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Joe Benson And The Twins' Hitting Philosophy

As your turkey and pumpkin pies were still being digested from Thanksgiving dinner, you may have missed the news that the Minnesota Twins had signed old friend Joe Benson to a minor league contract.

Benson, you may recall, was a promising center fielder in the organization who was ranked in Baseball America’s Top 100 list. He was lauded by scouts and prospect evalutators as a rare five-tool player. However, injuries and ineffectiveness facilitated his exit in 2013. Because of his potential, Benson has bounced around the minor leagues with Texas to Miami to Atlanta to Sugar Land to New York. Now headed for his age-28 season, Benson is back with his original team and ready to provide depth in the Rochester outfield.

The following this isn’t a story or analysis on Benson, per se. This is a tale about the Twins’ hitting philosophy and how it has changed over the past few years.
Image courtesy of Derick E. Hingle, USA Today
Here is Benson’s swing in September 2011 during his only stint at the Major League level.

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Does that swing look familiar? It’s basically Brian Dozier. Getting that front foot out and down early and then let the hands and hips supply the power. That style is no accident as it has been passed down to numerous hitters throughout the organization. In 2011, Baseball America’s David Laurila interviewed Benson along with then-New Britain Rock Cats hitting instructor Tom Brunansky and wondered what if any philosophies were being instilled by the coaching staff throughout the system. “Absolutely,” Benson replied. “Stay as quiet as possible at the plate, get your foot down early, and especially with Bruno, working on where I need to get to in order to get extension through the baseball.”

Keep quiet. Foot down early. These have been the tenets of the Minnesota Twins’ hitting philosophy for some years. It is the offensive version of “pitch to contact”.

In 2013, Bobby Tewksbary -- the private hitting instructor responsible for helping cultivate the swings of Chris Colabello and Josh Donaldson through his Elite Swing Mechanics program -- visited the Minnesota Twins camp. In scouting Benson’s hacks Tewksbary noted “I would bet he had really good patterns earlier in his career, then has been coached out of them. I hope he finds the right feel again. All scouting reports say he is a tremendous athlete and I know it isn’t fun to struggle like he has.”

Benson wasn’t the only hitter whose athleticism was coached out of them in the system. After demonstrating decent movements with his lower half and hand load while in high school showcases, the Twins eventually reduced Byron Buxton’s swing patterns to the same muted, compact linear mechanics as seen by Benson above. Rather than try to embrace his natural movements, the organization eliminated them. Stop moving. Get your foot down.

Like Benson, Carlos Gomez was also instructed to get his foot down early and remain still at the plate -- not matter how much his instincts told him to move and create rhythm. This led to a 645 OPS during his Minnesota tenure before reinventing himself in Milwaukee as a centerfielder with power.

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Before
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After

If you were a speed guy, regardless of your power potential, the Twins would outfit their hitters with a specific swing which may or may not be the best fit. But it wasn’t just speedy outfielders that received this treatment. Danny Valencia was another victim of the team’s outdated teachings. In 2010, the third baseman had an excellent rookie campaign, hitting for power and average as a 25-year-old. His power jumped in 2011 but his pull tendencies allowed the league to quickly figured him out and his numbers suffered greatly. It wasn’t until he hit the ripe age of 30 and the Blue Jays organization that he was able to change his ingrained approach. He got his foot down later. He generated power through creating depth in his load process. In short, just the opposite of what the Twins taught him. The result was a career-high in home runs (18).


Of course, not everyone has had instant success when throwing off the swing shackles. When Benson was selected off waivers by the Texas Rangers in 2013, he immediately changed his mechanics but his season in the Rangers organization left a lot to be desired. That was followed by a year in Miami’s system in which he performed well in AA but now was significantly older than the league’s average. In 2015 he came one cut away from making the Atlanta Braves roster out of camp before being assigned to the minors (where he was eventually cut midseason).

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Before
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After

Benson may put it all together in his age-28 season, similar to how Valencia did for his age-30 year, and provide the Twins with outfield depth a phone call away in Rochester but you have to wonder what Benson’s career might have looked like had he been given an opportunity with more appropriate mechanics. After all, most evaluators agree that Benson was one of those rare five-tool talents. There are signs that the organization is not going to repeat the mistakes of the past.

While it may have been coincidental, since the Twins dismissed minor league hitting coordinator Bill Springman for “philosophical differences” prior to the 2014 season, there appears to be less of an emphasis on adhering to the no movement/foot down early. Since then, inside the organization, players who would normally be expected to maintain the low movement/foot down early method have been encouraged to make adjustments. Prime example is outfielder Max Kepler whose transition to a big leg kick to generate power in his breakout year. In a conversation with Chattanooga hitting coach Chad Allen -- who Springman had a hand in hiring -- Allen affirmed that the swing change was by design, motivated by the staff. Meanwhile Brunansky has said in the past that he isn’t interested in remaining rigid when it comes to a player’s swing. He noted that he has not tried to change Oswaldo Arcia’s big leg kick and loud hand movements despite the decline in performance. When Aaron Hicks struggled to perform from the left side and felt that a leg kick would help, Brunansky worked with him to refine it, not remove it. On the front office side, the Twins have locked up Byung Ho Park to a four-year deal, an indication that they are not deterred by Park’s big movement swing patterns.

Previously, the Twins were notoriously blamed for ruining players' swing or hindering their potential by forcing them into the Twins' mold. Their reputation preceded them as hitters would leave the organization, find success elsewhere, and occasionally disparage the instruction they received in the system. Now, when it comes to developing the talent in the system, the organization seems to be headed in the right direction.

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42 Comments

Interesting read. The video bears out what you are saying quite well.

 

 

This is awesome!!

 

As I was reading that, I kept thinking of names...

 

The whole "pitch to contact" philosophy seemed to come out of the success of Brad Radke, who was tremendous during his career by simply throwing a lot of strikes and a great changeup. So, Rick Anderson and the organization's philosophy on pitching seemed to be based on that success story, rather than saying "that's what worked for him, but it may not work for Pitcher X or Pitcher Y."

 

You look at Paul Molitor, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. They all have very quiet swings, and found a ton of success. But it can't be cookie cutter. I get that those are good guys to emulate and pattern yourself after, but only if it works. Cuddyer kind of took off when he added the leg kick. One of the best ever, Kirby Puckett, took off with the leg kick.

 

Cookie-cutter is never good.

    • glunn, Danchat, dgwills and 5 others like this

Great reporting, Parker. A lot of fragments from the past put into context.

 

Watching the three Valencia swings, it seems that he finishes on his heel in the first two and more on the flat/ball of the foot in the Toronto video. Seems he's in better balance now.

    • glunn likes this

I really enjoyed reading this.  For years we had the Twins Way and I think you have described the dangers of having a set performance behaviour in an organization that will rise when individuals reach their own performance goals and not the rigid judgment of form and discipline.

    • glunn and Kwak like this

I thought that the Twins hitting philosophy was "Only use it as a last resort!".

    • puckstopper1 likes this
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twinsnorth49
Dec 02 2015 10:11 AM

Seemed to work for Dozier, I remember the analysis you did on him a couple of years back and his success at the plate seemed to really accelerate based on those changes. 

 

Agree it shouldn't be cookie cutter though and glad the Twins seemed to have shifted from that mindset.

    • glunn likes this
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Parker Hageman
Dec 02 2015 10:16 AM
Seemed to work for Dozier, I remember the analysis you did on him a couple of years back and his success at the plate seemed to really accelerate based on those changes.

 

 

No question and this isn't say it is a bad thing overall. As Seth mentioned, there are plenty of hitters where this style works. The Twins just seemed to default to it without consideration of the player. 

 

    • glunn and Oldgoat_MN like this

Wow! I had no idea that the Twins were so incompetent as an organization. Do other teams have coaching staffs that are this incompetent with regard to player development? This is just shocking to read!

I've often wondered how much is on the scouts vs the coaches in the minors (it being mostly on the player, obviously). This affirms one of my suspicions, not sure it is conclusive, but it wouldn't surprise me.

Great post Parker. I'm sadden and yet hopeful after reading this. As others have said, the cookie-cutter approach should not be a legal philosophy on the Twins or elsewhere. I only hope they can dig up footage of Joe's HS days to get him on track again. He would be a great asset to the OF. Can you imagine an OF of Buxton, Rosario, Benson, and Kepler? Could be a Speedy Gonzales OF, or the "grass burners."
    • glunn likes this
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GMinTraining
Dec 02 2015 11:14 AM

Great Read

 

Bottom line - Do they understand what you are saying as an instructor? and how long does it take instructor to figure out the prospect doesn't understand what he is communicating?  How does each prospect learn best?  Video - Demonstration - Verbal Clues - Through Failure? 

 

I personally believe that the kids in Ft. Myers and Chattanooga are further behind compared to so many other prospects in baseball, because they don't have their games televised for reference purposes.  Chattanooga was one of 2 teams in Southern League to not have games televised.  Most young players learn via video today.  Being able to look at film from each game has to be the best teaching tool and those two important levels failed to have film regularly enough for their players. IMO

 

Philosophy is one thing - Proper teaching tools is another. Would love for Seth and Jeremy to ask why / if the Twins teach off of film regularly at the minor league levels compared to other systems.  Also ask the players if they would love to have more video of their ABs?

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clutterheart
Dec 02 2015 11:52 AM
I would be curious to see if this is also true of david ortiz
    • glunn, Michael (ClassicMNTwins) and Minniman like this
Could you say a little more about changes to Buxton's mechanics? I hope it is not oracular that you included that paragraph in an article whose leader was the story of a highly regarded five tool outfield prospect who lost his swing when instructors tweaked his mechanics.
    • glunn and Oldgoat_MN like this

I think completely changing swings is not a good thing.1st of all the player was drafted, traded for signed, etc because they had success in some regards.To go ahead and change that swing they have become accustomed to in order to fit into a mold the "Teacher" feels more comfortable teaching tells me it is more on the coach not knowing how to coach all swing types.Yes, I agree there are flaws in swings that can be removed, swings shortened a bit, hitches, etc.But the foot down philosophy just seems to be a hinderance to power and driving the ball.If the bat can get through the zone on the right plane with a good amount of speed don't mess with it, adjust as necessary.

 

Think of golf swings.Jim Furyk is the prime example of a "what the hell was that" type of swing.What matters is he gets the club in the slot and generates the plane, speed and power necessary to be successful.Should be the same with baseball swings.Let them wiggle and shake and use a leg kick.If they can make good contact leave it be and let them learn the advanced pitching with one less thing to worry about.

    • glunn, Kwak and dgwills like this

 

Great Read

 

Bottom line - Do they understand what you are saying as an instructor? and how long does it take instructor to figure out the prospect doesn't understand what he is communicating?  How does each prospect learn best?  Video - Demonstration - Verbal Clues - Through Failure? 

 

I personally believe that the kids in Ft. Myers and Chattanooga are further behind compared to so many other prospects in baseball, because they don't have their games televised for reference purposes.  Chattanooga was one of 2 teams in Southern League to not have games televised.  Most young players learn via video today.  Being able to look at film from each game has to be the best teaching tool and those two important levels failed to have film regularly enough for their players. IMO

 

Philosophy is one thing - Proper teaching tools is another. Would love for Seth and Jeremy to ask why / if the Twins teach off of film regularly at the minor league levels compared to other systems.  Also ask the players if they would love to have more video of their ABs?

Don't teams video at-bats whether or not games are televised?

    • glunn and formerly33 like this

Worth noting that in the midst of the "career" year you tout Valencia for he was DFA'd and picked up by another team that seems to have made replacing him a cornerstone of their offseason plan.

    • Jham likes this
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Parker Hageman
Dec 02 2015 12:43 PM
Worth noting that in the midst of the "career" year you tout Valencia for he was DFA'd and picked up by another team that seems to have made replacing him a cornerstone of their offseason plan.

 

 

I don't know if it is "worth noting" but the Blue Jays had acquired Troy Tulowitzki when they DFA'd Valencia and he was snapped up by the team with the first option (Oakland). And, if you believe MLB Trade Rumors, Valencia is drawing interest on the market. 

 

    • glunn, Kwak, big dog and 1 other like this

 

Don't teams video at-bats whether or not games are televised?

 

Yes... the TV feed would do little to help them mechanically. They have video from the dugout areas usually. 

    • glunn, big dog and formerly33 like this

I found this article both fascinating and disturbing.Good to hear they appear to be moving away from this philosophy, but man, it makes you wonder how many players got derailed. 

    • glunn, Jerr and Kwak like this

 

I don't know if it is "worth noting" but the Blue Jays had acquired Troy Tulowitzki when they DFA'd Valencia and he was snapped up by the team with the first option (Oakland). And, if you believe MLB Trade Rumors, Valencia is drawing interest on the market. 

That's fair, but it's also fair to note that the team that snapped him up traded to get their old infielder back and is now looking to trade Danny away.  He's definitely better than he was with the Twins, but his new nickname ought to be "Suitcase".

 

And great article, by the way.  Fascinating stuff.

What I liked most about this read is that it shows no two hitters are alike, and a good coach gets the most out of what he has.  From my experience is it is not where you start but where you finish when it comes to hitting.  Some hitters have a ton of movement before the pitcher starts to pitch, but all the good hitters get set to the same point and finish at the same point.  It is so hard to tell an athlete that everything they have been doing for years is now wrong and you need to unlearn what you learned your whole life.  This just messes with them.  What should be done is work with what they know and make small changes to fix wholes in swings.  

    • glunn likes this

By the way, reading this article this morning and then watching Byung-ho Park say during the press conference that he's planning on making some adjustments to his swing made me worry. Of course it's normal, but what kind of adjustments will those be?

    • glunn, Mike Sixel and Minniman like this
Given his age and multiple clubs and hitting coaches, the most plausible explanation is that Benson just can't hit. It happens.

That's fair, but it's also fair to note that the team that snapped him up traded to get their old infielder back and is now looking to trade Danny away. He's definitely better than he was with the Twins, but his new nickname ought to be "Suitcase".

And great article, by the way. Fascinating stuff.


Probably the biggest factor in Valencia 's success is becoming a platoon player.
    • SwainZag likes this
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TNLooky2015
Dec 02 2015 04:12 PM

 

Yes... the TV feed would do little to help them mechanically. They have video from the dugout areas usually. 

No...Miracle and Lookouts video different players on different days.  Players (hitters) don't have daily film of themselves (from dugouts).  And I disagree that no film is better than some film (even if TV film).  Would definitely help with timing issues.  Parents sat at game contemplating about same issue.  "How can they not have film to study every game at this level".  They don't have film of opponents either at AA level.  

    • Parker Hageman likes this

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