Friday, January 06, 2012

A team building exercise

In introducing himself to his new fan base out west, Michael Cuddyer fielded questions from readers in the Denver Post. One question regarding the outfielder’s excitement towards switching ballparks – from Target Field to Coors Field – incited the former Twin to sing a familiar tune (emphasis mine):
“I'm a gap-to-gap hitter and I hit with power to the right-center field gap. At the Metrodome, I would drive the ball to the baggy out in right center, and I really peppered the ball. But if you hit the ball to right-center at Target Field, the ball would just die. It's a long way out there.
At Coors Field, I think I can take advantage of my natural swing and I won't have to try and pull the ball. When I'm going well, I'm driving the ball to right-center and I don't have to overcompensate and try to pull the ball. At Coors, I can pull those inside pitches down the line, but I think overall it's a more natural fit for my swing.” 
Stop me if you have heard this one before but since Target Field opened you have been subjected to a barrage of data, some scientific insight and anecdotal observation from players -- of which you can now add Cuddyer’s name to a list that already includes Delmon Young, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel -- which speaks to the cavernous play of the Twins ballpark and the effects on the players.

The fact is that for the most part the Twins carried the same core group of hitters from the Metrodome days into their new home. Hitters like Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel performed well inside that configuration but have scuffled since moving outdoors. They are not the only ones. In the final two years at the Metrodome, the Twins hit 152 home runs. However, now with two seasons into the Target Field era, they have hit just 98 home runs – the third fewest home runs at home in baseball. Injuries, age and other factors all should be consider yet the biggest change has to be the environment.

If you are a decision-making member of the Twins’ front office, what should you do?

One important aspect of constructing a roster is understanding how the personnel fit into your home ballpark. After all, you play 81 games a year at your home field, it’s best to find a lineup that plays best to that environment.

For instance, at Fenway Park in Boston, the left field Green Monster is whisper away from the infield dirt at 310 to 315 feet. Therefore, it would behoove the Red Sox to skimp on the left-handed starters – which they have, keeping Jon Lester as the only lefty in the rotation consistently dating back to 2000. Likewise, it would also benefit the club to fill the lineup with right-handed pull hitters who elevate the ball to left (or someone like left-handed like Adrian Gonzalez who is very adept at going the other way).

That’s one such extreme example but other stadiums have their own advantages. Dodgers Stadium favors power hitters to center field and it is no surprise Dodgers’ center fielder Matt Kemp paced baseball with 21 center field home runs (the next closest was 13 by Ryan Howard). Seattle, meanwhile, has struggled to find right-handed power considering Safeco Field is a challenge for righties -- an 82 Park Factor for righties, one of the lowest marks in the league.  

Circling back to the Twins, it has become evident over the course of two seasons that Target Field is extremely pitcher-friendly (to those pitchers who keep hitters in the big part of the park anyways). This is not a bad thing. There is no need to adjust the walls, just the mindset when targeting hitters.

No, the answer is not moving the walls in; the answer is in player selection.

This offseason, the Twins were faced with the need to fill two key spots in the lineup with impending free agents in Kubel and Cuddyer. Both were hitters that thrived as gap-to-gap hitters. Unfortunately this trait is punished somewhat at Target Field. To compensate, both hitters have admitted to changing their approach in the past two seasons to accommodate the difference in play. So, the Twins have replaced those long-time Twins with Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham, two players who stay closer to the foul line than Kubel or Cuddyer.

Doumit, a switch-hitter, figures to replace Kubel’s at-bats as a designated hitter and part-time outfielder. And, while he hits from both sides of the plate, he will see the majority of his plate appearances from the left side. Production-wise, they both excelled when pulling the ball. Kubel has held a .437 weighted On Base Average with 174 weighted Runs Created. Doumit has been slightly better with a .446 wOBA and a 177 wRC+. The difference is that whereas Kubel pulled the ball 43% of the time in his career, Doumit yanked the pitch 53% of the time. Given his higher tendency to pull the ball and playing in Target Field that plays favorable down the right field line for left-handed hitters, if he can remain healthy, Doumit could be the superior power option.

Meanwhile, I had shown recently how Josh Willingham is the antithesis of Michael Cuddyer when it comes to hitting.  Transformed into a pull-happy right-hander thanks to the spacious Stadium in Oakland, Willingham displayed plenty of power directed towards the left field bleachers. Over his career, Cuddyer has pulled the ball 44% of the time while compiling a .435 wOBA and 171 wRC+. Willingham, on the other hand, has pulled the ball 49% of the time to produce a .520 wOBA and a 226 wRC+. So, unlike Cuddyer who seems to have become somewhat uncomfortable regarding his old environs and needing to change his approach, Willingham fits the mold just right.

Perhaps the Twins organization made intentional efforts to identify hitters like Doumit and Willingham whose skill sets include being pull hitters. Perhaps it was serendipitous that the pair fell to the Twins. Either way, from an on-field, team-building standpoint, this was the right direction to go.  

The truth is, being pull happy can weigh down one’s batting average and on-base percentage (as it did for Willingham last year) but it can certainly lead to more power – an area that the Twins have been lacking since the Metrodome days. This can be viewed as the great power experiment for the organization – a litmus test to see how this translates from theory to reality.  If Doumit and Willingham prove to be a success, it will be a blueprint for future player acquisitions.