And, to his credit, the 27-year-old has made the most of this opportunity.
After several seasons of mishandling the hot corner and minimal offensive contributions, Plouffe's game took giant leaps forward in 2014. Defensively he has looked improved and the magical defensive metrics reflect it. Offensively, there have been signs that he has matured as a player like using the entire field and laying off pitches out of the zone.
Of course, Twins fans have gotten excited once before for the big breakout.
In 2012, Plouffe gained attention by hitting roughly 750 home runs (estimate) in June and July. At that time, I documented his mechanical changes since his rookie year that allowed him to pull the ball with such might. By quieting his bat movement and aggressively deploying his hips, he fired red-seamed rockets into the outfield bleachers. Part of what made that stretch so successful for Plouffe was his ability to let it fly early in the count. According to ESPN/TruMedia, he was 14-for-26 and banged 7 of his 14 home runs in that situation. Of course, the baseball bombardment would not last as teams adjusted to his new approach and Plouffe could not reciprocate in kind.
Following what felt like a lost year in 2013, Plouffe overhauled his strategy at the plate and refined his mechanics in order to become a more complete hitter.
The first change was improving his base. Prior to this season, Plouffe demonstrated a wider stance with his weight distribution on his back leg. This season, the stance has been shortened and his distribution is more balanced.
In his swing, or more specifically his leg lift, we see a muted version of the front leg lift. Over the previous two seasons, Plouffe used a higher lift and shifted more of his weight onto his back leg before shifting forward. Not only that but he also This creates a situation with plenty power but also overcommitting to fastballs and the selling out on the pull-side. Now, with his balanced approach, he is able to allow the ball to travel deeper while staying back. This gives him the ability to drive the ball hard to all fields with impressive results -- he is hitting a robust .333 when driving the ball to right field and .357 up-the-middle.
Plouffe explained this change in his approach to 1500ESPN.com’s Derek Wetmore at the end of April by saying:
Plouffe has thrived this year by smacking pitches that have remained up in the zone for hits. In fact, his .340 average on pitches in the upper-half is 100 points better than the average. It is clear that this trend has been spotted by opposing teams when you consider how Plouffe has been pitched as of late and his performance in that time (.132/.175/.211 since May 1).
Now, as you can see from the ESPN heat map, teams are throwing him down-and-away. Over his career he’s hit just .128 on pitches in that area and is a miserable 0-for-17 this year when putting those balls into play. Perhaps as a result of this new attack, Plouffe has also started to stray from his newfound approach of swinging at just pitches in the zone. Prior to May, Plouffe chased after 15.5% of pitches out of the zone, says ESPN/TruMedia. This month he’s expanded this region and offered at 26.7% of all out-of-zone pitches.
Unless Plouffe can adjust to that plan of attack -- or capitalize on mistakes -- he is almost certain to see his numbers fall. That being said, Plouffe’s maturity and willingness to make these changes bodes well for his ability respond.