Is Joe Mauer underrated? Or is he actually overrated? It depends on your perspective. Some Twins fans will never be happy with Mauer’s production because no baseball player will ever produce like the idea of Joe Mauer was supposed to produce.
Instead of being the second coming of Johnny Bench, Joe Mauer is simply the first coming of Joe Mauer. He is one of the top three hitting catchers of the live ball era, posting a career weighted runs created plus of 134, trailing just Mike Piazza and Gene Tenace among receivers with 2000 plate appearances. Since he entered the league in 2004, only Miguel Cabrera has a higher batting average. Only six players have been worth more Wins Above Replacement since Mauer’s first full season in 2005.
Joe Mauer is among the game’s elite players – one of the finest hitters in the history of his position and a player who stands to be a member of one team for his entire career. He’s a Twin through and through – Joe and his wife just welcomed twin girls to the world this month. And yet is not enough for some myopic fans. Fans who wish Mauer hit for more power or didn’t take any days off or delivered more “when it mattered.”
Perhaps Joe Mauer could hit for more power (his .145 isolated power is identical to A.J. Pierzynski and Gregg Zaun over the same time period, not exactly the generational talents of the Twins 6’5 catcher) but Joe Mauer focuses, instead, on not making outs. He focuses on piling up the hits and doubles and putting the ball in play at an uncommon rate. Getting Blanked spoke with Joe Mauer about just how he goes about the business of not making outs in the latest edition of My Approach.
Getting Blanked – Do you do a lot of video work between games?
Joe Mauer - Yeah. I use video daily, usually to go over the opposition starting pitcher just to see some previous at bats I’ve had against him and to see what he’s done lately.
GB – Lately? Are you looking at his tendencies or what’s working for him?
JM – A little bit of that, more trying to get a visual for where he sets up on the rubber. Trying to notice if he’s changed his arm slot or anything like that. And we have our scouting reports and our paperwork to go over as well.
GB – So it is mostly “recon” work, then? What about some of the other information sources out there, iPad apps for example?
JM – Not really, I try not to overload. Obviously information is good but sometimes you just have to go out there and do what got you here…it’s a hard game. We didn’t have all that information growing up and coming up to the big leagues, sometimes you just have to go out and play.
As good a hitter as Joe Mauer is, I think I expected to find something mysterious when I began really digging into his numbers. As he says, it’s a hard game. There is no way somebody — a catcher — can do what he does without some manner of sorcery. Which made what I revealed to be somewhat…disappointing.
There is no smoke, no mirrors to Joe Mauer’s game. He doesn’t hit impossible pitches or defy the laws of baseball. Joe Mauer is, at his core, a player that simply commands the strike zone and blasts fastballs. That’s it.
Since the start of the 2010 season (min 1000 plate appearances), no hitter has a higher batting average versus fastballs. One hitter (Joey Votto) has a higher on base percentage versus fastballs. No player has a better rate of “well hit balls” than Joe Mauer. He ranks sixth in OPS against the heat in that time, which improves to fourth when you look at weighted on base, which better accounts for his spacious ballpark.
GB – Do you use video for yourself if you don’t feel 100%?
JM – A little bit, here and there. Mostly, the video is for that day. Just making sure nothing’s changed. A guy like Mark Buehrle, I’ve seen him plenty in the past but I haven’t seen him in a while so I just want to see if he’s doing anything different. Didn’t last too long in the video room today [with him on the mound].
GB – You mention staying true to what got you here. What kind of adjustments are required as you learn the league etc.
JM – You’re constantly making adjustments. One of the biggest things is body of work, rather than the amount of work. Used to be able to get into the cage and swing swing swing but now it’s making sure I feel good and head out there, saving some for the game.
Modest as he might be, Joe Mauer does two things which differentiates himself from other hitters – he is extremely selective in the heaters he does offer at and he uses the whole field when turning around fastballs. His swing rate on the fastball is lower than any hitter with 1000 plate appearances over the last three seasons. Mauer is not just selective with pitches thrown outside the strike zone, he offers at just 50% of the fastballs he sees inside the zone as well.
The other key trait that makes Joe Mauer special (while probably stealing of his home run power) is his willingness to take fastballs, even on the inside half, the other way.
The ability to stay back and still drive fastballs gives Mauer extra time to identify and handle breaking pitches. Maybe he’d hit more home runs if he focused more on yanking fastballs on the inside half but maybe he wouldn’t get on base 40% of the time also. It’s a trade off, one Mauer is comfortable with as is.
Not to say Mauer can’t hit them out to left field. Here the Twins catcher pounds a fastball basically down the middle from Gio Gonzalez about 400 feet to left-center field. He has a plan and he sticks to it.
GB – In the cage, you do soft toss or pitching machine?
JM – More soft toss. A lot of it is just going off feel on a given day. Some days it might take a little extra and other days I just try to get loose and get out of there. It changes.
GB – Managing your workload considering you play a demanding position on your legs and body. Do you consider your swing more “hands heavy” rather than whole body?
JM – Hands are a big part of it but slumps are more about a bad approach than the body breaking down – swinging at bad pitches and not having a good gameplan against a pitcher. Those are the things you can control, so you try to focus on that (rather than overcompensating.)
GB – What does “game plan” mean to you? Just about the guy on the mound.
JM – Mostly the pitcher, but also the situation. You might have to make an adjustment on the fly depending how the goes progresses.
Fun fact about Joe Mauer – he has broken up three different no-hitters in the ninth inning.
While these might seem like innocent bleeders or just a few base hits during particularly good outings, you can also regard them as proof of Mauer’s uncanny ability to adjust and adapt. His third time facing these pitchers on what might well be their finest day and Mauer is able to hang tough and adjust.
The Rays are famous for their unique organizational use of changeups. Earlier this season, Matt Moore of the Rays did a great job of keeping Mauer off-balance by throwing him changeups. The Process Report noted this unique manner of attacking Mauer resulted in some of the shortest at bats of Mauer’s season. The Rays and Twins hook up again in September, here’s hoping Moore starts one of the games and this chess match and continue.
GB – What about two strikes? How would you describe your approach with two strikes? You seem to take pride in putting the ball in the play
JM – Yeah, I don’t like to strike out, I can tell you that. I try to shorten up, stay short to the ball and put it in play.
Joe Mauer’s career strikeout rate is just 11.1%, which is absurdly low for such a productive hitter in the modern game. Unsurprisingly, hitting with two strikes does not phase Joe Mauer, who owns a .706 OPS with two strikes since the start of last season (compared to league average of .544) and a .316 wOBA with two strikes (compared to league average of .251). He’s really good.
GB – Who do you think has the best approach in the game?
JM – Jeez, well we see him a lot. I’d have to think Miguel Cabrera. One of the smarter hitters that we go up against. He’s constantly making adjustments so you have to constantly make adjustments to try and get him out.
GB – How do you game plan, as a catcher with your pitcher, for a guy like that.
JM – I try to go off what my pitchers capable of doing that day. A tough hitter like that, if you make a mistake he’s going to make you pay.
THE KING STAY THE KING.
Hat tip to Fangraphs and ESPN Stats & Info for some numbers used here.