Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Why Josh Willingham was built for Target Field

After engaging in a waiting game with corner outfield incumbent Michael Cuddyer, the Twins appear poised to move on to the next option in Josh Willingham.

As both Phil Mackey and Aaron Gleeman pointed out yesterday, the decision to move from Cuddyer to Willingham isn’t just based on their performance but also the additional picks that come with allowing Cuddyer to walk. From an organization-building standpoint, landing two free draft picks is a wise decision in and of itself. Then, on top of that, the team is able to sign Willingham for $3M less overall than the offer to Cuddyer (which may even be $7M in savings if Cuddyer gets his $30M that has been floated out by several national writers). It all adds up to the right move by the Twins decision-makers.  

What’s more, despite having similar offensive production the past two seasons, there is another advantage to signing Willingham if you consider his style might be better suited for Target Field.

The Twins organization puts a great amount of pride on getting their hitters to use the entire field. Unfortunately, in Minneapolis today, that gets you diddley-squat. According to observations made by Delmon Young in October, 
the former Twin said the configurations and the environment made using the entire field nearly impossible:
“Target Field changed my whole field of hitting. I usually tried to use the middle of the field, and if I pulled, I pulled, and if I went the other way, I went the other way.
At Target Field, when those balls turn into can-of-corn outs and I was fighting for playing time over there, I couldn’t afford to have a flyout to deep right field. I had to try to pull the ball to get a base hit.” 
As it turns out, Young was correct. Most of the home runs hit at Target Field by right-handers were pulled, a dozen were hit to left-center, five to center and just three went opposite field. This was a huge drop-off from production at the Metrodome when right-handers had 20 home runs to center and right field in 2009. If the Twins were going to get a right-hander with home run power, they would need to acquire a pull hitter to thrive at Target Field. That’s where Josh Willingham comes in.
In the simplest terms, Willingham is that dead-pull hitter the Twins need:

As you can see from his spray chart taken from the past two seasons, Willingham favors yanking the ball down the line – and this method has paid dividends for the 32-year-old outfielder. Over the past three seasons his weighted on-base average has been the seventh-best while his isolated power numbers (ISO) have been the fourth-highest among qualified hitters.  

Highest wOBA when pulling (2009-2011)
Mark Reynolds
Jose Bautista
Kevin Youkilis
Curtis Granderson
Carlos Gonzalez
Miguel Cabrera
Josh Willingham

Willingham’s pull-power served him well last year in Oakland where he slugged a robust .523 at the O.co Coliseum (O.co? We’re coming very close to having something named “Preparation H Arena” as seen in BASEketball, aren’t we?) when all right-handers only managed to .363 (only eight other stadiums were tougher on right-handed hitters in baseball last year). By comparison, righties compiled a .417 slugging percentage at Target Field.

What makes Willingham so exceptionally good at pulling the ball is his ability to hit the ball out in front:

In addition to making contact out in front, Willingham draws his power from a stiff front leg which helps with leverage and keeps his hands inside as his back arm stays close to his body at a little over a 90 degree angle – otherwise known as the “Power L” position. This combination, plus his natural strength, has led to a home run every 18.6 at bats since 2009.

In theory, this package should play much better within the home confines as opposed to Michael Cuddyer’s approach of using the entire field.

Cuddyer, a strong individual in his own right, allows pitches to get much further into the zone and therefore winds up with a much more even distribution of hits to all fields. As such, the vast majority of his home runs also have left the yard in the left-center gap – a more difficult act to do on a regular basis at Target Field – versus close to the left field foul pole where Willingham’s home runs land.

This isn’t to say anything that what Cuddyer is doing is bad, per se; it’s just the way he’s designed. Of course, these are just examples as he certainly does hit some out in front that travel a long ways but overall, he thrives on being the type of hitter that can poke an outside pitch to right or send one back up the middle. For Willingham, that’s basically unheard of.

While it may have been Cuddyer’s attempt at a polite kiss-off by not accepting the offer, it could end up doing the team a huge service by giving them two draft picks, payroll relief and a player better suited for Target Field in Josh Willingham. 


Anonymous said...

Cuddy will be missed for his "good guy nature," but hopefully Willingham will be able to hit a slider - heck, if even to just foul it off. Thanks for an insightful article.

union1mc said...

I love this move, but I have serious doubts as to if his power translates to Target Field. Not because his pull power won't translate, but because the Twins seem to stress using the whole field. I can easily see Vavra jacking up his swing, ala Hardy.

Anonymous said...

If Willingham isn't hitting 25+ homers every year for us, this is a bad deal. He stuck out 150 times last year and his OBP wasn't good his first year in the AL. He's a statute in left, god knows how bad he'll be in right. Best case is he's about a 2.0 rWAR player and worst case is a lot worse.

rover27 said...

Twins have either got to bring the fences in or move home plate further out. And fill in the area behind the plate with more seating.

Home runs are part of the game. Except at Target Field, Safeco, and a couple of other canyon-like ballparks.

Anonymous said...

Twins fans will love Willinghams bat. As a lifelong A's fan, I have seen many post steroid RH hitters come to the coliseum and pretty much die. It's very hard to go out to the opposite field, and a lot like your folks' new beautiful ballpark, it's not exactly easy to leave the yard while pulling the ball either.

Willingham hits the ball with more authority then any RH A's hitter Oakland has seen since Frank Thomas in 06'. I really can't remember a single homerun last season that would have been considered a "cheapy". This isn't saying much, but he had the highest batted ball velocity of any A's player by a decent margain. Also hit the longest HR in Oakland last season. He'll come with his K's, but if your like Oakland fans and worry about every single hitter they bring in, and his ability to hit the ball in your home ballpark, don't worry. If he plays 120+ games you'll easily get 25+ Hr's and an .800+ OPS.

Anonymous said...

Why are we concerned about getting more home runs for all players? Why can't our home field advantage favour the pitching which our successfull teams are always built around anyway? This year, with a hapless fly ball- friendly pitching staff, Target Fields' configuration is a blessing. Willingham is an ideal component of that advantage. Thanks for the analysis!

Brian M said...

I love Cuddyer and I hate to see him go BUT one thing that always bugged me was that when Cuddy got 2 strikes on him he took WAY too many AWFUL swings at balls out of the zone. I've watched every twins game for the past 3 years and his 2-strike plate discipline was BAD to say it mildly. Now I don't know how Willingham is with 2 strikes on him but Cuddyer has set the bar so low that Willingham shouldn't have a problem impressing me in this regard.

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