So I'm going to start off with the more traditional stats. (Note: stats are from Fangraphs unless otherwise noted. Career averages for counting stats (HR, RBI, 2B) will be pre-'13, and these may not be 100% accurate as I am writing this during the game so the numbers are a bit fluid).
|2013||67 (pace:153)||.331||.412||.506||8 (pace:18)||23 (pace:53)||25 (pace:57)|
|Career||1065 (118)||.323||.405||.469||102 (10.4)||270 (27.4)||612 (65.2)|
Batting average and on-base percentage are right around, albiet a little above, his career marks. Compared to last year, his average is up thirteen points, but OBP is down four, so on the surface it looks like he's getting a few more hits, but losing a few walks. Mauer is one 2-3 home run week from being on pace to double his home run total from last year and his career average. He's on pace for the second highest home run total of his career and the highest doubles output of his career as well. Since he's on pace to crush both his 2012 home run and doubles totals and his career averages in both categories, it follows his slugging should be up significantly, as it is.
Despite the increase in slugging, Mauer is on pace to have his second lowest RBI total in a season where he has played at least 100 games. Since he has hit in the 2 spot most this year, everyone should have expected his RBI total to be low, due to a lack of opportunities. This is reinforced by the fact he is on pace to have the third lowest number of batters on base when he is batting. He has only 54 plate appearances with runners in scoring position; in these spots he is hitting .286/.444/.333. So, in this small sample size, he is hitting below his career marks with RISP of .340/.460/.492. Because of this we can expect some regression to aid his RBI total through the end of the year.
For much of his career, fans have pleaded for Joe Mauer to "swing for the fences" or "take a chance" more, and the expectation was that he would have to sacrifice some average and OBP to do that. But much like 2009, he is slugging better this year without the sacrifice- how is he doing it??
Mauer has two numbers that really stand out when you look at this table. K% and BABIP are both way up from last year and career, so both should be expected to regress in the coming months, which both have begun to do this month. In June his K% is 11.3% and his BABIP is .345 compared to May when he was sitting at 25.6% and .507(!!!!).
(Think about that for a moment: In May, Joe Mauer struck out in a quarter of his at bats, but half the times when he did put the ball in play, he got a hit. While obviously unsustainable, that is incredible! You've got to love baseball!)
We might assume that since the K% is regressing he may be turning back into old Joe Mauer. But in May, Mauer hit 3 HR, and 12 doubles in 26 games. In June, he has hit 3 HR and 6 doubles in 18 games. Basically his K% has regressed, but his power numbers have not. This seems to imply that the "taking a big cut" or "swinging for the fences" strategy that would, for most, lead to an increase in power and strikeouts at the expense of batting average is not something that is necessarily the outcome for Joe Mauer. He is capable of hitting for a high average while still hitting for power without striking out a ton.
To me the big key for Mauer sustaining this power is the line drive percentage (LD%). For his career, Joe Mauer has been a ground ball hitter, but this year he has turned some of those ground balls into line drives without altering his flyball percentage in any meaningful way. Since his LD% has jumped a bit from both 2012 and his career, the natural assumption is to argue small sample size, but Fangraphs has discovered that line drive percentage stabilizes after 150 PA, so we seem to have reached the point where we can start thinking he is making an adjustment that is allowing him to square up the ball better. That's not to say he won't regress, he probably will, but we are at the point where it is much less fluky.
So far, we can see that #7 is hitting for more power and the cause of it seems to be a jump in LD%, meaning he is squaring up the ball better than he has in the past. Now his home run per fly ball rate (12.7%) is the third highest of his career, behind 2009 (20.4%) and his rookie year (17.1%). In May and June that rate has been around 15%, so are we seeing him get lucky, or are we seeing Joe Mauer just hit the ball harder than he generally has? The LD% would seem to support the idea that he is hitting the ball harder.
The question that remains is whether this is a product of a change in approach or simply randomness in a 300 plate appearance sample.
(If anybody isn't sure what is going on in the chart above: O-Swing% and O-Contact% are out of zone swing and contact percentages; in other words, how often he swings and makes contact with pitches out of the zone. Z-Swing% and Z-Contact% are in the zone swing and contact percentages; how often he swings and makes contact with pitches in the zone. Swing% and Contact% are the total percentage of pitches Mauer has swung at and made contact with, respectively. Finally, Zone% is the number of pitches that Mauer has seen that have been in the Zone. All of this is based off of Pitchf/x data.)
Now this is where we see that there may be a change in approach, as he is swinging at the highest percentage of pitches in his career, outside of 2010. That would seem to say, maybe he's seeing more pitches in the zone and taking a cut more often, but that is not the case based on his Zone%. He is swinging at more pitches out of the zone than ever before, which seems to give credence to the idea that he is taking more chances (or getting fooled more often). To me, the piece that demonstrates more of a change in approach is the contact numbers. He is making the least contact of his career by 4 percentage points. That seems to indicate he is taking more chances, swinging a little harder and in so doing, making more solid contact at the expense of making any contact. This would explain the increase in strikeouts, though I cannot find monthly splits to see if it has regressed with the strikeouts.
To me this strategy of sacrificing some contact to square the ball up a little better, which allows for a few more hits to fall due to how much higher the BABIP is for line drives than ground balls, will also result in a few more extra base hits. Now is it all sustainable or is it simply a blip: who knows, that is why we watch!