Plouffe has proven that he can produce at the plate, but he needs to ensure he can take care of business at third as well.
During his time as a member of the Minnesota Twins’ Triple-A affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., Trevor Plouffe earned the nickname “Babe Plouffe.” The moniker is not only a nod to baseball legend Babe Ruth, but also a commentary on his outward appearance. Let’s just say he makes Ryan Gosling look like Zach Galifianakis and probably rescues damsels in distress in the offseason.
When his profile picture was taken, he had so much flow that it would have made Zac Efron jealous. “Locks of Love,” he says, removing his hat and rubbing his buzzed hair. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I could never get it long enough. I sent it in and I think what they do with it, if it’s not long enough, is they actually sell it to somebody else.”
Rumor has it that Cupid made the purchase. He needed something to string his bow and arrow with. “I don’t know if it’s going to be that long anytime soon,” he adds, smiling. “It was fun for a little bit.”
It’s not raining outside. That’s just thousands of teenage girls bawling their eyes out.
OK, enough joking around; let’s get serious. The second reason why he’s called Babe Plouffe is because of his prowess at the plate. He hit 45 home runs in 273 minor league games (1,032 at-bats) with the Rochester Red Wings. Even as the youngest player on the roster in 2009, he knocked 10 dingers out of Frontier Field in downtown Rochester while batting .260/.313/.407. Two years later, in 2011, he hit .313/.384/.635 with 15 homers.
But when he was initially called up in 2010, Plouffe struggled. In 22 games, he hit .146/.143/.317 and only managed two home runs all year. The next year, he didn’t fare much better, hitting eight homers with a .238/.305/.392 line. He had a negative wins above replacement (WAR) number in both seasons.
“Just the consistency of the players,” he says when asked about the difference between Triple-A and Major League Baseball. “There’s good baseball in Triple-A, a lot of guys have been in the big leagues, the difference is just consistency. When you’re going out and facing major league-ready pitching every day, that’s something that’s a little different.”
Plouffe often sought help from Joe Vavra, the team’s batting coach last season who was moved to third base during the Twins' coaching purge in the offseason.
“It’s a different animal up here. It’s just a different animal,” says Vavra. “They play accordingly, they pitch you accordingly, stuff’s better. They can elevate the ball; they can sink it at any different time. They can pitch in; they can pitch out.”
Under Vavra’s instruction, Plouffe saw a great increase in production last year when he hit 24 home runs in 119 games. While there was work to be done at the plate, his .235/.301/.455 line could use improvement, that power the team scouts saw when they drafted him in the first round of the 2004 draft out of Crespi Carmelite High School in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles began to manifest itself in June, when he hit 11 home runs.
Unfortunately, he suffered a thumb injury in late July that lingered. At first he was day-to-day, but later was placed on the disabled list. He did not return to play until mid-August.
“The injury itself, a thumb injury, it takes a long time to get confidence in that top hand,” says Vavra. “It’s like a catcher getting thumbed in their glove, you’re fearful that you’re going to get another one in there and reaggravate it. It’s the same thing with hitting, you get the deep thumb bruise and they don’t want to go away so you’re conscientiously trying to make adjustments at the plate that will alter that, just so that won’t happen.”
Plouffe’s next home run did not come until August 29against Seattle.
“I feel like since I came back off the DL, it’s been a little bit of a struggle for me, there’s no doubt about it, but nobody’s going to feel sorry four you,” Plouffe said at the time. “You’ve got to get yourself out of these ruts and that’s what a good baseball player does—he’s consistent and when he gets himself into a rut, he gets himself out of it. I’m still learning how to do that, there’s no doubt about that. It’s something I’ll continue to work on. That’s my goal: to be more consistent.”
Manager Ron Gardenhire noticed that Plouffe’s timing was off after the injury. He said that Plouffe had the same power behind the swing, but he was just fouling off balls that he typically would hit out of the park.
“Right now he’s fouling the balls off that he should be whacking,” he said. “He’ll be the first to tell you he’s missing his pitch right now. When you’re on a roll and that ball is up, that same ball, and you square it up and it goes flying up there in the seats. When you start pressing a little bit or trying to do too much then you start fouling them straight back.”
When Plouffe swings at a pitch, the right-handed hitter picks up his left leg when starting his swing. The leg kick has to be timed correctly in order for him to square up a pitch he wants to hit, and if executed incorrectly, it can negatively affect his balance.
“For a guy like me that has a little bit of a leg kick in my stride, timing is pretty important and it’s just something that comes and goes throughout a season,” says Plouffe. “After I came off the DL, I was working to get it back and I’ve had it for a few days and I haven’t had it for a few days and I haven’t been as consistent as I want.”
Vavra says he would love to do a study on a batter’s timing because the solution is as diverse as the batters themselves. Everyone has a different body type, mental makeup and approach at the plate. He says the best hitters, like Joe Mauer, are calm at the plate. With his California-cool mien, Plouffe should have no problem staying relaxed. Additionally, for a player with strong hands like his, the execution of the leg kick is vital. If it is done wrong, he will not benefit from his best physical attribute.
“It works fine when it works,” he says of the leg kick, “but it’s one of those things where you are heavy on your backside and if you’re in the air and the ball’s on top of you, you can’t get that. You have to keep yourself down and let your hands work.”
Gardenhire echoed Vavra’s words in August when Plouffe was trying to get out of his slump: “He’s fouled off a lot of balls lately that he probably should have whacked. It’s just about relaxing and squaring the ball up and letting it go. Can’t get too caught up in it—put a nice swing on it and see what happens.”
“Most of the time when you see a guy with a leg lift, you’ll see them with their hands back in a pretty good position,” says Vavra, “so there it becomes recognizing when to start and when do I have to be ready on different pitchers?”
By September, Plouffe was beginning to connect at the plate again. He hit four home runs at the end of the season and started to look like the player he was before the thumb injury. He says that time in the cage with Vavra has helped and that many players in the locker room have stepped up and helped him through his slump.
“There’s a lot of good guys to talk to,” Plouffe says while sitting down at his locker stall and staring around the room. “We’ve got a lot of good hitters here. Willingham is a right-handed hitter and a guy that’s had some power, he’s helped me out a lot. Just understanding who you are as a hitter and not being anything different. I can go to him whenever. He’s a good guy and he’ll sit down and talk.”
Immediately upon finishing the last sentence, Plouffe turned to Willingham, who’s locker was right next to his, and pounded his fist. He would frequently talk to the veteran slugger, who hit a career-high 35 home runs in 2012 during his slump.
“We just talk about baseball,” says Willingham. “I don’t have any specific advice like ‘do this’ or ‘do that.’ We just talk about baseball, what we’re doing, how we’re feeling, are we seeing the ball. All that stuff. I don’t really tell him [what to do]. We just talk about baseball and what we learn from each other.”
When he’s not at the plate, Plouffe has been shuffled all over the field. He’s played a little shortstop, some second base and even dabbled in the outfield since joining the Twins. Last year, he found a home at the hot corner, but went through the pains of learning the position and committed 17 errors at third and has turned to Jamey Carroll for advice on defense.
“Jamey Carroll is a guy we brought in, and he’s solid defensively all over the field, and that’s kind of what I was doing at the beginning of the season,” says Plouffe. “You just see how he went about his business, how he prepared to be able to be moved around. Once I got settled at third base, he was able to help me with my first step and just reading balls and positioning yourself correctly. That’s a guy I look to.”
“It takes a lot of work,” says Carroll about learning third base. “Every position is different. Every position has a rhythm, a different feel, a different throw so you have to put in the time. It’s not easy, but at the same time it’s kinda fun and challenging and keeps it fresh because you get to move around.”
Carroll says that third base is one of the most difficult positions in the game because it requires an instant reaction once a ball is hit, and he acknowledges that it is one of the toughest positions to learn.
“Third base is a reaction position,” he avers. “You’re getting the balls smoked at you or there are those choppers, people are bunting, so it’s just a position that takes time to get comfortable with because you can’t really get in any rhythm when you field. It’s kind of an all-or-nothing kind of thing. It’s a longer throw.”
Plouffe was drafted as a shortstop, the primary position he played in high school, and it is difficult to adjust to being a third baseman even though both roles are on the left side of the diamond.
“Shortstop is more athleticism because of the way you have to play the position and the area you have to cover,” says Carroll. “The angles are a lot different on the throw, so there’s more concentration on the footwork and the ability—you’re fielding the ball with the anticipation of the throw, whereas third, you’re fielding the ball first. Short you’re fielding yourself to set up the throw. Third you’re just catching and then you’re throwing.”
“That’s just another thing I need to work on,” says Plouffe in reference to third base. “It is still fairly new to me. I’ve been working on first-step quickness, the angles—the angles are way different at third base. You’ve got to drop step for a lot of those balls, especially the ones that are hit hard.”
He says that at shortstop and second base you are taught to come in and get the ball, whereas at third base, he is supposed to drop step for most of the balls that are hit his way. “That’s something I’ve gotta figure out,” he says, “and keep working on.”
“He’s been working on his setup and his first step,” says Gardenhire. “He’s been trying to find something that’s comfortable, and that’s the most important part. I can’t tell him how to do it, Scotty [former third base coach Scott Ullger] can’t, he’s got to find something that’s comfortable.”
There is still work to be done. Most of Plouffe’s errors last season came not because he couldn’t field the ball, but as a result of a throw that sailed on him. If he wants to hold down third this year, he must be able to react better to the ball off the bat and make an accurate throw shortly after fielding the ball.
At the plate, his calm demeanor and healthy hand should lead to more production. Plouffe has suffered a calf injury in the offseason, which could affect his balance, but it is minor and should be healed by Opening Day. Assuming he stays healthy, Plouffe should be able to pick up where he left off last year in terms of offensive production.
There is some question as to how well he’ll handle third base, but his play last year indicates that he can hit 25-30 home runs in 2013. If he gets in another slump, he has plenty of good hitters in the locker room to turn to like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and the aforementioned Willingham. And let’s be honest, it is rather fitting that as he enters his prime, the 26-year-old Californian with locks of golden hair and a million-dollar smile turns into a home run hitter.
After all, we all know that the chicks dig the long ball.
All quotes were obtained firsthand.
Tom Schreier covers the Minnesota Twins for Bleacher Report and writes a weekly column for TheFanManifesto.com.