The Minnesota Twins are currently 2nd
in the AL in runs scored (86), 1st
in OBP (.353) and 1st
in walks (82). They also lead the AL in runs per game at 5.76. That’s not too bad for an offense that was routinely picked to finish towards the bottom of the league in nearly every category.
Yes, it’s only April and the sample size is incredibly small – but it’s a good start.
The offense has been bolstered by improved performances from multiple players including a breakout season from Chris Colabello and a surprising return to relevance from Jason Kubel. While Colabello is a great story and Kubel’s rebound is encouraging, the player that has been most impressive and, in my opinion, most improved, so far this season has been Trevor Plouffe.
Through 67 plate appearances in 2014, Plouffe is hitting an impressive .308/.418/.436 with an OPS+ of 147. Plouffe has 4 doubles, 1 home run and has taken 10 walks to start the young season (he averaged just over 30 walks a season over the past 3 years). He’s more than doubled his walk rate from 2013 while cutting his strikeout rate by almost half. Of course, all early season statistics come with the caveat of small sample size and potential regression.
A look at Plouffe’s advanced metrics; however, indicate Plouffe is taking a different approach at the plate this season. Perhaps Plouffe’s breakout campaign isn’t merely a run of good fortune, but the product of a new and improved player?
Plouffe has been much more disciplined at the plate this season, as evidenced by his early season walk totals, but there’s more to this discipline than just taking more walks. Per PITCHf/x Plouffe’s O-swing% (the percentage of balls Plouffe swings at outside the strike zone) sits at 12.5%. He’s reduced that by over 50% from 2013’s O-swing% of 26.2%. In addition, Plouffe is simply swinging his bat less overall. His swing% sits at 35.2%, down from 43.1% in 2013. His Z-swing% (the percentage of balls Plouffe swings at in the strike zone) remains relatively unchanged from 2013 (58.6%) to 2014 (58.2%) while his overall contact % is nearly identical (81% in 2013, 79% in 2014).
What does all of that mean? In short: Plouffe isn’t chasing bad pitches while he’s also being more selective in the strikes he does attack. This has resulted in an increased OBP and has helped Plouffe become a key piece in the offense’s early season success.
It’s likely that pitchers will eventually catch on to Plouffe’s new approach and start throwing him more strikes and daring him to put the ball in play. For previous seasons’ Trevor Plouffe, this could have posed a problem as he was a notorious pull hitter. Teams could easily counter this by pitching him away, resulting in a weakly hit ground ball or shifting the defense to the left side, forcing Plouffe into easy outs.
Luckily, Plouffe’s improvement has not solely come on taking more walks; he’s also driving the ball to all fields. Compare 2013’s spray chart:
Plouffe’s ability to use all fields is reinforced by his red hot BABIP of .364. While that number is sure to regress slightly as the season progresses other numbers indicate that the increased average isn’t a mirage. For example, Plouffe’s line drive rate has increased this season (29.5% up from 24.7%) as has his groundball rate (40.9% up from 38.6%) while his fly ball rate has decreased (29% down from 36.7%). Line drives and ground balls tend to lead to hits more than fly balls do, so an increase in those categories should show an increase in BABIP (and, in turn, batting average).
We’ve seen Plouffe go on red hot streaks each of the past two seasons, so it’s easy (and understandable) to take a "wait and see" approach when it comes to the impressive early numbers he’s been putting up in 2014. I think what we’re seeing from Plouffe is more than just an early season hot streak. He looks to be a more disciplined and patient hitter this season. In addition, he’s making better contact and using all fields to put in the ball in play. I think this is the start of a new Trevor Plouffe – one that should be a building block for the Twins in the coming years.