Wetmore: Are we witnessing the evolution of Trevor Plouffe?
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MINNEAPOLIS - MLB third baseman as a group have hit .241/.307/.389 this season. Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe is blowing all three marks out of the water with a batting line of .310/.419/.483.
Among third basemen who qualify for the batting title, Plouffe entered Tuesday first in on-base percentage, tied for first in batting average, and fourth in slugging percentage. He has made a few mistakes on defense but generally he's been respectable.
What has gotten into him?
This was a player who many wrote off as a placeholder at the hot corner until Miguel Sano arrived to take over the position full-time for the Twins. This group includes the author. Sano's Tommy John surgery may have bought Plouffe as much as a full year, depending on when you think the Twins were willing to call up Sano.
This 2014 Plouffe, however, has proven to be a delightful surprise for Twins fans.
As Brandon Warne noted in a blog for the Pioneer Press, Plouffe used to be a dead-pull hitter.
In his career, Plouffe hasn't fared well when hitting the ball the other way. His batting line in those situations is a paltry .204/.200/.313. That comprises more than 1,400 plate appearances, and when going the other way, he didn't hit the ball with authority or get on base effectively. Conversely, when he's pulled the ball, he's hit .387/.384/.735.
He's mashing this year, however, and doing so effectively to all fields. He has five singles, five doubles and a triple to center field this season. He has three doubles to right.
Plouffe's first 100 plate appearances shouldn't wash out the information we had from all those plate appearances earlier in his career. But his hot start can be viewed as a positive development for the Twins. I think it's worth allowing for the possibility that Plouffe's altered approach -- which he said is conscious change -- has led to some of his improvement at the plate.
What's the root cause?
He simplified these changes in a short discussion recently, but it could be boiled down to two key elements: awareness and trust.
Awareness in that he has a plan every time to the plate; trust in his quick hands to get around on an inside fastball. That allows him to focus on other parts of the plate and hit the ball hard wherever it's pitched, rather than hoping for a fastball on the inner half to turn on and pull to left field, like in the past.
"I think I'm just taking what the pitcher is giving me instead of trying to look for something middle-in [to pull]. Instead of doing that, just having a mindset to use the whole field," Plouffe said. "I don't think anything has changed really with my swing, but going up there thinking about using the whole field will allow you to do it."
He said experience and maturity helped him realize the best thing for him, as well as guidance from hitting coach Tom Brunansky.
"If you're thinking about using the middle of the field -- the big part of the field -- usually your bat path will stay through the zone longer. As opposed to if you're thinking about going out and getting a pitch and trying to pull it, you're going to be quicker through the zone, out to where you want to catch up with the ball," Plouffe said. "So if you got a pitch on the outer half of the plate when you're trying to do that, you might slice it, but when you're thinking about using the big part of the field and your barrel is through the zone, then you generate a little bit more power."
Teammates have noticed. Twins closer Glen Perkins recently shared his view of 2014 Plouffe on the Mackey & Judd show on 1500 ESPN.
"He's staying inside the ball, he's letting it travel deeper and hitting it the other way," Perkins said, before describing a recent Plouffe double down the right field line. "You could see his approach is letting the ball get deep [in the hitting zone] and driving it the other way. He's taking those breaking balls away and those fastballs away and hitting them [to right field]."
Sometimes this year - perhaps more often than in the past - Plouffe will strike out on inside fastballs. That might be OK with the Twins, because the tradeoff is that he's a more versatile hitter, capable of hitting the ball hard to each part of the field.
"Most of the times you will be quick enough to get [to an inside fastball], but every once in a while you'll get beat. You can't let that affect your thinking for the next at bat," Plouffe said. "You've just got to trust that your hands will be there."
Besides the extra base hits, the approach of letting the ball travel deep into the hitting zone has an added fringe benefit.
"It's been letting him draw walks, I think, he wouldn't have drawn last year on those breaking balls down and away," Perkins said. "Pitches he was selling out for and swinging at that he's not this year."
Consistent with the Twins' walk-happy approach, Plouffe is drawing bases on balls nearly twice as often as he had previously. He's drawn a walk in 14.3 percent of plate appearances this season (career rate of 7.6 percent). That's second among qualified third baseman. And no third baseman in baseball chases fewer balls out of the zone, on average, than Plouffe. In fact this year in the Majors only Shin-Soo Choo and Matt Joyce have chased fewer pitches out of the strike zone than Plouffe on a percentage basis. Perhaps as much as anything, that fact illustrates Plouffe's maturity at the plate.
Now, an unsustainably high number of his batted balls fell in for hits in April, and as some of those balls turn into outs during the course of the season, it's fair to expect his overall numbers to suffer.
But even with that expected regression, it's possible we're witnessing the evolution of Trevor Plouffe.