June 19, 2012

Bust to building block? Trevor Plouffe slugs his way into Twins’ plans

Going into the 2004 draft many teams liked California high schooler Trevor Plouffe more as a pitcher than as a position player, but the Twins were among the teams convinced he could be a good-hitting shortstop and took him 20th overall. Plouffe was one of their five first-round picks that year, as the compensation for losing LaTroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado to free agency allowed the Twins to restock the farm system with five selections in the top 40.

Nine years later Glen Perkins is the only one of those picks to become a quality big leaguer and even that didn't take place until last season when he faced a career crossroads moving from the rotation to the bullpen. Kyle Waldrop is still in the organization as a potential middle reliever, but has just 11 innings in the majors at age 26. Matt Fox got a cup of coffee with the Twins in 2010, but is now a Triple-A journeyman. Jay Rainville never reached the majors.

And then there's Plouffe.

After signing for a $1.5 million bonus Plouffe had a decent pro debut at rookie-ball, but then hit .223/.300/.345 in 127 games at low Single-A in 2005. Despite that lack of production at age 19 the Twins moved Plouffe up to high Single-A the next season anyway and he again struggled, hitting .246/.333/.347 in 125 games. And then despite that lack of production at age 20 the Twins promoted Plouffe to Double-A in 2007, where he hit .274/.326/.410 in 126 games.

Plouffe repeated a level for the first time in 2008, hitting .269/.325/.410 in 58 games back at Double-A before a midseason promotion to Triple-A. At age 22 he was one of the International League's youngest players despite not cracking even a .750 OPS at any level and predictably hit just .256/.292/.410 in 66 games for Rochester. By promoting him so aggressively in the face of mediocre performances the Twins put Plouffe in an odd situation developmentally.

He was a former first-round pick one step from the major leagues at age 22, yet he'd never actually shown anything to suggest that he was a top prospect. And so he repeated Triple-A in 2009. And then he repeated it again in 2010. At that point Plouffe was 25 and had spent three seasons in Rochester, hitting .253/.303/.419 in 286 games and 1,194 plate appearances. He'd also spent a brief stint with the Twins, going 6-for-41 (.146) with 14 strikeouts and zero walks.

In short, he looked like a bust. Plouffe was still fairly young and within the consistently modest overall production at Triple-A was some decent power for a shortstop, although the reviews of his defense made projecting him as a potential big-league shortstop very iffy. In seven years in the minors, including three at Triple-A, his career-highs were a .280 batting average, .340 on-base percentage, and .430 slugging percentage. And two of the highs came in rookie-ball.

Plouffe failed to make the Opening Day roster last spring and was assigned back to Triple-A for a fourth consecutive season, at which point he shockingly hit .313/.384/.635 with 15 homers in 51 games for a 1.019 OPS that topped Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel for the highest mark by any Rochester player since the Twins' affiliate moved there in 2003. Suddenly he was back on the prospect map and back in the majors, although it didn't translate to immediate success.

In fact Plouffe hit just .238/.305/.392 with an ugly 71-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 81 games for the Twins and was so bad defensively at shortstop that they started using him primarily in the outfield. Because he was out of minor-league options and the rebuilding Twins weren't ready to give up on Plouffe he made this year's team out of spring training as a non-shortstop utility man, but played sparingly and poorly while going 8-for-60 (.133) through mid-May.

And then everything changed. Starting third baseman Danny Valencia played his way back to Triple-A and the Twins turned to Plouffe as his main replacement while hoping his throwing issues wouldn't carry over from shortstop. He'd never played third base regularly in the minors or majors, but Plouffe has looked capable there at the very least and his arm strength is a real asset when he's making accurate throws. Oh, and he started hitting like Babe Ruth.

As of May 15 he'd played 125 career MLB games with a .212 batting average, .286 on-base percentage, .357 slugging percentage, and 97 strikeouts versus 11 homers. Since then he's hit .315 with 13 homers and a .793 slugging percentage in 24 games, including a stretch in which he went deep seven times in seven games. Obviously the sample size is small and he's not suddenly Miguel Cabrera, but Plouffe has been the hottest hitter in baseball for a month.

And even combining his month-long homer binge with his hideous first six weeks equals power numbers that are tough to brush aside. Despite a still-poor .243 batting average in 46 games overall this season his .566 slugging percentage ranks sixth among AL hitters behind only Josh Hamilton, Paul Konerko, Mark Trumbo, Adam Jones, and David Ortiz. Last time a right-handed Twins hitter was slugging higher at this point in a season was Kirby Puckett.

Isolated Power is a stat that takes slugging percentage and subtracts batting average to focus strictly on a hitter's raw power and Plouffe's current mark of .322 ranks third in the league behind only Adam Dunn at .345 and Hamilton at .343. No other AL hitters have an Isolated Power above .300. In the entire history of the Minnesota Twins they've had a hitter top a .275 Isolated Power seven times and all seven of them were Harmon Killebrew.

Expanding the sample size further to include Plouffe's terrible 2010 debut and ugly 2011 showing still produces some pretty amazing power numbers. For his major-league career he's now played 149 games and logged 536 plate appearances, totaling 24 homers and 26 doubles for an Isolated Power of .209 that ranks seventh in Twins history among all hitters with 500 or more trips to the plate. Here's the complete top 10 in a Twins uniform:

Jim Thome          .296
Harmon Killebrew   .258
Don Mincher        .239
Bob Allison        .225
Justin Morneau     .218
Jimmie Hall        .212
TREVOR PLOUFFE     .209
Tom Brunansky      .202
Kent Hrbek         .199
Torii Hunter       .198

Some pretty decent company, huh?

Of course, in addition to the relatively small sample size it's also important to note that his elite power has come along with a lowly .232 batting average and .301 on-base percentage in those 149 career games. Those marks are tough to live with, huge power or not, and because Plouffe also hit just .262 with a .316 on-base percentage in 337 games at Triple-A it's difficult to project a ton of improvement.

With that said, Parker Hageman of Twins Daily did some video-based analysis breaking down Plouffe's altered swing and the same mechanical adjustments that led to his power explosion could potentially lead to a more palatable batting average. He's never going to hit .300, but if Plouffe could hit .265 while maintaining what has always been a decent walk rate--and one that figures to rise as pitchers avoid throwing him strikes--his all-around value would soar.

Plouffe will come back down to earth and there's still reason to be skeptical of his upside long term, but he's shown enough power dating back to Triple-A last year, enough plate discipline throughout his nine-year career, and enough early promise defensively at third base to believe he won't simply turn back into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight. Much like Scott Diamond, his emergence is one positive from giving chances to untested players in a rebuilding year.

For even more about Plouffe's power and the changes in his swing, check out my discussion with Hageman on this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

  • MC

    Plouffe kills lefties!

  • http://mmmrhubarb.wordpress.com Rhubarb_Runner

    Considering that he’s been walked 3 times and 2 times in the past two games, I think pitchers are ALREADY avoiding throwing him strikes.

  • spoof bonser

    Babe Plouffe.

    Its easier to like him since he cut off his hair.

  • Tom

    They need to bring back Boof Bonser, so they can have Plouffe and Boof.

  • Bradley

    Great article. Can you touch on the fact that there are many of us who are sick of hearing about how much of a pitchers park Target Field is? Parker brought it up on Sunday again and considering that it seems like every single one of the Twins opponents can hit home runs there it seems to me like it’s how the Twins approach hitting, not that we’re the Midwest’s version of Petco.

  • Josh

    Hard to believe this kind of power outburst is sustainable for Plouffe, but even with a significant regression he looks like he could be a solid asset for the team at 3B. The defense has been adequate (upgrade from Valencia, at least) and I can see Plouffe settling in as a 2-3 WAR player at 3B, which would be a nice asset. He’s not even arbitration eligible until 2014, and won’t hit free agency until 2018, so the Twins have time to work with him at a reasonable salary.

    Nice to see him step up and respond after a horrid start.

  • Scott

    Re: target field being a pitchers park. Check the graph from ESPNs home run tracker for Target Field (http://hittrackeronline.com/detail.php?id=2012_1902&type=ballpark). It seems to be anyone who doesn’t pull the ball is going to have a problem hitting a HR at Target. Check past seasons and the pattern is even more stark.

    The Twins teach hitters to go with a pitch, but those opposite field HRs are much harder to find. It looks like if you can pull the ball from either side, you should be able to hit a few (especially for righties). Check the graph, RC HRs are almost non-existent.

    Maybe Twins lefties are trying to pull the ball now making the trend even more apparent or they’ve just given up on the idea altogether (Mauer?) and anything that does go out is a pleasant surprise.

  • Dane

    This is why I love the Twins. They probably have the most patience with their prospects than anyone else. They could have given up on Denard Span when he was doing terrible in the minors, but they didn’t. Now he is a very valuable asset to this organization. This is why you have coaches.

  • Mike

    Some of this may be due to playing some really bad teams which tend to have poor pitching. I did see however, that he trained with Ryan Braun in the off season. It could be Braun may have some “special” training methods that help increase power.

  • Scott

    @Dane, when did Span do terrible in the minors? His first season at AAA maybe. IMO the only indicator for Span is OBP and his OBP that season was .323 which was the lowest of his career but he was also only 23. They were sufficiently patient with the guy but I don’t see any time when he truly struggled.

    Now, Span’s base running? That’s an ongoing problem.

  • JeffNH

    Maybe Plouffe is Jose Bautista 2.0?

  • Jason

    Why do the Twins stick with Little and his consevrative approach in the 3B coaching box. I was infuriated again last night when he holds up the fastest guy on the team on a hit to McCutchen in the OF. Force him to make a good throw! This is not the first time I have seen it this year and it seems like when something like this happens, the very next inning the opponent extends the lead and puts the game out of reach.

  • Pedro Munoz

    After watching Scott Ullger get 8,000 runners thrown out at home, I’ll take Liddle any day.