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The Store

Things You Need To Know About Joe Mauer

Attached Image: USATSI_7882414.jpg The narrative for Joe Mauer this offseason was that the transition to first base was going to heal his legs, provide him with superhuman power, and maybe help him find the missing Malaysian plane in his spare time.

So far, none of that has happened.

To Twins fans, the most relevant is the power. Through 19 games this year, he has just three extra base hits in his back pocket - two doubles and a home run. Beyond that, Mauer has accumulated 24 strikeouts in 90 plate appearances, an extremely high rate by his standards. While the conversation revolving around his lack of dingers and ribbies is mindbogglingly shortsighted, there are some elements to his early season numbers that may help confirm some of what the “eye-testers” are seeing.

Here are a few things to consider.

Mauer is having issues against non-fastballs

Curves, sliders, changeups and everything in between, if it ain’t straight heat, Mauer has not been Mauer this season.

From 2009 to the end of last season Mauer compiled a .262 batting average on pitches that were not fastballs. That rate is not otherworldly -- Miguel Cabrera leads baseball with a .301 average in that time -- but Mauer’s figure was still well above the league’s average. His ability to allow the ball to travel deep into the zone before executing his patent inside-out swing, combined with a doctorate in zone comprehension, made it a difficult proposition for pitchers to break off a bender.

This year has been a different story. Pitchers have mixed in more of these types of pitches to improved results. Following Tuesday’s game against the Rays, the curve that he laced off the cup of pitcher David Price notwithstanding, Mauer is hitting just .182 against non-fastballs. The most significant difference appears to be his ability to put the ball in play. According to ESPN/TruMedia’s database, Mauer has put the ball in play on just 33% of his swings compared to the 49% he has in the previous years.

What’s more, the balls Mauer is putting in play have not been exactly scorched, says his well-hit average. From 2009 to 2013, Mauer held a .213 well-hit average on secondary pitches. So far in 2014, that number is at .093. (While it is almost certain that the video scouts would include the fourth-inning liner off of Price’s manhood as “well-hit”, that hit failed to even knock the big lefty out of the game in spite of catching the pitcher square between the legs.)

Two-strike situations have been un-Mauer-like

Over the previous five seasons, Mauer has been one of the best two-strike hitters in the game. With the best batting average (.257) and seventh-highest on-base percentage (.312) in that time, the Twins’ best compensated player was the hardest for pitchers to retire despite the two-strike advantage.

This year, with a direct correlation to the aforementioned secondary struggles, Mauer has been decisively different. Putting the ball in play with success has been difficult, and as his current .167 average would suggest, pitchers are finding it much easier to put him away with a strikeout.

In two-strike situations, Mauer’s vaunted contact abilities have taken a leave of absence so far this year. Whereas from 2009 to 2013 he had a 14.8% swing-and-miss rate, that has skyrocketed to 27.7% this year. For the visual learners, Mauer’s contact rate heat map shows a Swiss cheese-like pattern on his two-strike swings (below) in comparison to last year (above):

Attached Image: Joe Mauer_2-strike.jpg


Mauer’s swing zone has changed

One of the explanations behind his increased strikeout rate and his lack of power may have to do with his swing location selection.

Attached Image: Joe Mauer_swing rate.jpg
Mauer has had a very concise swing zone over the past five years, focusing mainly on offerings that come in on the upper inner-half of the plate. These pitches he has been able to drive to left field with some authority as he lets the ball travel deeper into the zone. So far this year he has expanded this area, bleeding over to the other hemisphere of the plate.

In the past, Mauer has done well with pitches on the outer half -- particularly when going the other way. For instance, last year he hit .536 (37-for-69) with 14 doubles and four home runs when he drove the ball to left on the outside portion of the zone. This year he’s just 3-for-13 with no extra base hits when going the other way on pitches away.

Repeat of last year?

So, for those who feel that this Joe Mauer is different than previous versions of Joe Mauer, you are not wrong.

One big reason not to panic is because of the overall sample size. After missing substantial amount of time at the end of 2012, Mauer came into 2013 cold as well. A little over 100 plate appearances (109 to be exact), he was hitting .283/.349/.394. This prompted a similar write-up to this one in response to the mass hysteria regarding his lack of production. Per usual, Mauer responded and rebounded by hitting an absurd .335/.415/.500 from then until his untimely concussion in August.

This season’s slow start, like that of last year, may just be residue of rust hanging on from his extended time away from the game or simply a slow start.

Settle down, everyone.


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