August 30, 2006
Michael Cuddyer seems to have finally found a home out in right field for the Twins after several seasons of bouncing all around the diamond. Originally drafted as a shortstop, Cuddyer has moved to third base, to the outfield, over to second base for 2004, and then back to third in 2005, but he appears to now be the club's right fielder for the immediate future, ending his nomadic wanderings around the field.
Cuddyer was selected ninth overall by the Twins in the first round of the 1997 amateur draft. He didn't sign until almost September, so his first professional playing time came in the next season. His debut came at the Low-A Midwest League in Fort Wayne went very well considering he was only 19 years old: .276/.355/.451, with walks in 11 percent and strikeouts in 19 percent of all plate appearances. Baseball America rated Cuddyer as prospect #36 in their Top 100 for the 1999 season. That year saw Cuddyer repeat at Fort Wayne, and his numbers were the roughly the same, only with a higher walk percentage (14%), and fewer strikeouts.
Cuddyer was promoted to Double-A New Britain in his Age-21 season, and took a step back at the higher level. His walk rate fell, but his strikeouts remained steady. The most damage was done to his Triple Crown rate stats, as he finished at .263/.351/.394. Asked to repeat the level the following season, the differences between his Age-21 and Age-22 season at Double-A were dramatic:
Year AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG HR 2B+3B ISO BB% K% ----------------------------------------------------------- 2000 490 .263/.351/.394 6 38 .131 9.7% 16.5% 2001 509 .301/.395/.560 30 39 .259 12.6% 17.9%
That's a tremendous spike in his power, that 24 home run jump, and he didn't lose any of his other extra-base hits in the process. His strikeout rate crept up a tad, but his walk rate gained ground. His hitting progress at New Britain earned him a September call-up to the Twins, where he posted a 633 OPS in extremely limited action.
Thanks to his offensive explosion, Cuddyer was ranked the #27 prospect in the Top 100 by Baseball America coming into the 2002 season. He followed up by not disappointing anybody in his Triple-A debut, improving his power game even further by hitting .309/.379/.594 with 20 homers and 45 total extra-base hits in only 86 games. However, his walk rate dipped below ten percent, and his strikeouts climbed over 20 percent. Despite that, it's somewhat difficult to complain about a .285 Isolated Power from a 23-year old in Triple-A, and the Twins understandably decided to call him up.
Cuddyer played in only 41 games for the Twins, but he appeared at four different positions: 25 games in right, ten at third base, six at first, and three as the DH. His bat did not appear to be ready for the major leagues-his power dropped (.170 ISO), his strikeouts increased to over 24 percent, and his walks dropped to the lowest rate of his career, a mere 6.5% of all plate appearances. Still, he had managed an Equivalent Average (EqA) of .253 playing multiple positions as a rookie without consistent playing time, and for that, Baseball America awarded him with a ranking of #17 in their Top 100 heading into the 2003 season. Baseball Prospectus 2003 was excited about Cuddyer's potential as well:
Cuddyer almost won the job in right field in spring training, but being the last cut meant playing every day in Edmonton because he needed the at-bats. After recalling him later on, the Twins played him more and more down the stretch, a sign of things to come. As an infielder, he had a great arm, which will hopefully carry over, because he's athletic enough to be an outstanding right fielder… Cuddyer's upside over the next six years is a lot better than this projections hints at.
The projection mentioned was Cuddyer's PECOTA forecast of .265/.336/.449, which would have been a slight improvement on his 2002 campaign. John Sickels had Cuddyer rated as an "A" level prospect with an extremely bright future, so it looks as if all camps agreed on the kind of talent the Twins had on their hands.
Unfortunately, Cuddyer ended up playing in even fewer games than the previous season. After a .229/.316/.400 slump to begin the year, Cuddyer was optioned back down to Triple-A. The bright spot in his early struggles was his walk rate, which increased back up to 11 percent, a clip much more in line with his minor league career than the poor mark of the previous year. However, his power was much lower than one would hope though, with an ISO of only .171.
Back down at Rochester, Cuddyer was seemingly able to right himself. He batted .306/.381/.446 with his walk rate just where it should be, but he eventually missed a great deal of time due to a hamstring injury. He worked his way back from that, and found himself back in the bigs in September. Things went much more smoothly for Cuddyer this time around, as he hit .276/.344/.517 with a homer every 14 at-bats for the month.
Baseball Prospectus 2004 felt Cuddyer could be a very useful piece in the Twins lineup for the upcoming season:
Cuddyer's probably a little overripe as a prospect. His skill set's pretty clear-some power, reasonable plate discipline, and a good arm… Cuddyer's well-regarded for his work ethic and ability to adjust, and could well take a big step forward offensively this year. The Twins need a legitimate bopper, and Cuddyer could very well be the guy; in his brief career, there's no evidence of a big platoon split, and he has hit for significant power in the minors.
PECOTA projected a .276/.348/.477 Age-25 season, which matched up nicely with his limited sample after returning to the majors. This projection turned out to be pretty close, as Cuddyer hit .263/.339/.440, with a Marginal Lineup Value rate (MLVr) that rated him as league-average, along with a .266 Equivalent Average. Cuddyer split time between second and third base, and appeared in 86 Adjusted Games. One could most likely point at the lack of consistent playing time, as well as the lack of a defined position, as the reasons that Cuddyer was seemingly failing to develop past league average at the plate. Taking that into consideration, his production was actually pretty solid, and the Twins did keep him on the major league roster all year for the first time.
Baseball Prospectus 2005 basically felt the same way about the situation:
It took a year or two longer than you might have liked, but Cuddyer finally did get his opportunity to stick, and he didn't disappoint…With both starters on the left side of the infield gone, Cuddyer looks more likely to start at third…Regardless, Cuddyer should have a nice career with a peak something like that of a slightly slower Phil Garner. There's still potential for much more than that, especially in terms of power (see Edmonton, 2002).
PECOTA effectively expected the same production as it had from Cuddyer the previous season: .270/.348/.467, with a dip in his MLVr, from a projected .090 to .057. Excepting a quick three-game stint at Rochester, Cuddyer stuck on the major league roster all year, and performed essentially the same as he did in 2004. Appearing in 114 Adjusted Games, 90 of them as a third basemen, Cuddyer had another league-average season at the plate: .263/.330/.422 with a .255 EqA doesn't exactly scream that he'd become the "legitimate bopper" the Twins needed. Then again, 2005 was a long litany of things going horribly wrong for the Twins, and the silver lining was that this was the closest Cuddyer had been to a regular gig in The Show.
PECOTA finally seemed to concede Cuddyer's drop in production with a .265/.339/.435 forecast, just in time for the 27-year-old to remember how he hit in the minors. Cuddyer is slugging over .500 for the first time in his major league career, hitting .277/.360/.506 with an EqA above the positional average in right field. What changed?
Year P/PA FB% LINEDR% BABIP GB% POPUP% HR/F ------------------------------------------------- 2004 3.8 42.4% 18.6% .304 39.0% 6.1% 11.3% 2005 3.8 21.6% 17.4% .312 52.6% 8.4% 16.2% 2006 4.1 31.9% 15.6% .333 43.6% 8.9% 17.3%
Cuddyer is seeing more pitches per plate appearance; considering the spike in power and the rise in flyballs, it's entirely possible that Cuddyer has employed the "find your pitch and whack it" strategy. The Twins do have a new hitting coach in Joe Vavra this season, and after seeing the progress that Justin Morneau and other Twins have made under his tutelage, that explanation would make a great deal of sense. Not only has Cuddyer increased his flyball rate while cutting down on groundballs, he's also increased the rate at which flyballs turn into home runs. His BABIP took a healthy jump forward as well, which may be something to watch for in 2007 if he regresses somewhat.
Patience at the plate is not necessarily all about taking a walk, as evidenced by the success of young hitters like Alexis Rios and Cuddyer, who seem to have found a way to improve their power games by waiting for their pitch. This is something players like Jeff Francoeur or Wily Mo Pena-hitters who destroy pitches within the strike zone but whiff on almost everything else-could work if they're going to become a dangerous threat in the order, just like Cuddyer has been for the surging Twins.
Special thanks to Kevin Goldstein for his assistance with this article