There isn’t a more polarizing figure on the Minneapolis sports landscape than Joe Mauer. It’s not hard to see, either. For instance, have a look at social media when Mauer gets a day off — any day off — and how the average fan reacts to it. Never mind the fact that Mauer came into Wednesday tied with Brian Dozier for the most games played on the team.
One certainly can’t fault the average fan for suggesting Mauer hasn’t played particularly well this season, however. Mauer’s hitting just .263/.334/.370, good for a 95 OPS+ that really puts this offensive era into context. With this latest era of pitching dominance, an OPS just over .700 has become a quasi-baseline for offensive competence, though that requires a few levels of nuance being stripped away.
And that doesn’t favor Mauer. Where it hurts is that the AL slash line for first basemen this year is .252/.333/447. Incidentally, Mauer’s pretty close on the first two marks, but his power falls short. Way short, in fact. That slash line results in a .781 positional OPS, which is eclipsed only by its NL counterpart (.271/.347/.464; an .811 collective mark).
Some people will point to Mauer’s RBI pace — roughly 75 if he were to have 600 PA — as a potential place he has improved, though it seems odd that it would have an opposite correlation with his worst offensive season. Others have suggested Mauer’s .403/.516/.522 line with runners in scoring position indicates he’s activated some sort of clutch gene, especially in correlation with his improved RBI totals. And while I reject the idea of clutch in baseball as a general rule — if you can arbitrarily raise your performance in certain situations, why wouldn’t you always? — I do think there’s something more at play there, and we’ll dig into it a bit here.
The talk early in the season was about how Mauer had re-worked some mechanical things in an effort to try pull the ball more. Very early returns suggested he was doing just that, and in fact was doing it at the expense of his usual bread and butter, which was hitting to the opposite field.
Let’s make one thing clear here: Mauer might be one of, if not the finest opposite field hitters of his era. Or any recent era, for that matter. For his career, this is how Mauer’s batted results have played out:
To left (opposite) field: .436/.427/.679 (1.106 OPS; .470 wOBA)
To center field: .372/.369/.491 (.859 OPS; .372 wOBA)
To right field: .277/.277/.396 (.673 OPS; .291 wOBA)
Keep in mind, this is his 12th big league season, so this is a ton of data. It’s hard to replicate context because those numbers don’t include walks — walks don’t have specific fields, that is — but essentially with this year’s numbers he’s been Bryce Harper to left field, Brian Dozier to center field and this year’s Michael Cuddyer (ICYMI, bad) to right over his career.
That gives one a pretty good idea of how great Mauer has been to left and to center. And when we had checked in back in late April, Mauer was hitting .450/.450/.500 in early returns to the pull side. At that same point, Mauer was hitting just .077/.077/.077 to the opposite field, and stories were abundant about his seismic shift to becoming a pull hitter.
Well, flash forward almost 70 days, and what do we find?
To left (opposite) field: .388/.378/.613 (.991 OPS; .419 wOBA)
To center field: .274/.267/.333 (.601 OPS; .258 wOBA)
To right field: .299/.299/.403 (.701 OPS; .306 wOBA)
I don’t know about you all, but that looks a lot like vintage Joe Mauer, with one huge, huge exception: center field has been absolutely dead. Now there are some things we can’t know simply from these numbers. For instance, frequency. We don’t know how often Mauer is hitting to left and capitalizing on such great numbers, at least not in comparison to center or right. A look at his season numbers might suggest not too terribly often.
Fortunately, we do have frequency numbers. Here’s Mauer’s hits breakdown by field:
31 to left
23 to center
20 to right
That comes out to roughly 41.9 percent to left, 31.1 percent to center and 27 percent to right. But how does that compare to his career numbers:
657 to left
603 to center
354 to right
So that comes out to roughly 40.7 percent to left, 37.4 percent to center and 21.9 percent to right. Now, what does that tell us, exactly? To be sure, maybe not as much as we’d like. It does suggest Mauer’s still wearing out left, and that he isn’t entirely ignoring right like his career rates. But this is still just hits. In other words, we’re ignoring outs to each side. Maybe checking instances of batted balls going to each field will give us a deeper look.
In 2015, here are the percentage of instances Mauer has hit to each specific field (via Fangraphs’ database):
82 to left
86 to center
67 to right
So just 34.9 percent of Mauer’s batted balls have gone to left. As for center, that’s 36.6 percent, and for right he’s at 28.5 percent.
For his career, he looks like this:
1543 to left
1636 to center
1280 to right
That breaks down to 34.6 percent pull, 36.7 percent to center and 28.7 percent to right. That’s sort of uncanny, but it’s almost exactly in line with his career rates. Wow.
So Mauer has returned to being supernaturally good at hitting the baseball the other way, but still hasn’t been particularly good. What gives?
It’s hard not to keep coming back to center field being a dead zone for Mauer after being so good to him early in his career. And with the advent of shifts in recent years, could that be affecting Mauer adversely? Most certainly. He even conceded as much in a recent chat with Cold Omaha. “There’s been a lot of times where they’ve put the shortstop up the middle and maybe taken a couple hits away,” Mauer said. “So that could be the reason.”
Coincidentally, Mauer hitting well with runners in scoring position does lend credence to the shifting idea, since teams aren’t apt to shift in those situations. After all, teams need to hold runners in those spots, so you won’t see a shortstop to the right of second, and so on. There probably isn’t enough data to make a definitive conclusion, but it’s an interesting theory.
Manager Paul Molitor suggested Mauer went through a phase where he was struggling with pitches he could hit, and perhaps lost a bit of his feel at the plate in terms of timing being a little off. The second half of Mauer’s June (.292/.386/.458 from June 16-30) was also markedly better than the first (.188/.291/.271 from June 1-15), coinciding with Molitor’s timeline and almost directly with a pair of opposite field home runs he hit off Cardinals reliever Kevin Siegrist and four days later of Chicago’s John Danks. Both of those went to the opposite field. “I think that confidence was buoyed by that home run he hit in the Cardinals series,” Molitor added.
Molitor also agreed with the idea that teams are taking away Mauer’s hot spots on the field. “We’ve seen different formations against Joe,” Molitor said. “Some people really bunch that middle. It’s how a team feels that their pitching staff is going to be able to handle him best, and then executing and trying to have their people in the right place. You can see how they do try to take a little bit more of the pull side at shortstop, and the third baseman can get over and protect that five hole a little bit. Outfields are tough for him, too, because they don’t worry about the right field corner. They really can rotate around to the other side, and it just doesn’t give him a lot of room. Left-center is covered. Left field line is covered. Right-center is covered. So yeah, it’s just kind of his tendencies and what they hit, and he kind of is one of those guys that charts don’t lie. He has places where he hits the ball more frequently, and sometimes it works against him.”
A Cold Omaha exclusive with hitting coach Tom Brunansky was particularly illuminating, in which he basically broke down not only what Mauer has been doing so far this season, but steps he and Joe can take to try fight back against the shifts.
Brunansky said foundationally, pretty much everything has been the same in terms of what Mauer is trying to do at the plate. “It’s just that the consistency of what he wants,” Brunansky said. “It’s a certain spot we want to get the hands and have them stop to get ready to fire. Some days he gets it, and there’s days where it keeps moving a little bit. And then he gets a little barrel lag, so we still keep working. That’s been the goal that we’ve worked on since day one. You saw the effects the other night of being able to drive the ball out of the ballpark. When those hands stop and they stay short, he’s able to get the barrel to especially pitches that are up. Both were high fastballs that are kind of tough for anybody else to get to that he can go plane out and get that pitch.”
Brunansky was of course referring to the home runs against Siegrist and Danks, and was especially effusive in his praise of how Mauer took the former deep on a 94-95 mph pitch in hitting zone three. “You’re talking 94-95 elevated,” Brunansky said of the Siegrist offering. “And his barrel, to keep the barrel through the plane enough to contact that ball. That’s pretty tough to do. So you know everything has to be solid up top. If he has any kind of lag and loses his barrel just an eighth of an inch, he’s probably going to pop that pitch up.” For a hitter whom some have whispered might be suffering from a slowing bat or reflexes, that’s an encouraging sign.
So what was the deal with the pull-heavy mantra early in the season? “I think the whole premise with pull was to get him to use the lower half,” Brunansky noted. “And to get the extension that he had lost a little bit, due to the injuries and everything that he had.” Brunansky went on to say that he felt Joe always had it within to revert back to what he called his “moneyball”, which is to say letting the ball get deep and spraying it out to left field.
“But he really wasn’t driving it, and that was the frustrating part,” Brunansky continued. “Then you see the defenses shift, and everybody just wedge over and cheat in. OK, I understand it if physically we can’t do what we need to do. But the health was back, the rotation was back. Working the pull side, all that constitutes is a finish. It’s extension. If you go and look at the video of the home run he hit the other day, the extension is where he caught the pitch out in front. Even though it went to left field, he still caught the ball out front like you’re supposed to. If he catches that deep, those aren’t home runs. And then plus, too, he wanted to make sure that we showed the league that we’re making an adjustment. We’re not just going to sit here and let them do this to us. We wanted to spread that field back up and create some more gaps for him.”
That seems to jive with the idea that Brunansky and Mauer are both aware that he’s being game-planned for a bit and trying to counteract it. So does that mean they think Mauer is inherently a “shiftable hitter?” As you might expect, Brunansky had a good answer for that as well.
“The thing about center field is that you take a look at the shifts — infield shifts, not outfield shifts — because he hits a lot of groundballs up the middle. Now when he’s turning, you see as a hitter … and you square a ball up and you look and it’s by the pitcher. And then you stand up and you see there’s a guy camped right behind second base. I mean, that’s frustrating. You know, and you go up there and if they have a runner on second base and he’s camped there, or first and third and sometimes they’ll make a shift. Joe’s pretty intelligent when he gets up to the plate, and he sees the shifts that they implement. Obviously, he’s probably good enough to say that ‘I’m not going to try hit that ball up the middle; I can push this ball over to this gap.’ That’s rare for guys to be able to do that, but he senses it and he sees it. You kind of go and you look at it and, alright like we talked about it. We try to keep it simple as a gameplan, and let him go up and analyze what’s going on. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes he comes back, and he’s frustrated. Because he has a pitch to hit that he wants to pull, and he’ll roll over. And then there’s time that he does it, and it’s a lot like last night. You got Samardzija who is going to throw cutters up and in on him, and we know that’s what he’s going to do, and he hits two balls to the right side. One’s a hit, and the other’s a line drive to the second baseman on one hop, and he makes a nice play. There’s adjustments that are going on, and Joe Mauer today is not the Joe Mauer four or five years ago. I’m not talking ability-wise, I’m talking health-wise. As a 27, 28-year-old body, to a 32-year-old body? Lots of action, lots of games and a lot of things happen. That’s not an excuse, but what happens is we need to adjust to what his body is. He’s not the same kid. There’s aches and pains and things that go on. Maybe there’s muscle tightness, and maybe his back is stiff. It happens when we get a little older, those backs and legs start hurting. Alright, then we need to adjust our swing that can handle everything that we have to deal with. That’s just normal. That’s why when you look at guys that play extended periods of time, and you watch guys like Torii Hunter and Paul Molitor — guys that played into their late 30s and 40s — that’s amazing to go up and have that kind of production. Because they’ve had to adjust. It’s the same guy that played their first five years in the big leagues, it’s not the same guy. Mentally you’ve picked up more, physically you’re probably not as able to do what you want to do.”
Brunansky hones in on a couple different points that are interesting. He seems to concede that Mauer is, at least to some degree, a shiftable hitter, much like Molitor said as well. But he also went into depth with the idea that Joe, as he’s aged, has evolved as a hitter — and not necessarily in a positive way. That part is less encouraging.
The numbers flesh that out, too, at least in some respects. On the positive side, Mauer is striking out at 15.8 percent clip entering play Wednesday — his lowest mark since 2012. The deeper peripherals aren’t as encouraging, however. His contact rate is 85.5 percent, which is up from the last two years but still more than two percent below his career rate. His zone contact rate is down 2.5 percent from his career rate, and he’s swinging more this year than any other year of his career. Unfortunately, that increase is across the board, so it’s not just 4.2 percent more pitches overall against his career numbers, but when fleshed out boils down to 3.5 percent more pitches in the strike zone, and more concerningly 5 percent more pitches outside of the zone. In short, he’s doing much, much less with more swings.
It’s hard to draw a definitive, one-size-fits-all conclusion from this data, but here’s a try: Mauer’s already on a natural decline, and shifts have hastened it to the point where he’ll have to react, or remain a well below average offensive first baseman. At this point, it’s fair to wonder if that’s even possible.
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