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Look for Plouffe to rebound

Attached Image: Plouffe.jpg It was not more than a month or so ago that third baseman Trevor Plouffe was the hottest thing in the Twin Cities. Essentially, he was “Call Me Maybe” personified.

Prior to taking a Luke Hochaver offering on the right thumb back on July 20, Plouffe was compiling decent number – including otherworldly stats in the power department such as 11 home runs in 26 games. However, since his return on August 20 he is now just 8-for-56 (.142) and has yet to hit for extra bases.

The depressed performance has spurred a debate regarding Plouffe’s long-term starting viability and Twins GM Terry Ryan ‘challenged’ him to step up and win the starting third base job heading towards the season’s final month. Although his performance as of late has been lackluster, there are signs that this is just a temporary lull brought on by the extended time off and the injury to his thumb.

For starters, his batted ball numbers have completely rearranged themselves since his hiatus. Since returning from the disabled list, the hitter who was once making it rain with fly balls at an over 50 percent as recently as the end of June, Plouffe has not elevated the ball recently and has seen his fly ball rate drop to 35 percent in August. While a reduction in flies has a tendency to whittle away one’s power numbers, the good news is that he’s actually hitting a higher percentage of line drives. Of course, the bad news is that those liners just are not becoming hits (as evidenced by his .142 average on the month).

Then there is the fact that he’s seemed unbalanced when it comes to his pitch selection. Last night, after whiffing on Seattle Mariner Josh Kinney’s 79 mile per hour slurve, FSN analyst Roy Smalley remarked that “[He’s] out in front – badly – on a breaking ball. That’s an ‘I’m concerned about being beat on the fastball and I swing at the first thing I see.’”

Though he is not necessarily getting beat outright on the slow stuff, Plouffe is swinging at more off-speed offerings since his return. For instance, heading into last night’s game Plouffe had swung at 13 of the 16 changeups (81%) he had seen. Before his injury, he was swinging at 41 of 82 (50%). This more or less speaks to Smalley’s critique and smacks of a hitter struggling with pitch recognition and leaving him with a swing that out in front of the pitch only to result in a weak grounder or infield pop-up (hence the decline in long fly balls). In theory, this will take some time getting re-acclimated to the competition.

Finally, mechanically speaking, Plouffe is not turning his hips in the same violent manner in which he did while pulling the tar out of the ball in June and July. With the exception of the swing he put on Felix Hernandez’s fastball on Monday night, Plouffe’s swing system appears off-kilter -- likely due symptom of both timing and pitch recognition issues. Without the timely torque from his core, he has not been pulling the ball with as much vigor as he did pre-thumb injury.

Ryan admitted that he may hold some blame for the numbers decline by not sending Plouffe out on a longer rehab assignment. After all, he only was granted two games and nine plate appearances in order to get by in the swing of things after missing time because of the bruised thumb.

Ryan is correct in acknowledging that the Twins missed an opportunity to give Plouffe additional time to recalibrate prior to returning to the major league roster. What’s more is that this current output should not be entirely unexpected of Plouffe either. When he was sidelined throughout the majority of spring training he started the season extremely slow. In mid-May, he was hitting .133/.288/.217 and Ryan – at that time – went to the media to encourage his third baseman to step up. Plouffe responded and hit .296/.344/.618 with 18 home runs over his next 52 games.

Plouffe has certainly not proven that he’s capable of providing sustained production for an entire season and that is cause of concern. Then again injuries have buttressed his season explaining why his offensive stats have been bookended by terrible numbers. Look for Plouffe to regain traction in September and reclaim his rightful place as the Twins starting third baseman in 2013.

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