This happened very quietly, perhaps because he still managed to spray the entire field with hits and, admittedly, it was not as if he was launching majestic shots onto the plaza with this new found tendency to make anyone take notice. Rather, the Twins backstop/first baseman/designated hitter drove the ball into the ground at the same alarming rate he had for the majority of his career. Only this time, they found real estate at a higher clip than his norm.
With the league’s second-highest ground ball rate when pulling – an unsightly 85.1% ground ball rate – it is hard to believe that so many of those scooted past first and second basemen in 2012. Nevertheless, when he did yank the pitch, he had a ball in play average of .285 – his highest success rate aside from his ’07 mark of .295 produced thanks, in part, to the ground ball-accelerating carpeting of the Metrodome.
While this could be a statistical anomaly or simply batted ball luck, digging deeper, it appears that there may be some intelligent design behind this method.
The first thing to consider is that Mauer’s pull tendencies do not reflect any changes made in response to changes in the oppositions’ approach, on the contrary, they kept the ball down-and-away at a high frequency. However, when they did go down-and-in or on his belt off of the plate, Mauer opened up more readily on those pitches. Here, his batting average on balls in play chart in 2012, provided by BaseballProspectus.com, shows how well he was at handling pitches down and in:
Particularly interesting is Mauer’s aggressive tendencies with pitches that were in off of the plate. Although he does inside-out plenty of pitches on the inner half, the further they are off the plate, the more likely it is that a hitter must open up and attack the pitch out in front. This translates into a higher percentage of hits to the right-side of the field for left-handed hitters.
Now, situationally, next to the Yankees’ Robinson Cano (166) Mauer was at the plate for the most appearances in double-play situations. Of his 641 times at bat, 148 of those were with a runner on first with less than two outs. For those who recall booing him lustily this year, you probably remember that Mauer bounced into 23 double-plays -- an unfortunate byproduct of having ground ball tendencies when pulling.
The other side of that coin is that in terms of defensive positioning, this gives the left-handed Mauer a bigger infield hole on that right side and a decisive advantage.
In practice, when a left-handed hitter is up, the shortstop will cover second base on a stolen base attempt and allow the second baseman to cheat towards first base while staying the vicinity of the base in the event of a double play ball. In Mauer’s case, his career-long tendency of hitting the ball back up-the-middle has enticed defensive alignments to squeeze him up the middle rather than have the second baseman shade towards his left.
Below is an example of this configuration that Mauer faced often. In this instance, the Phillies were up by three and the Twins had runners on the corners with no outs. With the lead, Philadelphia chose to play the middle infield at double play depth, bringing the second baseman in and towards the bag. The first baseman held the runner. This created ample room for a well hit grounder to skip through the right side. And, as such, the Phillies’ left-handed reliever, Antonio Bastardo delivered a pitch on the inner half of the plate and Mauer re-directed it to that vacant space.
Even taking it a step further and simply having a runner on first is very advantageous for Mauer, regardless if the double play is in order.
In similar example of Mauer profiting from having a runner on first, in this game against the Indians, the Twins were leading by four in the fourth. Once again, the runners were on the corners. Not wanting to put another runner in scoring position, the Indians held Revere at the bag. Gambling on Mauer’s tendency to use the middle of the field, Indians’ second baseman Jason Kipnis was playing back (which would help cover more ground) but squeezing towards short.
Comparatively, when teams do not have to defend against base runner, they were able to play Mauer straight-up in the infield (perhaps cheating their middle infielders towards the center of the diamond). In this case, the Brewers’ second baseman Rickie Weeks is able to play back and first baseman Corey Hart is able to do the same, increasing the defensive coverage and reducing the BABIP odds on grounders to the right side of the field.
Without a runners on base, Mauer’s average on balls in play has been lower over his career and is 34 points lower than when he has at least a runner on first with less than two outs. This past year his ball in play average was 83 points lower (.333) with no one on versus with a runner on first, less than two outs situation (.416). Theoretically, some of that has to do with his success at directional hitting when given sizable targets in which to aim.
Based on his altered batted ball tendencies and the results, it is not far fetched to say that Joe Mauer is using his unequaled bat control to garner a few more hits in those circumstances.