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TwinsCentric: Will Willingham continue to hammer?

Posted by: Parker Hageman Updated: January 11, 2013 - 12:36 AM

 For a significant portion of the year, Josh Willingham fueled the Twins offense and gave the fans something to watch while the team sank deeper in the standings.

He proved that Target Field was not resistant to home team home runs. In fact, his 21 home runs at home easily trumped long-standing fan-favorite Michael Cuddyer’s 17 hit in his two years at Target Field (2010-2011). Jim Thome managed to swat 21 home runs as well but needed 14 more plate appearances than him to do so.  

Fan looking for a reason to believe in the 2013 team will be interested to know if Willingham will continue his vicious pace set last year. Unfortunately, indications suggest that his home run total is almost certain to decrease in 2013. And here’s why:

Stats.

[Drops mic; leaves the stage.]

But stats kept hometown hero Jack Morris out of the Hall of Fame even though he single-handedly won the World Series for the Minnesota Twins and once saved a baby seal or something. So why should we believe stats?

[Walks back on stage. Picks mic back up.]

True and I totes agree that we should burn down all stats and calculators and stuff right after I finish this piece but, for now, hear me out.

One measurement that suggests the Willinghammer will see a dingers decline in 2013 is because of his home run distributions -- as captured by HitTrackerOnline.com.

For those unfamiliar, Hit Tracker charts all home runs hit and, through methods that go beyond my mathematical capabilities, calculates their “true landing spot.” Whereas ballpark present distances that are based mostly on the architecture of the existing facility and projecting where the ball would have landed had it not have been stopped by, say, the batter’s eye in center field, HitTrackerOnline.com factors in atmospheric data and speed off the bat to generate their data. This, in theory, should be a more accurate representation of a player’s true abilities to hit and sustain home runs.

With their data, Hit Tracker has made three classifications for home runs. Those which clear the fence by 20 vertical feet and pass it by 50 feet are considered a “No Doubt” home run. Think Giancarlo Stanton’s 494-foot bomb off of new Twins pitcher Josh Roenicke. At the other end of the spectrum are home runs which exit the field by 10 vertical feet or land one fence height past the wall. These are labeled as “Just Enough” home runs. Just Enough home runs are wall-scrapers like Tampa’s B.J. Upton’s 323-foot home run off of Ervin Santana which nearly grazed the foul pole and the left field wall at Tropicana. Finally, everything else in between is considered “Plenty.”

Based on their figures, a standard distribution of home runs have been 18% No Doubt, 55% Plenty and 27% Just Enough. If a player is well above the Just Enough 27% threshold, the prevailing assumption is that he had good fortune of having a few additional balls escape the playing surface thanks to weather, ballpark configurations or simply the blessings of the baseball gods. In Willingham’s case, he had a whopping 45% of his home runs fall under the “Just Enough/Lucky” category.

What this means, if the Hit Tracker theory holds water, is that Willingham’s home run totals will start to slide back to his career norms – which had been 22 heading into last season. Furthering this idea that he is poised for home run decline is the fact that Willingham is coming off a career year in terms of home runs-to-fly ball ratio. In 2012, 21.2% of his fly balls left the yard - which was well above his career average of 15%. This will almost assuredly regress back to the mean as well.

In terms of his home run totals, Willingham is almost a text book case for regression. That said, it does not mean he will drop drastically in value. As I stated prior to his signing, he is almost the ideal hitter for Target Field – a right-handed pull-hitter with power. More than that, Willingham stresses patience in his approach at the plate leading to a healthy walk rate and on-base percentage. Perhaps it went unnoticed because of his power numbers, but he chased after just 21.7% of out-of-zone pitches, the fifth lowest rate in baseball last year. That was lower than such plate discipline luminaries as Denard Span and Joe Mauer.

That skill set should ensure that he continues to provide a great deal of value even if a few fly balls fall short on the warning track in 2013. 

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