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  • A Closer Look At Joe Mauer's Struggles

    Joe Mauer wonders why everyone is lined up on the left side of the outfield.This Joe Mauer vitriol has gotten out of hand.

    Fans and media members alike are taking shots at him over his lack of production at the conclusion of just the season's second month of play. Sure, his power outage, run production and shortage of key hits has been the source of much consternation -- particularly in the last stretch when the team has dropped six of their last seven games.

    Did you hear that the Twin Cities will have a new Joe Mauer-themed Uber cabs running in celebration of the All-Star Game? For $23 million they will take you wherever you want but they can’t drive you home.

    See? I mean, how sick is that? Even I am not immune from the growing mob madness.

    As a statistically-based individual, I realize that the run batted in stat is contingent on runners being on base in front of a hitter. I also know that batting second in a lineup often means you will be in fewer situations to drive runners in (even more so when your leadoff hitter insists on hitting a bunch of solo dingers). As a scouting-based individual, I appreciate his sweet swing and timeless patience at the plate. Still, Mauer’s production with runners in scoring position this season has been completely out of whack by his standards -- his lowly .189 batting average with runners in scoring position pales in comparison to his .327 average in those same situations from 2009 to 2013.

    If his offensive woes were isolated to just situational hitting, it would be easier to dismiss as a product of small sampling but other issues have been plaguing him -- like his two-strike hitting (.208 average), performance against left-handed pitching (.224) or lack of power (.352 slugging percentage) -- and have increased the concern that there are other factors at play: like lingering concussion effects, lower back pain or something else.

    The Minnesota Twins, meanwhile, think there is less of a physical ailment but rather the masterful placement of the opposition’s defense.

    As Twins broadcaster Dick Bremer told KFAN’s Paul Allen on Wednesday morning, the belief in the organization is that teams have figured out a way to combat Mauer’s opposite field tendencies which is wreaking havoc on his offensive numbers.

    “I think he more than any other Twins hitter has been victimized by the shifts,” Bremer told Allen. “When we talk about the shifts in the booth, we automatically show the infield and they are doing a lot of creative things in the infield but Joe’s really been victimized by the outfield shifts. And I think what we’ve seen -- and Ron Gardenhire confirmed it the other day -- Joe is trying now, and succeeding to some degree, pulling the ball more. Because he’s hit a lot of line drives to left field and he’s probably had eight doubles taken away from him with the left fielder basically playing in the left field corner.”

    Prior to Thursday’s game, Gardenhire shared his thoughts on Mauer’s struggles with the media that echoed Bremer’s take.

    “He’s hitting a lot of balls hard,” the Twins manager told MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger. “The way they’re playing him and pitching him If he were in Boston, he’d be hitting .400. I mean, how many rockets he’s hit out to left field, deep. He’d be pounding that wall. But he’s not in Boston, and they’re playing him oppo. He’s ripping balls that way, and you just go through it. I don’t know if you start counting all the balls that this guy hits on the button. I can promise you it’s as many as anybody in the league. He hits it on the barrel of the bat.”

    Yes -- alert the media -- a higher percentage of Mauer’s power comes from drilling the ball into left field. Last year, 21 of his 35 doubles were deposited to left. This year his doubles are way down and plenty of that has to do with the outfield shift.

    Mauer’s ability to lift and/or drive the ball in the air the other way has been effectively eliminated by the opposition’s defensive schemes. It is no secret that after numerous years that the face of the Twins has a penchant for going the other way at a high percentage. From 2010 to 2013, if Mauer hit the ball in the sky, 54% of the time it was to left field. It was that direction where he accumulated the lion’s share of his extra base hits. On the other hand, Mauer pulled the ball in the air just 13% of the time, making the right fielder’s job essentially one that fielded the ground ball that slipped through the infield.

    So it would stand to reason that teams who have even a basic understanding of spray charts would shade their outfielders to the left field line, having the left fielder stand on the chalk, the center field move over to a spot between the second base bag and the shortstop position, and have the right fielder camped out in the right-center gap. This would leave real estate the size of the airport unguarded on the right side -- just like the alignment the Tampa Bay Rays deployed on April 23 that the Star Tribune’s LaVelle Neal captured:



    All it would take would be a little flare or dink over the first baseman’s head to net Mauer an inside-the-park home run. Of course, since 2010 Mauer has elevated just 55 pitches (7.2% of his liners/flies) that have gone into the far right quadrant of the field, meaning that land is safer than Canada.

    While the Rays are one of the more forward-thinking teams when it comes to defensive positioning, other teams are following suit more often when facing Mauer. In addition to the shifting, teams have tailored their approach to pitching him away more frequently, almost taunting him to play right into their hands.

    What is telling is how many line drive hits this has taken away from Mauer this year. According to ESPN Stats & Info, between 2009 and 2013 Mauer had an .803 average on line drives to the outfield (.744 when going to left field). This year that rate has tumbled to .579 (.450 when going the other way).

    Visually you can see the stark difference in the outs made on his spray chart:



    Notice how the outs on the left (2014) are closer to the left field line? Those hard hit balls would be difficult to catch if a left fielder was playing in a straight-up formation.

    In this last series, the Texas Rangers tried the same positioning. Rather than Yu Darvish on the mound however, the Rangers trotted former Twins pitcher Scott Baker to start. Baker’s stuff is not nearly as good as Darvish’s so when the former teammates squared off, Mauer was able to turn around an 88 mile per hour fastball on the inner-half into that right field corner where no one was home.


    That marked just the 10th hit for Mauer to right field and just the 15th ball he has hit in that direction this season. To Bremer and Gardenhire’s point that Mauer is trying to pull the ball more frequently, there has been a slight uptick in that department but nothing of huge significance. Prior to the beginning of last week’s West Coast road trip, Mauer had pulled 21.7% of the balls he put into play. Since then, he has increased that rate to 34.5%.

    The issue of pulling the ball more will not likely lead to more hits unless the opposition supplies him with pitches on the inner-half. Since 2009, when Mauer has pulled the ball, 78% of the time it has been on the ground. In this case, opponents are peppering him with pitches down-and-away in an effort to get him to play into their outfield shift. When he has tried to pull something on the outer-half of the plate, he is almost assured a grounder to second (on which he is 1-for-23 this year).

    So who knows where the season goes for Joe Mauer from here. He’s as mechanically smooth as they come and, if he is not hiding any cracked vertebrae or whatever, he should be healthy as an ox and able to make the necessary adjustments at the plate -- make sure to turn on pitches on the inner-half, drive the ball up the middle more frequently and capitalize on mistakes in general. Several week of doing that should open up left field for him again.

    Stay tuned.

    (Data from ESPN Stats & Info)
    Comments 55 Comments
    1. OldTimeTwinkie's Avatar
      OldTimeTwinkie -
      I believe Joe is an old dog that has to learn new tricks which is not easy when his system of hitting has has made him a high average hitter. I believe that his philosophy is/was to use his eyes to guage the pitcher thus taking first pitch. Because of so many first pitch strikes he now only gives himself one aggressive swing. When that swing dosent result in putting ball in play he then learned how to cut his swing way down and wait thus the smooth easy swing. It is not
      a powe swing, line drives and ground balls to left and left center. The outfield shifts have greatly hampered that. I don't believe there are many aggresive pull hitters who hit for average and this contadicts his success in his career. I have no doubt like most people on here that he should get more aggresive when batting and have more at bats with two aggresive swings in st
      ead of one. The average will stay below what he accustomed too but could eventually make him a more complete hitter to all fields plus more power. The question is can an old dog learn new tricks?
    1. longstrangetrip's Avatar
      longstrangetrip -
      Quote Originally Posted by blindeke View Post
      Mauer bashing is the last refuge of the scoundrel.
      Blindeke, I would characterize this thread less as Mauer bashing, and more as recognition of his extraordinary ability to hit a baseball...combined with an impression that he is not doing as much with that innate ability as he could.
    1. Hosken Bombo Disco's Avatar
      Hosken Bombo Disco -
      Quote Originally Posted by JohnFoley View Post
      This is interesting to juxtapose against Jayson Stark's new article at ESPN: http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/10...-proof-hitters
      Interesting. Stark's main proof that most of those hitters are shift-proof is the fact that teams don't shift on those hitters (% of PA against a shift) -- a little circular reasoning if you ask me. But then Stark cites a different stat to justify Mauer being on the list, and doesn't mention the outfield shift.

      Parker 1, Stark 0. (Don't tell ESPN or they will want to raid our talent)
    1. USAFChief's Avatar
      USAFChief -
      Quote Originally Posted by Brock Beauchamp View Post
      So what you're telling me is that Joe needs to stop swinging at the first pitch.
      Given his 1.038 OPS on the first pitch this year I'd say it's just the opposite.
    1. D. Hocking's Avatar
      D. Hocking -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hosken Bombo Disco View Post
      Parker 1, Stark 0. (Don't tell ESPN or they will want to raid our talent)
      Stark gets up every morning saying "I wish I was Parker H."
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      Quote Originally Posted by USAFChief View Post
      Given his 1.038 OPS on the first pitch this year I'd say it's just the opposite.
      I was just being a smart ass. A good way to counter these shifts might be to try to pull the first pitch.
    1. jharaldson's Avatar
      jharaldson -
      I was looking at some other situations where players had defensive shifts and I cannot find any other players where the shift was to the opposite field. I am curious if anyone knows one?

      One other thought comes to mind, generally these shifts seem to be put on against power hitters who can at least beat these shifts by hitting the ball to the seats. I think Joe might be a significant disadvantage againsts shift because the long ball is not a part of his game.
    1. longstrangetrip's Avatar
      longstrangetrip -
      Quote Originally Posted by jharaldson View Post
      I was looking at some other situations where players had defensive shifts and I cannot find any other players where the shift was to the opposite field. I am curious if anyone knows one?

      One other thought comes to mind, generally these shifts seem to be put on against power hitters who can at least beat these shifts by hitting the ball to the seats. I think Joe might be a significant disadvantage againsts shift because the long ball is not a part of his game.
      Great question...I can't think of any examples of pronounced reverse shifts. I play senior men's baseball here in LA, and there are guys at the bottom of the order who can't turn on fastballs anymore. And outfielders will usually swing around in a manner similar to what Joe sees. I think that is why I am so offended by this shift for Joe, and why I want him to find a way to foil it. It's difficult for me to equate our $23 million man with the bottom of the order guys in my amateur league!

      I don't think shifts were used much 40 years ago, but I think a Mauer shift would have been reasonably effective against a slap-hitting guy like Rod Carew.
    1. Willihammer's Avatar
      Willihammer -
      How does Mauer beat the outfield shift? Easy.

      Bunt to the 2nd base hole. RH starters will fall off to the 3rd base side and force 2nd basemen to field the ball. Eventually 2nd basemen will abandon the up-the-middle shade and start playing Mauer to bunt. At this point Mauer employs phase 2:

      Handcuff bloopers. With the 2nd baseman playing in, Mauer simply dumps balls into shallow right field by squaring up pitches on the trademark. This will force the right fielder to play in. After achieving this, Mauer moves to phase 3:

      Bat righthanded: With the rightfielder now playing shallow, Mauer's natural opposite field stroke will send fastball after fastball into the right field corner, leaving Mauer standing on 2nd base and forcing the center fielder to play behind the right fielder in right field. After which point Mauer simply employs phase 4:

      Fungo bat. Mauer starts popping up infield flies directly over the pitching mound using a fungo bat. This will cause all 6 infielders to converge on the rubber and collide. With enough hangtime the fungo bat phase will create chaos sufficient to allow Mauer to run all the way to an open 3rd base. Eventually the left fielder will have to start playing shallower to guard against infield pop flies (so he can cover 3rd). Thus, both the left field line and the left center field gap will be re-opened.
    1. shimrod's Avatar
      shimrod -
      Quote Originally Posted by Willihammer View Post
      How does Mauer beat the outfield shift? Easy.

      Bunt to the 2nd base hole. RH starters will fall off to the 3rd base side and force 2nd basemen to field the ball. Eventually 2nd basemen will abandon the up-the-middle shade and start playing Mauer to bunt. At this point Mauer employs phase 2:

      Handcuff bloopers. With the 2nd baseman playing in, Mauer simply dumps balls into shallow right field by squaring up pitches on the trademark. This will force the right fielder to play in. After achieving this, Mauer moves to phase 3:

      Bat righthanded: With the rightfielder now playing shallow, Mauer's natural opposite field stroke will send fastball after fastball into the right field corner, leaving Mauer standing on 2nd base and forcing the center fielder to play behind the right fielder in right field. After which point Mauer simply employs phase 4:

      Fungo bat. Mauer starts popping up infield flies directly over the pitching mound using a fungo bat. This will cause all 6 infielders to converge on the rubber and collide. With enough hangtime the fungo bat phase will create chaos sufficient to allow Mauer to run all the way to an open 3rd base. Eventually the left fielder will have to start playing shallower to guard against infield pop flies (so he can cover 3rd). Thus, both the left field line and the left center field gap will be re-opened.
      I think we've just found our replacement for Gardy.
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      Quote Originally Posted by Willihammer View Post
      How does Mauer beat the outfield shift? Easy.

      Bunt to the 2nd base hole. RH starters will fall off to the 3rd base side and force 2nd basemen to field the ball. Eventually 2nd basemen will abandon the up-the-middle shade and start playing Mauer to bunt. At this point Mauer employs phase 2:

      Handcuff bloopers. With the 2nd baseman playing in, Mauer simply dumps balls into shallow right field by squaring up pitches on the trademark. This will force the right fielder to play in. After achieving this, Mauer moves to phase 3:

      Bat righthanded: With the rightfielder now playing shallow, Mauer's natural opposite field stroke will send fastball after fastball into the right field corner, leaving Mauer standing on 2nd base and forcing the center fielder to play behind the right fielder in right field. After which point Mauer simply employs phase 4:

      Fungo bat. Mauer starts popping up infield flies directly over the pitching mound using a fungo bat. This will cause all 6 infielders to converge on the rubber and collide. With enough hangtime the fungo bat phase will create chaos sufficient to allow Mauer to run all the way to an open 3rd base. Eventually the left fielder will have to start playing shallower to guard against infield pop flies (so he can cover 3rd). Thus, both the left field line and the left center field gap will be re-opened.
      Best post I've read in awhile. Reminds me of my idea to put a double cheeseburger under second base in innings when Matt LeCroy was due up.

      A great idea until Matty started bowling over the pitcher running directly to second after contact.
    1. longstrangetrip's Avatar
      longstrangetrip -
      I think tonight was a good example of my frustration with Joe. 5 at bats, and only once did he swing at the first fastball strike he saw. And not coincidentally, that was when he got his one hit. In his 4th at bat, he took a fastball outside for ball one, but then PULLED the next fastball sharply into right for his one hit. In another at bat he got behind in the count because he took a nice breaking ball, so I don't fault him for that...that's just good pitching. But he took grooved fastballs (I believe, at least...don't remember one at bat too clearly) for strike one in his other 3 at bats, and ended up eventually making an out on a pitcher's pitch. To Joe's credit, he's such a good hitter that he actually hit the ball fairly well on two of his outs, but they weren't hits. In my make believe world, Molitor sits down with him after the game and analyzes his five at bats with him.
    1. Willihammer's Avatar
      Willihammer -
      FWIW the YES guys said Mauer was pulling balls in BP today
    1. longstrangetrip's Avatar
      longstrangetrip -
      Quote Originally Posted by Willihammer View Post
      FWIW the YES guys said Mauer was pulling balls in BP today
      I heard that, and liked it.

      What they didn't report was whether he was letting juicy fast balls sail by in batting practice too.
    1. Ultima Ratio's Avatar
      Ultima Ratio -
      Quote Originally Posted by Willihammer View Post
      How does Mauer beat the outfield shift? Easy.

      Bunt to the 2nd base hole. RH starters will fall off to the 3rd base side and force 2nd basemen to field the ball. Eventually 2nd basemen will abandon the up-the-middle shade and start playing Mauer to bunt. At this point Mauer employs phase 2:

      Handcuff bloopers. With the 2nd baseman playing in, Mauer simply dumps balls into shallow right field by squaring up pitches on the trademark. This will force the right fielder to play in. After achieving this, Mauer moves to phase 3:

      Bat righthanded: With the rightfielder now playing shallow, Mauer's natural opposite field stroke will send fastball after fastball into the right field corner, leaving Mauer standing on 2nd base and forcing the center fielder to play behind the right fielder in right field. After which point Mauer simply employs phase 4:

      Fungo bat. Mauer starts popping up infield flies directly over the pitching mound using a fungo bat. This will cause all 6 infielders to converge on the rubber and collide. With enough hangtime the fungo bat phase will create chaos sufficient to allow Mauer to run all the way to an open 3rd base. Eventually the left fielder will have to start playing shallower to guard against infield pop flies (so he can cover 3rd). Thus, both the left field line and the left center field gap will be re-opened.
      You have me in stitches. Great post!
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