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  • Can The Twins Find Hitting Inspiration Up North?


    Parker Hageman

    As the Minnesota Twins slipped across Lake Erie and back into the United States on Sunday night following a three-game series in Toronto, the pitching staff would not be blamed if they sat the entire flight curled in the fetal position.

    The stats were horrific. Over the weekend series the Blue Jays mashed nine home runs, ten doubles and scampered for one triple. They compiled 38 hits overall and plated 32 runs. They walked more than they struck out. This was nothing new. Since the beginning of 2015 Toronto has out-slugged, out-homered and out-scored everybody. They also have the second-highest on-base percentage, falling just being the Red Sox.

    The series against the Twins was just business as usual for the pride of Canada. When it comes to hitting, the Toronto Blue Jays just get it.

    Image courtesy of Kim Klement // USA TODAY

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    Twins 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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    Why is someone with 30 home runs batting leadoff?!?
    The only reason off the top of my head is that Dozier seems to do better and thrive in the leadoff spot. There isn't another strategic reason and I would be interested to see what the numbers say when Dozier hits in different spots in the lineup.
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    Dozier's power should result in better pitches to hit for those hitting ahead of him.  He was batting 3, 4, and 5 during June and July when the Twins played .500 ball.  They had Vargas in that mix in July too.  Mauer had a hot streak in that span, lifting his average 20 points.  

     

    Even with small sample size his results are good as were the Twins.  They should keep him in the middle of the lineup.  Let him drive in runs and make opposing pitching throw strikes and fastballs to those ahead of Dozier.

     

    The problem is a lack of a lead-off guy.  Nunez filled the spot until August.  There's no one else to set the table.  Mauer was tried at lead-off and it didn't work well.  Maybe in 2017 we can have Buxton at lead-off.  Maybe that won't work out.  

     

    Too many holes to fill.  

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    A couple things on Dozier batting leadoff:

     

    1. He says he likes hitting there.

     

    2. There's been a shift away from the "traditional" batting lineup.  First was a shift of the team's power hitter to the #3 position.  Never heard a reason why, but getting that guy to the plate one more time per game works for me.

     

    If Dozier likes hitting there, and remains successful, then it makes even more sense to move further way from that traditional batting order and move a couple OBP guy's to the 8-9 spots.

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    A couple things on Dozier batting leadoff:

     

    1. He says he likes hitting there.

     

    2. There's been a shift away from the "traditional" batting lineup.  First was a shift of the team's power hitter to the #3 position.  Never heard a reason why, but getting that guy to the plate one more time per game works for me.

     

    If Dozier likes hitting there, and remains successful, then it makes even more sense to move further way from that traditional batting order and move a couple OBP guy's to the 8-9 spots.

     

    so they get less ABs? That seems backward to me. Give your two better hitters 1 less AB a game, so that 1 player can "feel happy"?

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    The only reason off the top of my head is that Dozier seems to do better and thrive in the leadoff spot. There isn't another strategic reason and I would be interested to see what the numbers say when Dozier hits in different spots in the lineup.

    Dozier has done really well batting first, but even better batting 4th and 5th (though batting 5th has a pretty small sample size).

    Just to spell it out for any who don't know, all kinds of splits such as mentioned in this second post can be viewed here:

     

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.cgi?id=doziebr01&year=2016&t=b

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    Would love to see the Twins go after Bautista this offseason to mentor Sano.

     

    As much as I like Bautista and having his presence around the lineup and clubhouse, I'm not sure there is room for him in the outfield -- as the Twins current envision things. He's another corner outfielder/first base/DH type that the system is lousy with.

     

    Now, if the Twins move Rosario/Kepler or someone else this offseason for pitching, Bautista would make some sense. I don't know what he is looking for but I'm sure it is a hefty price tag after the years he has had and, at age-35, he's prime for regression. 

     

    How's that for talking in a full circle?

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    Nope......but at least it makes sense. IMO.

     

    Not sure that it makes sense for Plouffe to be in this team. I'd rather see Vargas instead of him.

     

    Also Mauer is clogging the bases.  I'd rather see him down the order.

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    Now Mauer is clogging the bases?  Really?  Wow.  Does this guy even deserve to be on a MLB team at this point? 

     

    Mauer is not a negative on the basepads.  He's right at average for a MLB baserunner (because it's more than just speed that makes a baserunner good)..  On our current roster, Kepler, Rosario, Dozier, Escobar and Grossman are rated better base-runners.  That's five guys.

     

    Of those five guys, Escobar and Grossman aren't really regulars.

     

    Of those five only Grossman, gets on base at a higher clip (and again, not really a regular any more).  None of the other four are within even 30 OBP points of Mauer (most not even close).  Two of those guys have sub .300 OBP.

     

    Do we want the guy with a .376 OBP getting less PAs?  This guy doesn't.

    Edited by jimmer
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    Not sure that it makes sense for Plouffe to be in this team. I'd rather see Vargas instead of him.

     

    Also Mauer is clogging the bases.  I'd rather see him down the order.

     

    he is on the team. This is the roster. The question was.....how would you do the order, if not Dozier hitting first.

     

    As for your Mauer statement, I hope you aren't serious. 

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    Maybe an ABW would flourish under the Toronto philosophy.  His averages over a MLB 162 game season thru 5 minor league seasons:

    35 HRs

    120 RBI

    30 Doubles

    5 Triples

    206 Strikeouts

     

    Hard to handle the strikeouts, but his other numbers have been as consistent as they come.  I like how Toronto rolls - Pick your poison.  One of our big boys is gonna getcha!

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    Brunanski claims he doesn't like that Toronto strikes out in big spots, and the Twins are trained to put the ball in play doesn't sit well with me.  

     

    First of all the Twins have 1120 Strikeouts so far this year, the Blue Jays have 1114.  So the Twins strikeout more even though they are taught to just make contact.  Second, and I can't quantify this, but the Twins strikeouts with in key spots happens ALL THE TIME.  There have been so many times this year with one out and a runner on third when a fly ball would get them a run, but instead they went strikeout, out.  No runs.  

     

    So in theory what Brunanski says makes sense, but the team doesn't apply those things to their in game hitting.

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    Brunanski claims he doesn't like that Toronto strikes out in big spots, and the Twins are trained to put the ball in play doesn't sit well with me.  

     

    First of all the Twins have 1120 Strikeouts so far this year, the Blue Jays have 1114.  So the Twins strikeout more even though they are taught to just make contact.  Second, and I can't quantify this, but the Twins strikeouts with in key spots happens ALL THE TIME.  There have been so many times this year with one out and a runner on third when a fly ball would get them a run, but instead they went strikeout, out.  No runs.  

     

    So in theory what Brunanski says makes sense, but the team doesn't apply those things to their in game hitting.

     

    yeah, it's pretty hard to fault the Blue jays offensively.

     

    Far and away the most runs scored in the AL (by 130 runs or so), 4th lowest K% in the AL,, a team wRC+ 10 points higher than the #2 team in the AL in wRC+, and the best OBP in AL (12 points over #2). All while having an average BABIP.

     

    But going strictly by 'clutch' number, we're 2nd in the AL in clutch hitting while Toronto ranks 7th.  Meaning we are getting the most out of the talent on our offense while the Blue Jays could be even more of a dominate offensive force :-)

    Edited by jimmer
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    Would love to see the Twins go after Bautista this offseason to mentor Sano.

     

    Bautista has told the Blue Jays he isn't giving them a hometown discount so we have absolutely no shot.

     

    Also don't believe for a minute that the Twins would ever bring in an outside face with his type of personality.

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    I actually think this was their plan:

     

    Sano=40 bombs

    Park and Dozier with 25

    Plouffe with 20ish

    Rosario, Mauer, ? with 15-20

     

    I think they wanted to be the Orioles/Blue Jays....but it didn't work out. I really believe that was their plan, hit a boat load of home runs and outscore the others with Santana, Hughes, Gibson, Duffey, Nolasco being a "good enough" rotation.

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    I actually think this was their plan:

     

    Sano=40 bombs

    Park and Dozier with 25

    Plouffe with 20ish

    Rosario, Mauer, ? with 15-20

     

    I think they wanted to be the Orioles/Blue Jays....but it didn't work out. I really believe that was their plan, hit a boat load of home runs and outscore the others with Santana, Hughes, Gibson, Duffey, Nolasco being a "good enough" rotation.

    The Blue Jays, for their part, decided defense was also important :-)

     

    And they also have the 3rd best pitching staff in the AL, and arguably the best rotation (though I'd go with Indians). 

     

    Edited by jimmer
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    The Blue Jays, for their part, decided defense was also important :-)

     

    And they also have the 3rd best pitching staff in the AL, and arguably the best rotation (though I'd go with Indians). 

     

    I was only talking about the hitting......

     

    The Blue Jays fired the guy that basically built that team...

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    This is a little off-topic, but is AA on your shortlist? 

     

    I literally have no idea who they should hire. There are just so many unknowns about how a GM/POBO really works, and what constraints their owners had/have them under.....I just don't have enough knowledge about any of them to have a solid opinion.*

     

    *which is probably true of players too, but that doesn't stop me.

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