up frequency
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Twins left fielder Josh Willingham entered play Thursday with the second-highest rate of pop-up frequency in the major leagues.
Willingham's mark of 24.6 percent trailed only Atlanta's B.J. Upton in a stat that essentially boils down to percentage of infield fly balls as the numerator and total fly balls as the denominator.
In other words, a quarter of Willingham's fly balls are caught on or inside the infield dirt.
And while Willingham has always had a bit of a penchant for pop-ups -- 13.0% career mark versus a 10.9% league average this year -- he's almost doubled the 12.7% mark he posted last year when he set a career high in home runs (35).
Part of it is collateral damage for a home run-type swinger, but it's pretty apparent to both Willingham and the Twins alike that this is an aberrant stretch. As a result, he's been working on a few things with hitting coach Tom Brunansky.
"Well he's sure getting under a lot of pitches now," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "But that tells you he's just getting the bottom half of it a little bit."
"He'll tell you -- like last night -- he popped it up and he said the ball was right there. He just had a little bit of a dip in his swing. It's something he's working on down there right now as a matter of fact. Trying to cover the ball a little bit better, and center it a little bit better. But he's definitely been hitting the bottom half of it a little bit too much and those stats probably tell you that."
In a pair of corresponding moves, the Twins released Anthony Slama from Triple-A Rochester and signed free agent right-hander Cody Eppley
Slama had gained notoriety with gaudy strikeout numbers in the minor leagues, but ultimately the Twins brass decided his skill set didn't bode well enough for an extended opportunity with the big league club in previous seasons.
The 2013 season had been particularly poor for Slama, as he had allowed 20 earned runs in just 13.1 innings pitched (13.50 ERA), with a 2.25 WHIP and more walks than strikeouts.
"His stuff was the same (this season)," general manager Terry Ryan said. "He just wasn't having success. That happens. He's been in Rochester for five years; I don't doubt it got stale for him. I think a change of scenery is going to be real good to him."
Eppley last pitched in the majors with the Yankees this season, allowing four of the eight batters he faced to reach base in what resulted in an ugly 1 2/3 innings pitched before the Bombers designated him for assignment in early May. The Yankees ultimately released him on June 7.
Eppley is a side-arm pitcher, whose fastball routinely sits in the mid-to-upper 80s, along with a slider and a rarely-used changeup.
When Eppley is on, he gets an incredible number of groundballs -- 59.9% career numbers -- which fits what the Twins are doing with the pitching staff quite nicely. Eppley profiles as a situational type who might fill out the back end of a bullpen, and could be called upon to get a double-play groundout in a tough spot.
• The Twins plan to have first-round pick Kohl Stewart in town early next week, Ryan said. Ryan offered no further comment as to how negotiations are proceeding with Stewart, whom the Twins took No. 4 overall in last week's draft.
• The New Britain Rock Cats were rained out of Thursday night's game with the Altoona Curve. The Curve swept the Cats in a doubleheader Wednesday, outscoring New Britain 10-2 in the process. The new trio of Cats -- Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, and Angel Morales -- went a combined 2 for 16 with both hits coming off Rosario's bat.
• Ryan Pressly was back in the Twins clubhouse prior to Thursday's game, and appeared to be feeling no ill-effects from missing last night's game with strep throat.
• With Thursday night's win, Cliff Lee ran his record versus the Twins -- the team whom he debuted against in a losing effort back on Sept. 15, 2002 -- to 9-4. Lee has made 20 starts in his career against the Twins. In his career, Lee has only faced the Royals (23 starts) and Tigers (21) more frequently than the Twins.