A Closer Look At Joe Mauer's Struggles
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.
(Data from ESPN Stats & Info)