October 28, 2015

Trevor Plouffe, Miguel Sano, and the Twins’ future at third base

Trevor Plouffe and Miguel Sano Twins

Trevor Plouffe was a high school shortstop from California when the Twins drafted him with the 20th overall pick in 2004. At the time some teams preferred Plouffe's upside as a pitcher, but the Twins viewed him as a shortstop and that's where he played year after year in the minors. In all Plouffe logged 5,400 innings and played 680 games as a minor-league shortstop, including 250 at Triple-A. And then the Twins called him up and it looked like he'd never played the position.

Plouffe played 54 total games at shortstop for the Twins in 2010 and 2011--exactly one third of a full season--and committed 12 errors. Most of them were of the throwing variety, including several routine plays air-mailed into the seats behind first base. In those 54 games Ultimate Zone Rating said he was 10 runs below average and Defensive Runs Saved said he was 15 runs below average. Perhaps at some point he would've improved, but Plouffe simply wasn't a big-league shortstop.

And there's no shame in that. Playing shortstop in the big leagues is incredibly difficult and most shortstop prospects end up shifting to less demanding positions before even reaching the majors. Plouffe's situation stood out only because he'd played so much shortstop in the minors and at the time of his call-up the idea of him playing shortstop for the Twins wasn't viewed as far-fetched. It was, though, and by mid-2011 he was being tried at other positions.

First he got some action at second base, which is where shortstops who lack arm strength often wind up. Brian Dozier is an example of the shortstop-to-second base shift working out well, but Plouffe didn't lack arm strength and was too big/not quick enough to make the transition. Next he got some action in right field and left field, which is where shortstops who out-grow the position often wind up. Plouffe looked fine there, but his bat seemed light for a corner outfielder.

In fact, at the time his bat seemed light in general. In addition to playing shortstop in the minors Plouffe also hit like a shortstop in the minors, which is to say not well. Overall as a minor leaguer he batted .258 with a .405 slugging percentage, failing to crack a .750 OPS in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, or 2010. Everything changed for Plouffe offensively at Triple-A in 2011, as he broke out with a monster 51-game stretch in which he hit .313/.384/.635 with 15 homers.

Plouffe shedding his "light-hitting shortstop" label offensively right around the time he shed his "shortstop" label defensively was likely tied together as part of his physical maturation and was definitely good timing, as it allowed the Twins to give him a long look at third base in 2012. It wasn't a smooth transition, as he struggled to make routine plays and graded out poorly overall, but Plouffe's arm strength, vast shortstop experience, and hard work eventually paid off.

By mid-2013 he no longer looked like a fish out of water at third base and the sudden power he'd shown at Triple-A in 2012 stuck around for good. After a decade as a light-hitting shortstop with shaky defensive chops Plouffe was a strong-armed, power-hitting third baseman. He produced 21 homers per 150 games from 2012-2015 and his defensive stats improved from bad to mediocre to good, making him a solidly above average all-around third baseman.

And that's where Plouffe sits now, at age 30 and with his Twins future in question. To make the transition from light-hitting, poor-fielding shortstop to power-hitting, good-fielding third baseman is remarkable in itself, as evidenced by Plouffe being one of the Twins' best players for the past four seasons. However, his subsequent inability to take the next step offensively by adding other skills to his 20-homer power has caused Plouffe to stagnate.

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
2012     .235     .301     .455     .756
2013     .254     .309     .392     .701
2014     .258     .328     .423     .751
2015     .244     .307     .435     .742

He hit .244/.307/.435 this season, which is nearly identical to his combined .249/.314/.422 line from 2012-2014. His walk and strikeout rates have remained remarkably stable and the biggest change in his performance since 2012 was grounding into a league-high 28 double plays this year. Plouffe is established a .250 hitter with 20-homer power, sub par plate discipline, and poor speed, which adds up to a .725-.750 OPS at a position where the MLB average was a .755 OPS in 2015.

Stagnating as an above-average player is far from the worst thing, but there are other factors at play. For one thing, Plouffe's salary is rising. He made $4.8 million this season and is in line for $8 million or so in 2016 via arbitration. Beyond that, the Twins control him for just two more years. After making, say, $8 million in 2016 and $11 million in 2017, he'll be able to hit the open market as a free agent and potentially leave for nothing. And then there's Miguel Sano.

Sano was a shortstop when he signed with the Twins as a 16-year-old in 2009 and played a few hundred rookie-ball innings there around the time Plouffe was showing he couldn't play shortstop in the majors. Sano quickly shifted to third base, where his massive size led to constant doubts about his ability to remain there long term. Missing all of 2014 following elbow surgery cast even more doubt, but the Twins have consistently insisted that Sano can play third base.

Sano made his long-awaited MLB debut in July and was a revelation, hitting .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers, 17 doubles, and 53 walks in 80 games. He transformed the Twins lineup in one of the best rookie seasons in team history, but he also did so as a designated hitter because of Plouffe's presence at third base. Sano played nine games and logged 77 innings at third base and looked decent, but the sample size is far too small to be worth evaluating.

It seems safe to assume Sano will never be a standout defensive third baseman and based on his size and level of athleticism at age 22 it also seems safe to assume he won't be playing third base, period, by the time he's 30. However, what position he's playing at age 30 is a question for 2020 rather than 2016 and if Sano can play a reasonably competent third base in the short term trading Plouffe becomes a viable option for the Twins.

By trading Plouffe the Twins would accomplish several things. Trade interest is always difficult to gauge, but presumably several teams would pursue Plouffe as a multi-year answer at third base and would be willing to surrender something of short- and/or long-term value. Parting with him would also create $8 million in spending money for 2016 and another $10-12 million for 2017, which could certainly come in handy in the Twins' never-ending search for pitching help.

Going from Plouffe to Sano at third base would hurt defensively, but Plouffe isn't exactly Brooks Robinson and it could also lead to an upgrade offensively. Not only is Sano a better hitter than Plouffe, moving him to third base would open up the DH spot for another big bat. Plouffe's usual .725-750 OPS is solid for a third baseman, but for lineup purposes the Twins would essentially be replacing him with a DH and finding a DH capable of topping a .750 OPS shouldn't be difficult.

In fact, the Twins currently have a logjam of young first basemen, designated hitters, and corner outfielders. Sano falls into that category or perhaps more accurately that category has the honor of including Sano, which is why his being able to play third base could create opportunities that wouldn't otherwise exist for log-jammed hitters like Oswaldo Arcia, Kennys Vargas, Josmil Pinto, Max Kepler, and Adam Walker.

To frame a potential Plouffe trade as the Twins getting rid of him would be misleading, because if there are no appealing offers on the table they should absolutely keep him and feel just fine about doing so. But thanks to Plouffe's growing salary and nearing free agency, Sano's (large) presence, and the abundance of young bats in need of opportunities in Minnesota or elsewhere a trade is a very viable option. It's exactly the type of move a smart team should explore.


For more on the Twins' possible offseason plans, including a potential reunion with A.J. Pierzynski, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

October 26, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #221: Hot Dogs and Sushi

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and the Geek" episode included a possible Twins reunion with A.J. Pierzynski, Ron Gardenhire's rejection letters, hot dogs, beer, and sushi at Kyatchi, searching for bullpen help, the first batch of 40-man roster cuts, how to pronounce cauliflower, the magic of Tom Selleck, putting odds on the Twins' rotation next season, and trying to learn some lessons from the playoffs.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 221

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.

Here's what the hot dogs, sushi, and baseball mural look like at Kyatchi:

Kyatchi podcast


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

October 19, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #220: Aaron The Bookie

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and the Geek" episode included previewing the offseason by discussing the Twins' future budget, Kurt Suzuki's future platoon partner, Trevor Plouffe's future employer, Eduardo Escobar's future role, Torii Hunter's future salary, Byron Buxton's future location, stuffing maws with Iron Door Pub's food, saving money with Harry's Razors, and answering Twitter questions.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 220

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Harry's Razors, where you can get discounted razors and shaving supplies delivered to your door by entering in the code "gleeman" at Harrys.com.

October 14, 2015

My hypothetical Twins MVP ballot

Miguel Sano and Brian Dozier Twins

After four straight 90-loss seasons the Twins re-emerged as a competitive team, going 83-79 and remaining in the Wild Card hunt until the final weekend of the season. Here's my attempt to rank the most valuable individual performances behind the team-wide turnaround:

1. Miguel Sano

It's difficult to be the most valuable player on a team when playing only 80 of 162 games, but two things make Miguel Sano a special case. One is that he was great in those 80 games, ranking as one of the best hitters in baseball and repeatedly coming through with key hits in key spots. Two is that none of the Twins' full-time, season-long players had particularly outstanding years, leaving Sano's great half-season to compete against good but not great full seasons.

Called up from Double-A on July 2 after the Twins went 11-17 in June, he was immediately the best, most patient hitter in the lineup. Sano hit .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers and 53 walks in 80 games, including a 1.055 OPS with runners on, a 1.028 OPS with runners in scoring position, and a 1.100 OPS in close-and-late situations. He easily led the team in the context-dependent stat Win Probability Added and ranked 17th in the entire league despite not playing in April, May, or June.

At age 22 he forced pitchers to throw strikes and punished them when they gave in. An incredible 28 percent of Sano's plate appearances went to a full count, compared to the MLB average of 12 percent, and he posted a 1.281 OPS on 3-2 pitches. He also batted a ridiculous .700 with a 1.650 slugging percentage when putting the first pitch in play, punishing get-me-over strikes too. Sano's rookie season wasn't just good or even great for a rookie, it was one of the best in Twins history.

Sano's adjusted OPS+ of 146 ranked seventh in the AL behind only Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion. Sano tied with Chris Davis, who led the league in homers for the second time in three seasons. Within the context of team history, the only other Twins hitters to top an OPS+ of 145 during the past 20 seasons are Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jim Thome. None of them did it more than once. Sano is 1-for-1.

As a proponent of cumulative production, defense, and positional adjustments being big factors in player value the idea of a half-season designated hitter being team MVP is a tough sell, but Sano had a truly special half-season that was elevated even further in "clutch" situations and it seemed odd not to prefer 80 games of that compared to 150 games of slightly above-average. Sano was the Twins' best player for every moment he wore a Twins uniform and that gets my MVP.

2. Brian Dozier

Brian Dozier appeared to be having a breakout year when he followed up a very strong 2014 season with an even better first half, hitting .256/.328/.513 with 19 homers, 48 total extra-base hits, and 34 walks in 88 games to make his first All-Star team. Seemingly established as one of MLB's best second basemen, he then collapsed in the second half and hit just .210/.280/.359 to finish with worse overall numbers than he posted in 2014.

Starting strong only to fall apart in the second half in back-to-back years is worrisome and calls into question whether Dozier's durability is actually a strength, but the end result was still plenty valuable. He led all MLB second basemen in homers (28), extra-base hits (71), and runs scored (101), ranked second in RBIs (77), walks (61), and total bases (279), and posted a .751 OPS compared the MLB average of .711 for the position.

Toss in up-the-middle defense that rates slightly below average according to most metrics and Dozier was one of the top 10 second basemen in MLB this season. It may have been less jarring for Twins fans to watch if he'd simply been a .750 OPS hitter all year instead of being an All-Star in the first half and replacement-level in the second half, but in assessing all-around value for the season as a whole Dozier has a reasonable argument for being team MVP.

3. Kyle Gibson

Kyle Gibson took a step forward this year, staying healthy with a full-season workload again and upping his strikeout rate by 25 percent while maintaining nearly identical rates everywhere else. Last season he walked 2.9 per nine innings, induced 54 percent ground balls, and allowed a .287 batting average on balls in play. This season he walked 3.0 per nine innings, induced 53 percent ground balls, and allowed a .287 batting average on balls in play.

Those are remarkably similar numbers and Gibson was able to up his strikeouts from 5.4 to 6.7 per nine innings. He's unlikely to ever be a high-strikeout pitcher, but in both 2014 and 2015 his ground-ball rate ranked among MLB's top 10 and pairing that with even a decent strikeout rate can lead to big things. This year for Gibson that mix--along with better bullpen support and fewer blowup starts--led to slicing his ERA from 4.47 to 3.84 while leading the Twins with 195 innings.

4. Trevor Plouffe

Trevor Plouffe had a typical Trevor Plouffe season, hitting .244/.307/.435 with 22 homers, 35 doubles, and a 124/50 K/BB ratio in 152 games while playing above-average third base defense. His production was nearly identical to his combined 2012-2014 line of .249/.314/.422 and in four seasons as the Twins' starting third baseman his OPS has never been lower than .701 or higher than .756. He is what he is, except for one big difference this year: Double plays.

Plouffe grounded into 28 double plays, which led the league and tied for the most in Twins history. His previous career-high was just 12 double plays. Whether it was a one-year fluke or not, making two outs at a time so often--and in so many key, rally-crushing situations--took a big chunk out of Plouffe's value. Compared to all MLB third basemen he was almost exactly average--slightly below offensively and slightly above defensively.

5. Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario was called up from Triple-A to replace the injured Oswaldo Arcia on May 6 and never went back, hitting better than his recent minor-league track record suggested he would and impressing defensively with excellent range and a strong arm. Rosario's total lack of patience held him back, as he swung at everything on the way to a ghastly 118/15 K/BB ratio and .289 on-base percentage, but his other skills mostly made up for all the hacking.

Rosario hit .267 with 13 homers, 18 doubles, and a league-high 15 triples on the way to a sturdy .459 slugging percentage. He nearly led the league with 16 outfield assists and tracked down fly balls that many recent Twins left fielders wouldn't have even gone after. Long term Rosario risks failing to fulfill his potential if he doesn't develop some semblance of strike zone control, but this season his extra-base power, speed, and defense made him an above-average regular at age 23.

6. Trevor May

Demoted to Triple-A at the end of spring training, Trevor May moved into the rotation following Ervin Santana's suspension and posted the best secondary numbers of any Twins starter through early July. His reward was being moved to the bullpen, where May took the role change in stride despite wanting to remain a starter and logged 31.1 innings with a 2.87 ERA and 37/8 K/BB ratio while emerging as the team's primary setup man.

When the Twins needed a starter, May stepped in and did a good job for three months. When the Twins needed a reliever, May shifted to the bullpen without putting up a Mike Pelfrey-like fuss and did a good job for three months. There's added value in that versatility, not unlike a position player with the ability to handle multiple spots defensively, and May finished his first full season in the majors with a 4.00 ERA and 110/26 K/BB ratio in 115 innings overall.

7. Eduardo Escobar

Eduardo Escobar was as a square peg in a round hole when the Twins gave the shortstop job to Danny Santana and regularly used Escobar way out of position in left field. They finally came to their senses in July thanks to Santana's ineptitude and Escobar picked up where he left off as one of the AL's better shortstops. His overall value is tough to gauge because he struggled in left field and thrived at shortstop, but Escobar certainly isn't to blame for the team misusing him.

He ended up starting 71 games at shortstop compared to 34 in left field or at designated hitter, plus nine more at second and third base. Overall he hit .262/.309/.445 with 12 homers and 47 total extra-base hits in 127 games. For some context his .754 OPS was 70 points higher than the average shortstop and slightly below average for corner outfielders, which is why Escobar's early usage was so silly and why his finally replacing Santana at shortstop made such a big impact.

8. Ervin Santana

Suspended for the first 80 games, Ervin Santana initially fared well upon joining the rotation in early July before having a brutal six-start stretch from late July through late August in which he allowed 33 runs in 30 innings. At that point he had a 6.05 ERA and the four-year, $52 million signing looked like a disaster, but then Santana fixed his mechanics and was one of the league's best starters down the stretch with a 1.62 ERA and 47/14 K/BB ratio in his final 50 innings.

There was nothing special about Santana's overall performance, which included a 4.00 ERA and 82/36 K/BB ratio with 12 homers allowed in 108 innings, but he was an above-average starting pitcher for 17 starts and that carries significant value just the same as it would if he'd been a prospect called up at midseason rather than a veteran banned from participating in the team's first 80 games.

9. Tommy Milone

An afterthought for most of the season--including a month-long demotion to Triple-A despite being 28 years old with 500 innings as a big leaguer--Tommy Milone started 23 games and logged 129 innings with a 3.92 ERA. It wasn't always pretty and it was never flashy, but Milone had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Gibson, Santana, and Pelfrey while ranking second among all Twins starters in Win Probability Added behind only Gibson.

10. Tyler Duffey

It was only 10 starts, but Tyler Duffey saved the Twins' rotation by throwing 58 innings with a 3.10 ERA and 53/20 K/BB ratio down the stretch as veteran starters were dropping like flies and May was working out of the bullpen. After getting knocked around by the Blue Jays in his debut Duffey joined Santana as the only reliable starters for the final six weeks, completing at least six innings and allowing two or fewer runs in each of his last five starts.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Casper mattresses, which offers a 100-day free trial with free shipping and returns. And you can get an extra $50 off by going to Casper.com/Gleeman and entering in the promo code GLEEMAN.

October 12, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #219: Jackalopes

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and the Geek" episode included watching the playoffs and trying to imagine the Twins making a deep run, reviewing our good and (mostly) bad preseason over/under picks, Ron Gardenhire's ongoing job search, eating Jackalope and drinking beer at New Bohemia, how to become the subject of a gossip column, and living your life around a living room mattress.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 219

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Casper mattresses, which offers a 100-day free trial with free shipping and returns. And you can get an extra $50 off by going to Casper.com/Gleeman and entering in the promo code GLEEMAN.

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