Friday, February 25, 2011

Will Cuddyer heed his own advice?

When Michael Cuddyer unveiled the team’s new t-shirts with the slogan “Don’t Be Denied”, even though his intention was to motive his teammates through the first round of the playoffs, it’s hard not to imagine that he might have been directing that message at himself too.
A year ago at spring camp, Harmon Killebrew was calling him one of the most powerful hitters on the roster. Considering Cuddyer had just come off of a campaign of hitting 32 home runs, launching 13 of those as “No Doubters which left little question that they would have been out at every ballpark league-wide, it’s not hard to see why Killebrew liked Cuddyer’s power so much. Despite the Killer’s confidence, Cuddyer’s total dissipated to a mere 14 home runs, touching only four of those for No Doubters.
This raised plenty of questions as to where the power had gone.
David Pinto of recently took the opportunity to look at the difference between the two seasons and found little variance in opposing pitchers approach to Cuddyer. What his research revealed was a sizeable decrease in power generated from pitches in the middle of the zone.
Inside Edge’s data confirms this. In 2009, Cuddyer exercised a .218 well-hit average on his swing on pitches in the middle of the zone (vertical), considerably better than the league-average of .179. This wound up being the 16th-highest total in baseball that year. That rating would fall precipitously this past year as he posted a .176 well-hit average on his swings for pitches in the middle of the zone, falling all the way to 91st.
If pitchers were not approaching him differently, why did Cuddyer suddenly become anemic to pitches down the heart of the plate? While it is easy to blame the influences of the new stadium, but as Pinto pointed out Cuddyer’s power vanished on the road as well. More likely, the culprit in the case of the missing power can be traced back to his sore knee.
As I mentioned in October a sore right knee could impact his mechanics - certainly causing one to shift weight off of the back leg much sooner than desired in efforts to protect said knee and resulting a diminished capacity to drive the ball. Analyzing his batted ball numbers for the season, we see that as the year progressed, so too did his groundball tendencies. Without being able to lift the ball off the ground, it’s extremely difficult to hit a home run.   
Along the same lines, the knee also likely impeded his ability to pull the ball with authority. Two years ago, when Cuddyer muscled out 32 home runs, he did so because of his ability to turn on the ball with sheer brute force. That year, he amassed a .816 slugging percentage when pulling the pitch to left while dropping off 24 of those 32 home runs into the left field bleachers. This past season, his slugging percentage when pulling the ball dropped to .564 – his lowest total since his injured season of ’08.
Part of the reason the numbers decreased so much was because Cuddyer did not elevate the ball to left field as well as he did in the past:
Cuddyer’s batted balls/slugging to left field
Cuddyer’s 68.6% groundball rate rates among the league’s more elite slap-hitting, speed machines. The only power hitter to record a higher groundball rate when pulling the ball was the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez. What A-Rod lacked in pull power, he made up for fishing in dead center as he tagged 12 of his home runs in that direction.
While it is still early in the spring, there are already signs that Cuddyer’s knee may be healing. According to one report, Cuddyer was putting on a display in batting practice, purportedly launching shots far over the left field fence – not unlike his performance in 2009. However, keep in mind spring training is often like being sent to celebrity rehab, many players make strides only to relapse later on.
In order to be successful, Cuddyer needs to regain that edge for turning on a pitch and putting some air beneath it. Not only because Target Field is unforgiving to hitters heading towards center and right-center, but because he has proven he can make pitchers regret working middle-in.