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Trevor Plouffe: A Something to Enjoy in Minnesota

The reader may very well be totally and irretrievably drunk at the moment, but it’s not for that reason that he’s seeing Trevor Plouffe‘s name near the top of the preceding [leaderboard]. As of Tuesday night, at least, Plouffe had hit the most home runs (nine) among major leaguers in June.

– Carson Cistulli, Daily Notes

If you are a self-respecting, perfectly rational human, then you have no doubt been ignoring the Minnesota Twins. Even fans from the Northstar State have been watching their beloved team — now at 34-45 — through face-covering hands of anguish.

So it is likely you, like me, did not really think about Trevor Plouffe before right now or perhaps earlier this month. I knew his name, but it was not until a fan suggested he deserved a movie in his honor that I realized something was askew.

And a askew it is: Plouffe — a utility infielder with a consistent history of ~95 wRC+ in the minors — has 18 home runs and a .371 wOBA (137 wRC+). Not only has he earned the starting third base job in Minnesota, he has shot up the MLB leaderboards and would currently have the 3rd best wRC+ among third basemen if he had the qualifying plate appearances.

And though his home run power may be partly mirage, there is enough evidence now to think Plouffe’s re-birth is for real.

There are three major changes in Plouffe’s game from 2010-2011 to 2012: (a) more walks, (b) more fly balls and (b) more home runs.

More Walks
Plouffe had not sustained a double-digit walk rate in the minor leagues except since 2006 in High-A. Since that season, he has hung around a 7% walk rate. In 2012, he is at 10% on the button.

This is a good improvement, no doubt. But according to FI wOBA, if he have a 10% walk rate in 2011, he would still have only been around only a .312 wOBA (up from .305 wOBA), so it is not a really thrilling difference.

The upped walk rate has certainly been a component of his improvement, but not the material element of it. In fact, he might be getting more walks purely out of pitchers showing him more respect. The PITCHf/x zone data suggest pitchers are throwing him a career-low Zone%, but only but a little (0.5% down from last year).

More Fly Balls
Plouffe’s line drive rate, despite his strong hitting this year, has gone down from 17% in 2011 to about 15% in 2012. Meanwhile, his fly-ball rate has ballooned from 40% to 47%. And many of these fly balls have departed for dingers.

And if we can believe Plouffe, and I’m not sure why he would lie, then we can assume he is not deliberately lofting more balls:

“When you start to hit home runs, there’s a tendency to try to hit more,” he said. “Once you start doing that, it throws off your swing and you end up pulling off balls. At least, that’s the way I know it is for me. There are some guys that try to hit them. I can’t.”

But unlike many infielders who begin to lift fly balls beyond what their natural talents suggest they should, Plouffe has managed to turn many flies into dongers. His home run per fly ball rate has blossomed from 9.5% in 2011 to 24.7% in 2012.

More Home Runs
So how much of this intense home run frenzy is luck? That is very hard to say.

Using ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, we can get a better feel for how hard Plouffe is hitting his homers. And according to ESPN’s data, Plouffe has 6 “just enough” homers, 9 “plenty” homers and 3 “no doubt” homers.

ESPN says that the average rate of just enoughs is 27% — but that was in 2006, and even Jose Bautista (who leads the league in taters) has only a 22%. Looking at the likes of other infeilders — such as Robinson Cano (16%) and J.J. Hardy (17%) — I think it is more likely to expect a just-enough rate of around 15% for Plouffe. Currently, he has a 33% rate.

So: Either he needs to start cracking deeper homers, or we can expect his long balls will go for a few more long outs. Holding all else equal and adjusting his current numbers down to our expectation, we would slice 4 homers off Plouffe’s numbers.

Putting his new numbers into FI wOBA’s calculator, his wOBA drops 28 points, from .371 wOBA to .343 wOBA — still well above average for an infielder.

But, at the same time, his BABIP is at .237. Plouffe’s homers show a pull tendency, but right-handed pull-hitters rarely get shifted enough to hit BABIPs that low. His slash12 xBABIP is at .289, so if we throw those numbers into the De-Lucker, we see he has a .376 wOBA — which would be a 5 point improvement on his current wOBA.

If he starts hitting for more true power on his homers and sustains his current homer rate, a rate he nearly matched in his last season in Triple-A, then he would settle above .400 wOBA.

And if that does not sound crazy to you, then remind yourself: Before last year, this fellow never had above a .330 wOBA in the minor leauges. Something must have clicked during his 2011 Triple-A assignment because he is simply killing it right now.

Worth noting, however, are the two following, drastic splits: He has only a 100 wRC+ against right-handed pitching, and has a 91 wRC+ on the road this year. In other words, the bulk of his productivity has come at Target Field and against left handers. He is still only about 200 PA into the season, so maybe these two splits even themselves out over time, but it seems very possible that Plouffe is an opposite-hand masher who benefits from his home park. Guys like that exist; we know this. It, of course, does not make sense that Target Field, known for suppressing right-handed home runs, would somehow be an advantage to Plouffe.

Is Plouffe just another Brady Anderson in the making? A fantastic firework of random variation? Eh, maybe. I think there is enough here, though, to suspect Plouffe can be a fixture on the Twins infield for several years to come.