Sunday, September 18, 2011

Plouffe has shown promise, just not in September

For a while there, given the opportunity to try on the shortstop position for next season, Trevor Plouffe looked as if it was going to fit him good.

From August 15 to September 3, Plouffe played in 20 games and hit an impressive .316/.365/.506 in 86 plate appearances. The ball was exploding off of his bat and his fielding was much improved since his early season yips. Unfortunately, since committing the cardinal sin in baseball – forgetting how many outs there are – he has fallen into the abyss. From September 4 on, Plouffe has gone a measly 5-for-43 (.116) in 49 plate appearances and has committed five errors in the field. Basically, he’s playing like a man about to lose the job.

According to 1500ESPN’s Phil Mackey, manager Ron Gardenhire had some remarks directed towards Plouffe’s recent play:
"He's scuffled lately at making plays that really we have to make. And I don't know if he's just relaxed enough, he's comfortable back up here, he knows he's going to play and lost a little bit of the edge, I don't know. Because there's been some sloppy, sloppy play out there when he was going along really, really good and really focused on it. So that just tells you a little bit about the game up here.
You can't let your guard down. You're going along, and I don't know if he's done that, I don't think so. He seems like he's intense and he's doing all of this work, but he's gotten a little sloppy out there lately, and he knows it."
Scuffling is putting it lightly. Like when your mom says "you are not fat, you are husky."

Defensively, we have witnessed some seriously lackadaisical play in the field. For example, on September 14 in Kansas City, with runners on first and third with nobody out, second baseman Johnny Giavotella chopped one towards Plouffe’s right. Plouffe gobbles it up on the move and – while still shuffling his feet and fading away from the play – he throws off-target to Matt Tolbert covering second.

Given the speed and location that the ball was hit, the likelihood that the ball was going to result in just one out was high. Plouffe had all the time in the world on this to get his feet set and make a strong throw to the bag – getting that all-important first out. Instead, he got lazy and fired one into the outfield. The Royals scored and were denied a second run on a solid throw home by first baseman Chris Parmelee (who must have practiced those oh-so-routine throws from behind the camera well in New Britain).

The defensive shortcomings are nothing new to Plouffe’s game – after all, he had a poor camp in the field and his attempts to maim spectators sitting behind first base got him sent back to Rochester for further Twins Way indoctrination – yet, up until recently, he provided a decent stick to compensate for those miscues.  

While Plouffe’s sudden offensive decline has little explanation from a data or scouting standpoint, there are some troubling trends nonetheless that suggest this isn’t just a BABIP-related slump. His line drive rate has dropped drastically in September and he is receiving more fastballs in September but isn’t fairing as well against them as he did in August (-1.4 runs above average in September versus 1.1 runs above average in August). Aside from seeing more fastballs, pitchers are targeting the same spots and mechanically he looks the same.

One of the biggest factors is that Plouffe isn’t pulling the ball as well this month. Take a look at his hit charts between the two samplings:

While spreading the ball to all fields is well and good, pulling the ball is where Plouffe makes his money. So far this season, Plouffe is slugging .679 when he hits the ball to left and six of his seven home runs have gone out that direction.

Offensively, there are signs that there may be sunnier days ahead for Plouffe. Previously, I highlighted some of the mechanical changes that he made that have given him some added power. Essentially, by stabilizing his pre-swing bat movement and incorporating a more violent leg lift/plant, he has been able to drive the ball more resulting in more fly balls and line drives and fewer ground balls. As such, Plouffe has smacked a career-high 22 home runs so far in 2011.

Meanwhile, on the field, Plouffe needs someone to help get him under control. In 2009, the Milwaukee Brewers hired Willie Randolph in part to help improve the fielding of the highly talented second baseman Rickie Weeks. Because of Randolph’s tutelage, Weeks progressed from an error-prone, mistakes machine into a…well, a somewhat slightly less error-prone player who is now capable of making the routine plays. His Ultimate Zone Rating went from a -10.3 UZR/150 from 2005 to 2008, the second worst in baseball, to a much more respectable 4.6 from 2009 to this season. Perhaps the Twins front office need to have someone like Paul Molitor on-staff fulltime to guide players like Plouffe and Tsuyoshi Nishioka which may help them reap the same dividends that it did for the Brewers and Weeks.

Since his dunderheaded play in Anaheim back on September 4, Plouffe has been the epitome of someone lacking focus and it has shown both at the plate and in the field. Perhaps starting with that mental error and compounded by the realization that he is auditioning for a starting role next year has snowballed into this two week mess for him. Whatever the reason, Plouffe, like the rest of the Twins, need this season to come to a merciful close so they can reboot and refocus for 2012.

Better days should be ahead for both.