Friday, February 5, 2016

How Good Is Trevor Plouffe?

The shortest answer to the proposed question possible; better than you think. Really though, Plouffe entered the offseason as an arbitration eligible player for the Twins, and secured a nice raise to the tune of a one-year $7.25 million deal. With another season of arbitration eligibility ahead of him, and the expected production to follow, he could enter a whole new tier by 2017.

Heading into the winter months, the Minnesota Twins were faced with a decision. Having Miguel Sano ready for more playing time, and needing to move out from a designated hitter only role, the Twins had to figure out what to do with Plouffe. Arguably one of the American League's best third basemen, his trade value was going to be somewhat muted by the fact that he's already 29, in his prime or not.

I took the stance in January that holding onto Plouffe was absolutely the right decision. For a young team like the Twins, moving on from top talent is not a great strategy, and a player like Plouffe is always going to be more valuable in Minnesota than wherever else he goes. Whether the return was a relief arm or something better, holding off on fielding offers was the smart play by GM Terry Ryan.

What Plouffe gave the Twins in 2015 was nothing to be disappointed about. He was worth 2.5 fWAR (down a bit from his 3.6 fWAR mark in 2014), and slashed a respectable .244/.307/.435. His 152 games played was easily a career high, and career marks were also set in runs scored (74), hits (140), triples (4), and RBI (86). Plouffe's 22 home runs were the second highest mark of his career, and helped him to eclipse the 20 plateau for the first time since 2012.

Unfortunately for Plouffe, his detractors led to some muted numbers. He led the league in times grounding into double plays (28), and struck out a career high 124 times. His on-base percentage being just north of .300 was a relative step back rom the .328 mark he posted during 2014. For Plouffe, some of it came down to tough luck.

In the year that was, Plouffe posted the best hard hit contact rate of his career (33.5%). Generating just a .274 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) however, suggests that the Twins third basemen didn't find a ton of holes on those hard hit balls. He also hit over 40% of his balls in play on the ground, while generating just above 18% of his batted balls as line drives. Hitting the ball hard into the ground, Plouffe's launch angles weren't going to help him accumulate extra base hits.

At the plate, Trevor's approach continues to be one that should benefit him in the long run. He doesn't chase often, and once again swung at less than 30% (26.2% to be exact) of pitches thrown outside of the zone. When swinging at pitches in the zone, he made contact over 88% of the time, and had a total contact rating over 80% for the fourth straight year. Not a big swing and miss guy, Plouffe whiffed on pitches just 8.7% of the time.

For brief stretches, it's all come together for Plouffe as well. From Opening Day through the end of May, Plouffe was arguably the best third basemen in baseball not named Josh Donaldson. Over that 46 game stretch, the Twins third basemen slashed .279/.352/.488. He clubbed eight homers, drove in 29 runs, and doubled 10 times. The results were also aided by the type of balls Plouffe was putting in play, as he owned a .317 BABIP over that stretch. From that point forward is where Plouffe's season took the opposite direction. His BABIP from June 1 through the end of the year was just .256, while his slash line rested at .229/.288/.411.

My belief going forward is that Plouffe is more the player the Twins saw at the beginning of 2015, rather than through the end of it. Having to struggle through unlucky bounces and poor circumstances, much of the hot start was overlooked. In making a few tweaks to get the ball off the ground a bit more often, the season could have ended significantly different for the California native.

The offseason has been one that's been incredibly busy for Plouffe. He's been a dad for the first time off the field, handed a nice raise, and is working towards an even better year ahead. The Twins didn't approach him about a long term extension during arbitration, but they may wish they had. Should Plouffe take another step forward in 2016, he's going to quickly surpass the $10 million average annual value mark, and enter into the discussion among the game's best third basemen.

Regardless of the positional shifts happening around him, Minnesota was best served to hold onto Trevor Plouffe. A late-bloomer that is in the midst of his prime, pushing towards a trip to San Diego in the middle of the summer shouldn't be out of the question. Plouffe may have become somewhat of a complimentary Twin, but make no mistake, there's more production there.

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