Rookie outfielder Trevor Larnach was optioned to Triple-A St. Paul on Monday. His demotion might have caught some Twins fans by surprise, especially if they stopped paying close attention to the team when it fell out of contention earlier in the season. In 72 May plate appearances, Larnach delivered an impressive .856 OPS, 138 wRC+, 16.7% walk rate, and 26.4% strikeout rate that made it seem he was set to deliver on his prospect hype.
But he’s fallen on hard times since opposing pitchers found and relentlessly pounded his weaknesses. In 229 plate appearances since June 1 he produced .621 OPS and 75 wRC+ that came with a 8.3% walk rate and a 37.1% strikeout rate. The past several weeks Larnach has very much looked like a prospect who had played only 46 minor league games above High-A before his major league debut.
Larnach’s four plate appearances in Sunday’s contest against the Rays (he went 0-3 with a walk and a RBI groundout) stood out to me as emblematic of what he’s faced from opposing pitchers and the issues in his game that he’ll be working to improve in the minors. His season was encapsulated well in just one afternoon.
Here’s the combined pitch type and location map from his four trips on Sunday:
There are 18 pitches on that map. Just eight (44.4%) of them clipped the defined strike zone. Ten (55.5%) were breaking balls, mostly off the plate. Larnach swung at only five (27.7%), missing twice, putting two in play on the ground, and fouling off another.
And that has been the past two plus months in a nutshell for Larnach. Pitchers approach him carefully (mostly with soft stuff), he tries to stay patient, and then does not do enough with the chances he does get to hit.
Other writers have pointed out in their write ups about Larnach being optioned that he has seen the 3rd lowest rate of fastballs (48.6% four-seamers, two-seamers, sinkers, and cutters) among the 224 players to have seen 1,000 pitches this season, behind only Jorge Soler and Shohei Ohtani .
Opposing pitchers have been content to pitch him backwards because the data makes clear that his performance has been significantly worse against breaking balls and off speed pitches. Take a look:
Much like he did in the plate appearances on Sunday, Larnach countered his opponents with patience, waiting for something better to hit. He averaged 4.02 pitches per plate appearance, a mark that exceeds the league average of 3.92 by a decent margin and that would rate among the top 40 or so hitters if Larnach had enough plate appearances to qualify.
Larnach swung at just 43.8% of the pitches thrown his way, which was well below the 46.9% league average and placed inside the least swing happy quartile of the 228 batters to take at least 250 plate appearances. The low swing rate helped keep Larnach from chasing pitches out of the strike zone, which he did substantially less often (25.2%) than the league average (28.2%).
As the season progressed, Larnach increasingly came up empty on the pitches that he did go after, which is illustrated well by his swing and miss rate on pitches in the strike zone:
Altogether, Larnach made contact on just 62.9% of his swings, the fifth-worst rate among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. The combination of taking lots of pitches and swinging and missing frequently made Larnach tied for the second-highest called strikes plus whiffs rate (CSW%) with 34.4%. In practice, this means that more than a third of the pitches Larnach saw resulted in a strike against him. If you add in the pitches he fouled away (13.7%) Larnach essentially had a strike result against him on half the pitches he was offered. Naturally then, it is easy to understand how his strikeout rate ballooned to 34.6%, the fourth-highest rate in the game this season.
In a lot of ways the data above mirrors that of Miguel Sanó. Before this season started, I wrote in depth about Sanó’s approach at the plate and his delicate balancing act between patience and aggressiveness. If we put Larnach and Sanó underlying numbers side by side, the similarities are pretty striking.
Let’s start with pitch mix and results against:
Sanó has seen just a touch more fastballs and breaking balls than Larnach (likely due to being a right handed batter and being platoon disadvantaged more often) but the general trend of how they are pitched is mostly the same. Their results against the three different grouping of pitch types, right down to the whiffs, are remarkably close together. Both produce far better against fastball types than they do against the secondary pitch groupings.
The similarities between them continue in the data that characterizes their plate discipline:
They even have a similar batted ball profiles when they do get pitches to hit and make contact:
OK. I know there were a lot of numbers and tables. Thanks for hanging in there. The point of dragging you through those nitty gritty details was to show how amazingly similar Larnach and Sanó’s process data are. At least for this season, they’ve been essentially the same hitter from an opponent and approach standpoint, but from opposite sides of the plate.
But within the batted ball stats a crucial difference is hiding for Larnach. For the extreme three true outcomes — walks, strikeouts, home runs — profile to work, a player has to do a lot of extra base damage when he does put the ball in play. (Or provide a lot of value on defense.)
Larnach is, at best, an average defensive outfielder. So, his rates of walks and strikeouts this season necessitate that he needs to really produce when he does make contact. It is here where he fell short in his first trial in the big leagues.
Yes, he demonstrated huge raw power (maximum exit velocity of 116 miles per hour, 97th percentile) with a few tape measure home runs like this:
But, on average, Larnach was not able to produce the right kinds of hard contact frequently enough. One last time, let’s compare his numbers to Sanó:
The narrative around Sanó’s performance and boom or bust streakiness might make him seem like a strange choice to compare Larnach to. Certainly the Twins have hopes that Larnach will develop into a more productive and consistent player than Sanó has.
But, Sanó has usually been an above average producer at the plate throughout his career and this season is no different. His .325 weighted on base average (wOBA) is better than the .317 league average and his weighted runs created plus (wRC+) is 106 (average is 100). In that sense, Sanó is a good example for the kind of contact quality and slugging stats that Larnach needs to achieve to be an average or better major league hitter, unless he can get his strikeouts under control.
Sanó’s contact quality stats in the table above are among the best in the game. His hard hit rate, average exit velocity, and barrel rate all are in the 94th percentile or better. That’s how his overall profile remains productive, despite the ton of strikeouts. When he makes contact, the quality of that contact is elite.
Larnach hit the ball solidly this season. His hard hit rate (50th percentile), average exit velocity (61st), and barrel rate (61st) are all at or above the respective league averages. But, too many of those batted balls from Larnach were on the ground instead of the most productive line drives and fly balls that lead to extra bases. Overall, his contact quality was good, but not at the elite level required for his current rates of walks and strikeouts to work.
The Twins are hoping Larnach can rein in the whiffs and optimize his contact quality with some more seasoning in Triple-A. It’s good to remember that Larnach is still just 24 years old and essentially skipped Triple-A to join the Twins earlier this year. (Not to mention not having a minor league season in 2020.) In his three plus minor league seasons, he’s hit a combined .306/.384/.473 triple slash line (.857 OPS). His aggregate minor league strikeout rate (21.7%) and walk rate (10.9%) give reason for hope he’ll be less “three true outcomes” and more “well rounded run producer” with some additional development.
Like many players, including great players like Justin Morneau ($), the first chance in the majors uncovers weaknesses and tests a player’s psyche. Some time in St. Paul to reset and build some confidence might be just what Larnach needs to improve for his next chance.
John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analysis. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.