On Tuesday night the Minnesota Twins were mounting an assault in the eighth inning on Phillies reliever Mike Adams.
Having just relinquished the tying run the half-inning prior, the Twins had runners on the corners and one out. The Outfield’s “Your Love” blasted over Target Field’s sound system indicating that Josh Willingham would be arriving to the plate. Adams, however, was able to get Willingham to pop out in foul territory for the inning’s second out.
This brought Justin Morneau to the plate with two down. The Phillies countered with the left-handed Antonio Bastardo. Morneau fouled off four tough pitches before he laced a line drive to center to score Jamey Carroll, giving the Twins the lead which would later be preserved by Glen Perkins in the ninth.
In a nutshell, this is the major difference between the team’s two more prominent bats in the middle of the lineup. Willingham, who leads the team with 10 home runs, has seen his overall batting average slip to .214 and has hit .212 in 65 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. Morneau, who has not homered since April 28, has been able to find other ways to drive in runs when needed and has provided a .359 batting average in his 78 plate appearances with runners in scoring position.
Willingham’s power has still been a major factor for the lineup but his inability to keep the ball on the playing surface and reach safely has decreased his potency. His pop out to third base on Tuesday was a prime example of his struggles. Equipped with a significant upper-cut swing which helped him take to the skies and jack 35 home runs last year, this same method has been a detriment to him this year. According to Fangraphs.com, Willingham has hit 70 fly balls and 17 of those have not left the infield. That 24.3% infield fly ball rate is second in all of baseball -- behind only Atlanta’s BJ Upton (who is currently impressing his new team with a .161 average) -- and well above his career rate of 13%. This is the main reason his batting average on balls in play has dropped to a career-low .258.
Willingham recently told the Star Tribune’s Sid Hartman that:
Judging by his splits, Willingham is actually performing better in counts in which he is ahead in the count this year in comparison to last year. This year, he’s batting .273/.500/.545 compared to .244/.473/.494. Where he is experiencing the most decline is in even counts (first pitch, 1-1, 2-2). In 2011, he hit a robust .284/.308/.607 with 17 of his 35 home runs. This year it’s down to .227/.292/.485 and 5 dingers.
A cursory search at TexasLeaguers.com’s PitchF/X tool shows that Willingham has seen some of the cherry pitches disappear from a year ago as opponents adjust. In the 1-1 count last year, Willingham saw 40% fastballs. It is down to 30% this year. In 2-2 counts, his slider percentage when up from 20% to 28%. This shows that teams are approaching Willingham slightly different and may be the cause of his high percentage of infield flies.
While Willingham is having problems lofting fly balls out of the infield, Morneau is unable to lose them over the fence. Like Willingham, Morneau has also hit 70 fly balls this season yet only two have had enough distance to them so he could jog around all the bases. Morneau’s home runs-to-fly balls rate is at a career-low 2.9%. To put that into context, the 2.9% rate is the 11th-lowest in the majors, squeezing the one-time slugger in between such power threats as Juan Pierre (2.3%) and Marco Scutero (3.3%).
Morneau seems flummoxed by this development. In his conversation with Star Tribune’s Jim SouhanMorneau said that he’s doing everything he had in past years but the results are not showing.
But will they turn into homers?
There could be dozens of factors playing into Morneau’s lack of home runs. Mechanics, injury and age could all be contributors. Mechanically, he’s flying open more than he had in past seasons, which may limit his able to drive the ball down in the zone that he once had demolished regularly. Take a look as his home runs by location since 2008:
He was able to launch plenty of home runs on pitches right down the middle and middle-low. If a hitter is flying open, that pitch becomes increasingly difficult to drive. Now, the only two home runs he has hit this year have come on pitches inside and out of the zone – a spot easier to drive if a hitter is flying open:
Beyond that, Morneau’s average distance on his fly balls are down considerably too. According to BaseballHeatMaps.com, from 2010 to 2012, he averaged 278 feet per fly ball. That’s down to 260 this year.
Additionally, the speed in which the ball leaves his bat is also down. The extremely small sample size notwithstanding, HitTrackerOnline.com says Morneau’s two home runs averaged an exit speed of 101.4 miles per hour whereas it was 104.4 in 2012, 102.4 in 2011 and 104.9 in 2010. At this rate, if the average speed off of the bat decline is any indication, it seems difficult to believe that Morneau is “just missing” and that there is something else behind his power outage.
The Twins tandem in the heart of the order are both having down years for separate reasons. Both, too, are potential trade candidates at the deadline. However, at this pace, the return for either would be quite underwhelming unless they are able to increase their production soon.