Trevor Plouffe had a good June 2012 — he hit .327/.391/.735 with 11 home runs — and announced himself to the baseball world in his third season. Unfortunately for him, though, those were good results after a process that didn’t fit him best. It was the slump that came after (.226/.279/.381 with eight home runs) that taught the Minnesota Twins third baseman the tools he needed to become a better player.
“In 2012, I had some success pulling the ball, and maybe I got a little pull happy,” Plouffe admitted before a game with the San Francisco Giants in late May. “When that happens, and you get those results, and you’re younger, you want more results.” Plouffe did indeed pull the ball some in 2012, and has stepped off the gas since:
The league average is 25.1%, but relatively, Plouffe is now much more balanced in his approach at the plate this year. And that’s important to him. “When you look at guys that drive in runs year in and year out, they use the whole field, they’re not guys that just go up there and pull homers,” Plouffe said, then mentioned Miguel Cabrera, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer as role models in that way. Spraying to all fields means you don’t get shifted much; Mauer and his ridiculously high 44% opposite-field percentage is the least-shifted person in the game, actually.
But that’s not the only reason why going the other way is helpful. “Letting the ball get deeper, while knowing that I have the ability to use the whole field, allows me to see it longer,” Plouffe says. This helps him make more contact, and his current swinging strike rate is the best of his career.
Plouffe also thinks that waiting longer and letting the ball get deeper into the zone allows him to lay off bad pitches. That, and maturity. “As you get a little bit more time and a few more at-bats up here, you tend to understand what kind of hitter you are and what brings success,” he said. He’s seeing the most pitches of his career, and reaching the least, and these things are all tied into his ability to go the other way in his mind.
But he still didn’t take that big leap in patience at the plate until this season, despite slowly going opposite field more every year. He came to a sort of understanding. “For me, a big thing was not being afraid to get deep into counts,” Plouffe said. He knows that with the extra pitches come strikeouts as well as walks, but he’s not afraid of those situations. More pitches leads to better outcomes for the batter, which leads to better outcomes for his teammates. “You can’t be afraid to get to two strikes,” he added. “Once you get afraid of that, you start swinging those questionable pitches early in the count.”
Plouffe has tinkered some. Take a look at his different batting stances over time (detailed well by Parker Hageman here), and you’ll see he’s had to change things. “It’s about getting comfortable and realizing what kind of hitter you are and what kind of role you have to play,” Plouffe says of those stances, but says it’s not as bad as it used to be. In the minor leagues, he changed stances more often and was “hearing it all over the place” about what he should do and when. Now? “I’m more focused on my process.”
Process is huge for Plouffe. The best swinging strike rate of his career, the best reach rate of his career, the best walk rate of his career, the highest line-drive rate of his career — and an average under .250. “If you’re a sabermetrics guy, you know that batting average is one of the last things you worry about,” Plouffe laughed, pointing out that a bad day or two this early in the season can tank a batting average.
“Once you get a little more confident in routine, you stop focusing on results, more on process,” Plouffe said. That’s good, because a little too much focus on a month’s worth of results almost set him on the wrong path. Now he’s got peripherals that back his process and suggest that he’s close to getting the most out of his skillset.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.