Sure, not everyone thought he was washed up. Over the winter his agent -- Matt Sosnick of Sosnick Cobbe Sports-- reassured me that Willingham was strong like bull after his knee surgery in 2013. The procedure cleaned everything up and he was healthy. The message? Get ready because 2014 would be a rebirth of Willingham --avert your eyes because you cannot handle the raw power!
But that’s agent talk, right? An agent is supposed to be the best wingman alive, pumping a player’s tires even if the engine won’t start.
Then, like those cartoon dynamite sticks with a 100 yards of fuse that fails to ignite while an animated coyote waits with his ears plugged behind a rock, the Twins waited for the big boom from Willingham that never came this spring. Yes, spring training statistics are wholly meaningless but scouts look for signs of life and Willingham’s performance had a very weak pulse. He accumulated just three hits in 50 spring plate appearances and one of those happened to be a wall-scraping home run at Boston’s JetBlue Park in the final practice game of the year.
Based on that, the assumption was that Willingham was continuing where he left off in 2013. Last season, bogged down with a knee injury, he finished with his worst season at the major league level. While playing in 111 games, he turned in a .208/.342/.369 line with 128 strikeouts. With his highest whiff rate and lowest power output, there were rumblings that the 34-year-old was simply stranded.
Willingham made it just six games into the 2014 season before Cleveland’s Justin Masterson sent him to the infirmary again with a fastball that ran in on Willingham’s wrist. After a rehab stint in Rochester that seemed as disappointing as his spring production, Willingham looked to be poised to flounder again.
Only he has not.
Since returning to the team on May 26 he has flipped a switch and posted a .316/.467/.632 batting line with five home runs and a 14/14 K/BB ratio in 75 plate appearances. Only Lonnie Chisenhall, Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Alex Gordon and Edwin Encarnacion in the American League have put up better slugging percentages in that time while his extra nerdy .464 weighted on-base average is only bested by Chisenhall and Gordon.
While some may want to consider this as his dead-cat bounce, there are some positive signs in this small sample size that may indicate that this is truly a health rebound and not a fluke, the most notable sign being how improved his plate coverage is in comparison to last year.
Part of Willingham’s game is being able to extend those meaty arms in order to pull pitches to left field. Without a stable base to support those Popeye forearms, there would be little ability to drive the balls that are thrown on the opposite side of the plate. This was evident last year. If you divided the plate into thirds, according to ESPN/tTruMedia, last year Willingham slugged .538 (7 HR) on the inside, .438 (7 HR) in the middle and .224 (0 HR) on the outer portion. That is in stark contrast to his output in his impressive 2012 season where he slugged .526 (8 HR) inside, .642 (16 HR) middle and .422 (11 HR) outside.
Visually, you can see how different his season with a knee-injury (2013) is versus a healthy season (2012) and how that injury affected his ability to drive the ball on the outer half for power. It is amazing how abrupt his power ended at the middle portion of the strike zone:
Fast forward to this season and Willingham’s tendencies are mirroring his 2012 season in which he has been able to drive the ball on the outer-half with authority. Statistically in 2014, he is slugging .649 because he has tagged three of his five home runs from the outside portion of the zone. Here is how that looks visually with his slugging percentage this year:
Willingham is not only able to connect with those pitches that are thrown away but he’s able to drive them a long way from home. This is important because this is the region that opponents have attacked him most frequently rather than risk throwing inside:
Beyond just the heat maps that may confuse the color-blind, here are two visual examples with a fastball on the outer-half where one turned into a left-center field home run and the other a foul out to first base:
This may be the smallest of small sample sizes when drawing a two-swing comparison but overall this shows the discrepancy accurately: this year he is able to drive the outside pitch whereas in 2013 he was not.
At his age and his health history, it is difficult to say how long this production will last. Still, at the very least, Willingham is now doing the things that he was doing in his successful 2012 that he was not in 2013. Depending on how you look at it, this is an inflation for his trade deadline value or an offensive weapon to help the Twins combat the rest of the AL Central.