Can The Twins Find Hitting Inspiration Up North?
Image courtesy of Kim Klement // USA TODAYTwins hitting coach Tom Brunansky doesn’t think Toronto’s style of offense -- from the big movements and swings from likes of Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and others -- is anything new to the club.
“It started a long time ago,” said Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky. “I think that philosophy started when Cito Gaston was there, when he was their hitting guy. Then it kinda took off when Cito was the manager and then they had Dwayne Murphy there, you know Murph had a leg kick. I think you can go back to the days when George Bell, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield and the era that I played, those were the same type of guys, a bunch of free swingers.”
It is true that Gaston and Murphy are credited with helping Bautista unlock his swing that has resulted in 243 home runs in 6 years -- the most in baseball in that time -- but there are also guys like Donaldson who refined his mechanics while in Oakland and other players such as Danny Valencia, Chris Colabello and Kevin Pillar who have patterned some elements of their swing after Donaldson (in conjunction with the Blue Jays coaching staff). After all, the Blue Jays third baseman blew the lid off the hitting community with his recent breakdown of his process on the MLB Network. That ideology goes beyond just grip-and-rip, what Donaldson talks about is closer to a cheat code.
Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe agrees that it is invaluable to have players around who like to bounce swing talk off one another. Brian Dozier said he learned how to decimate fastballs by watching and picking the brains of Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham. If it is Bautista and Donaldson encouraging organizational newcomers like Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki to add more rhythm to their swing or transfer more weight on their back legs before driving at the the ball, that type of communication can influence the makeup of an entire lineup.
Plouffe, who the Twins drafted out of Crespi Carmelite High School in 2004, highlighted some of the differences in philosophy between the two organizations. Early in his development, Plouffe said there was an emphasis placed on just making contact and that came with a request to alter his swing.
“I remember coming into my rookie ball season and I went and just played,” Plouffe said. “I thought I did a pretty good job. Then the following spring training our hitting coordinator, [Jim Dwyer], wanted to change some things and I was up for the change. I wanted to produce and do well by the team and the organization. He started to have me do a toe-tap thing. It started to evolve from there. I didn’t really have success with [the toe tap] and as I got a little older and further up the line, I realized that you have to do what’s comfortable for you.”
Plouffe’s story does not differ much from that of Byron Buxton. Buxton says that the Twins staff changed him in rookie ball, slowing down his movement and installing a toe-tap stride. Four years later, Buxton is struggling to rediscover his original swing which made him the most sought after draft pick in 2012. Plouffe eventually landed on a leg lift as a timing mechanism, which coincides when he started hitting for power. According to Plouffe, Brunansky calls his swing “awkward” and “unorthodox”.
The Twins do have plenty of hitters who come into the system, either by draft, trade or signing, who have incorporated the big movements in their swing similar to what is seen from the Blue Jays lineup. Some hitters who have passed through the organization have complained that the Twins have tried to get them to eliminate that portion of their swing, sending them into disastrous stretches because they are trying to overhaul a key component of their swing in season. Brunansky said that is not his philosophy and that the organization does not tell their hitters to tone down the swing.
“One thing is you never want to take away somebody’s ability,” said Brunansky. “If they want to use a leg kick and that’s something they feel good about and that’s who they are, we will certainly work with it. [The leg kick] is gonna continue until they prove that they can’t [use it]. That’s the one thing once you get to this level up here, the game dictates whether you can or can’t.”
In regards to copying the Blue Jays’ approach, Brunansky bristles a bit.
“I think that they come in free to not worry about certain things,” Brunansky said of Toronto’s organizational hitting philosophy. “They’re not worried about striking out. They are not worried about putting the ball in play in certain situations. They are going to go attack. They figure they are going to do enough damage.”
Brunansky said that differs from his philosophy, which places priority on not striking out in key situations. The Blue Jays approach, he believes, will lead to more strikeouts.
“I’m not a big fan of strikeouts and I know the game has progressed to the point where strikeouts have become commonplace,” he emphasized. “I certainly don’t want it to be such a negative where hitters fear getting in the box with two strikes. I don’t like strikeouts with runners on base -- and certainly not with a runner on third. And I get it, you are not always going to put the ball in play with a runner on third but that has been a backbreaker for us.”
It is a misconception that the Blue Jays’ approach equates to strikeouts. After all, since the start of the 2015 season, they have struck out in 20% of their plate appearances, 20th of the 30 teams. And their contributors in Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion all have strikeout rates well below the league’s average. Meanwhile, the Twins’ just-put-it-play mindset has led to a 21.5% strikeout rate, 9th highest out of 30.
The Twins have had a history of players who have had minimal, foot-down-early approaches over the last decade plus. Joe Mauer excels at the craft of hitting by reducing his movement. Miguel Sano’s approach involves minimal movements. Brian Dozier’s power numbers are a testament to the notion that you don’t have to have any leg kick if you do everything else right in the swing. In the modern game, however, that kind of thinking has gone by the wayside, along with pitch-to-contact pitchers.
“There is a lot more video available now, I think people understand now that you need to get to a certain spot but you can get to that spot in a lot of different ways,” Plouffe said. “In my opinion you don’t want to conform everybody to the same type of swing because everybody has grown up swinging differently. We’ve swung for 27 years now and it’s who we are. If you can get to that certain spot, people are realizing there are a million different ways to get there.”
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