Where Did Plouffe's Power Come From?
Needless to say, it took plenty of work and patience on both the part of Plouffe and the Minnesota Twins to coax this power out. If you review his minor league numbers, he was scarcely a player one would describe as being blessed with raw power. After all, he hit 49 home runs in his first 680 games in the minors, hardly a fountain of clout. Nevertheless, with a steady tinkering of his mechanics and approach, the Twins were able to tap into a substantial, if unexpected, power source.
Over the past three seasons, Plouffe has made the transition from a slasher to an unbelievably potent bat.
[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]In 2010, Plouffe maintained a somewhat crouched, closed stance. He held his hands high and, as you can see in the video clip, he had plenty of pre-swing bat movement. This caused him to have to move his hands a great distance from close to his head all the way back to the load position.
However, in 2011, as you can see in the front view image below, Plouffe opened up his stance, keeping his front foot aim towards the shortstop side of the diamond, rather than at the second base side. This season, he made two important changes that aided him in hitting a career-high 26 home runs split between Rochester and Minnesota. The first was keeping his bat still before the pitch. The second was incorporating a more violent leg kick, helping to generate power.
In 2010 Plouffe hit what was then a career best of 15 home runs in 445 plate appearances at Rochester. In 2011 it took him only 220 plate appearances to reach that mark proving he was progressing in the power department.
A strong kid, Plouffe’s mechanical adjustments resulted in a batted ball type shift from being a ground ball hitter to one who could elevate pitches. Prior to 2011, his ground ball rate was consistently between 42% and 50% in the minors. Afterwards, that ground ball rate dropped significantly to 31% while at Rochester in 2011.
Fast forward to the current season, Plouffe started the year off extremely slow, hitting just .133 with two home runs in his first 73 plate appearances. For the most part, his mechanics were very much the same as his 2011 season – one which produced both a glutton and famine of production. He still had the opened stance, the tall starting position and aggressive leg kick but now he was getting his bat position off of his body.
As you can see from the front view below, Plouffe moved his hands away from his body a bit and, as has been repeated by the FSN analysts, Ron Coomer and Roy Smalley, Joe Vavra was working on getting him to keep his head still during his swing to improve his contact rate.
In the season’s first two months, Plouffe was hitting a high percentage of fly balls, but did not quite get the desired distance. As I mentioned a little over a week ago, that began to change rapidly. This month Plouffe has turned into a manimal, tearing the cover off the ball and obliterating opponent’s fastballs. According to Fangraphs.com’s Pitch Value data, Plouffe has hit the fastball 5.2 runs above average in June alone – only the Angels’ Mike Trout at 7.8 runs above average has had a better month against the heat. This has led to eight home runs over 46 plate appearances and another four doubles to boot.
There are a few minor alterations Plouffe has made since May 28 that has led to this unbridled and unadulterated display of power. The first is getting his back elbow up, which you can see in both the side and front view images. The second, and probably more important addition, is that he is placing his weight more on his back leg and giving him a slightly lowered and wider stance. In the video clip you will see that, in action, he keeps his weight back during his leg kick and we see his hip rotation is centered well almost directly above his back leg.
What helps too is Plouffe’s ability to make contact out in front and pull the ball. As I have previously discussed in regards to Josh Willingham Target Field can been inviting to those who have mastered the art of pulling the ball with authority. Now you can add Plouffe to that list. In terms of isolated slugging, a metric that subtracts batting average from slugging percentage to reveal just the power contributions, Plouffe has posted a .692 isolated slugging percentage when pulling the ball, second only behind Chicago’s Adam Dunn (.828).
Will Plouffe’s power continue? Despite the improvement in his swing, a lot of whether he continues to pop has to do with his contact rates, pitch recognition and ability to adjust.
A year ago, we saw some streaky power binges but opponents were able to get him to expand the zone (32% out-of-zone swing rate versus 31% league average) while his in-zone contact was firmly below average (83% in-zone contact versus 88% league average), which may be attributed to the aforementioned head movement that Vavra was attempting to correct. So far this year Plouffe has been noticeably better in both departments. He has greatly reduced his tendency to chase after pitches (26% out-of-zone swing rate versus 30% league average) and has an above average contact rate with in-zone pitches (89% in-zone contact versus 87% league average).
Part of the improvement in his contact rate, along with the potential head stabilization, is his ability to handle sliders better. In 2011, Plouffe was unable to do much against sliders, particularly from right-handed pitchers. PitchF/X data suggests he swung at 51.6% of all sliders thrown his direction that year and, all said, he was 1.4 runs below average when facing sliders. Plouffe’s inability to allow a slider to pass by likely was the reason behind his ground ball rate spiking to 40%. This year, however, he has managed to lay off more often than not when a pitcher spins one his direction. PitchF/X data says he’s swinging just 36% of the time on sliders. What’s more is that when he does put a swing on a slider, he has been doing damage to the tune of 1.9 runs above average.
Last, as mentioned above, Plouffe has been decimating fastballs, particularly on the inner-half of the zone. These facts will not likely escape advanced scouts for upcoming opponents. Soon enough, the fastball well will dry up or teams will begin to stay away from the inside part of the plate. Plouffe will need to adjust to whatever the new plan of attack is and continue to punish any mistakes thrown his way.