Pardon the arbitrary endpoints, but from April 6 to April 20, Mauer had collected 18 hits in 35 at bats (a whopping .514 batting average). In that time, the Twins catcher was blistering the baseball to the opposite field, accumulating five of his seven extra base hits in that direction, including both of his home runs (per the Mauer norm). Then, as quick as the flick of his wrists for an outer-half offering, his production disappeared. Since April 21, he has he has gotten just three hits (including Tuesday night’s single off of Verlander) in his last 33 at bats, making this nine-game span’s batting average a puny .090.
According to Fangraphs.com’s Splits Leaderboard, over the last seven days Mauer’s .077 batting average is the fourth-worst in baseball, besting only Drew Stubbs, Ryan Raburn and Adam LaRoche. While it may be easy to dismiss this output as a product of the baseball gods correcting his absurd balls in play average over the previous stretch, Mauer’s drought may be structurally based.
Far be it from me to deconstruct one of the smoothest, most mechanically sound swings the game has ever seen. That would be like a St Cloud State art major trying to criticize the painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Ron Coomer, on the other hand, presented his thoughts on what has suddenly happened to this beautiful motion. During last night’s broadcast on Fox Sports North, Coomer observed that Mauer is opening up slightly, thereby elongating his swing. This, he said, altered the contact point to some extent and has been causing him to not square up on the ball.
It is hard to see clear evidence of this in available video clips yet there is no denying Mauer has recently taken some of his most un-Mauerian cuts ever at pitches and those have resulted in very few line drives over his last 33 at bats. In fact, last night’s line drive single was just the second line drive he has hit since April 21. Hell, over the weekend we nearly witnessed him pop out to the infield – an event that has occurred just once in the last three seasons.
Consider this awkward swing in this screen grab from his strike out last night:
Notice how far Mauer’s head moved offline in order to track Verlander’s curveball. Full disclosure, Justin Verlander makes a lot of great hitters look stupid. That said, Joe Mauer - with his career 1.072 OPS against Verlander - is typically not one of them.
To Coomer’s point, Mauer has taken more swings at pitches middle and in during this cold streak compared to his hot streak in which he had swung at more pitches middle and away – the kinds he was driving to left field. Part of the reason for the increase on the swings on the inner-half of the plate could be due to pulling off the ball a bit.
Teams have also changed their approach with him. Perhaps the reports from the advanced scouts indicated that there was less concern with Mauer at this point because, beginning in the Rangers series, opponents simply stopped missing the strike zone. In his 14 games leading up to April 26, pitchers had landed 59% of their pitches for strikes against him. Since then, that rate has shot up to 76%. So, he has been seeing tons of potentially hittable pitches.
What is going on with Minnesota’s $184 Million Dollar Hit Man?
The simplest answer is that it is a short time frame and everyone is susceptible to these statistical anomalies in a small sample size, which in this case, is 38 plate appearances. Within that regression lie a handful of drivers that are pulling his numbers down – a subtle mechanical flaw here, poor swing decisions there and strike zone aggressiveness of the opposition. Success in baseball is fluid. Those like Mauer who have been able to hit consistently over .300 in their careers are able to do so because they can make changes and corrections relatively quickly. If we all just take a deep breath, at some point in the near future he will snap out of this dry spell.