Some fantasy pundits – including a few at RotoGraphs – and owners were optimistic about the fortunes of Joe Mauer entering this season, in large part because the Minnesota Twins were moving him away from catcher permanently. Although his brand of statistical output is mediocre for a first baseman, the catcher eligibility he retains could make him one of the more valuable rotisserie commodities in this transition year.
Mauer’s apologists – such as yours truly – were confident of his chance to avoid injury as long as he manned a less stressful position. His rough first two-plus months of the 2014 campaign seem to have done little to tarnish the RotoGraphs group’s and my hopes, though.
So far, so bad. Perhaps we should have listened to the likes of Howard Bender. To this point, the strapping, sweet-swinging swain – Mauer, not Bender, gimme a break – hasn’t disappointed on the health front. He’s already emphatically denied that the back spasms which kept him out of a handful of contests last month are still affecting him. The Twinkies’ offense has been surprisingly average, too, providing more support than expected.
The Head & Shoulders pitchman’s swings have turned a bit sour, however. A 1500 ESPN scribe recognized that, according to data on aging curves, the former backstop is past his peak years but also offers that he’s not yet old enough to drop off so greatly. I’m not by any means an expert on aging curves, but those assertions seem to mesh with Jeff Zimmerman’s work on the subject, which shows that those generalizations have changed, and with data presented in Dave Cameron’s piece on those specifically of catchers, of which Mauer was one for, oh, a decade or so in his MLB lifetime and until last year.
Mauer has admitted that he’s frustrated. He believes that he’s still drilling it. He offered a simple explanation for the poor results: “It seems like I’m hitting it at people. Hopefully I’ll get a few to fall here.” Indeed, his line-drive rate is still in the top 20 among qualifiers, kind of par for the course for him. It’d be great to have Hit F/X data to see how much of it and the batted-ball stuff align, though it’d likely just confirm the batter’s belief.
Gardenhire stated that opponents are playing Mauer to go the other way in the outfield, a reaction to the first baseman’s batted-ball tendencies. Others have observed this as well. His average on balls in play remains about 30 points below his career mark and significantly worse than his xBABIP using the batted-ball data method.
Are outfield shifts having that great of an effect? His BABIP to left field is about 50 points below his career mark in the category. It’d be a career low and significantly below any of his entries since those from 2005 through 2007. How much, if any, of this, then, is “bad luck”? Does that more so explain the 75-point difference between his 2014 BABIP to right field and his lifetime mark when he pulls the ball?
Regardless of the impact of the opposing outfield’s alignment when Mauer is in the batter’s box, a couple of things bother me about his performance: the relatively sharp rise in his K%, and his peripherals against southpaws.
OK, Mauer’s contact rate dipped last season and hasn’t really rebounded, but it’s not awful. True, a rate of 84% or 85% could become a little concerning for a player whose primary offensive weapon has been his hit tool. None of his overall stats in plate discipline are really alarming, though. His chase rate would be a career high but is still well below league average. Same idea with his swinging-strike rate.
So what’s with the major increase in Mauer’s strikeout rate? It jumped from 13.4% in 2012 to 17.5% last season and is at 19.0% in 2014. Some part of it is attributable to his decline against southpaws, but his rates against hurlers of both persuasions have risen.
Data from Brooks Baseball indicates that Mauer’s outcomes in the slash rates against both hard and off-speed pitches are down noticeably this season. His plate discipline hasn’t been an issue against the former pitch type, so I’d hypothesize that defensive positioning and luck are likelier to have conspired against him in those cases.
Mauer has had unprecedented trouble with off-speed stuff this year, however. I don’t know why, but I do know that it’s a tad troubling, because it’s pretty likely that foes have picked up on it.
There’s also a roughly 6% increase in rate of first-pitch strikes against him in 2014, something perhaps irrelevant but definitely new. Maybe pitcher’s counts are a roundabout avenue to meetings with misfortune, and a few more hitter’s counts will induce the pitches he needs to get back on track. But 60% is about typical for the league, so maybe pitchers just aren’t afraid to try to get ahead of him anymore.
Mauer’s outcomes versus left-handed pitchers in particular have turned south. He’s had what one would call subpar marks against the same handedness before, but not for a while, and not quite as bad as this year’s .203/.281/.203. Yes, he has a .000 ISO against lefties, just a year after he registered a career-best .165 ISO versus them and against the backdrop of albeit a modest .090 ISO for the split. His plate discipline when facing them has taken a turn, as info from Brooks Baseball again helps to see.
There’s no noteworthy difference between Mauer’s swing rates versus right- and left-handers, year by year. In fact, he’s typically been more aggressive overall against right-handers. But the year-to-year gap between the qualities of the swings versus southpaws and those against righties has widened considerably in 2014, for the first time since his rookie campaign.
How much has Mauer’s medical chart influenced his performance? That’s an aspect of aging curves I didn’t mention earlier. Zimmerman’s research shows a strong correlation between injuries and reduced aging curves. Mauer has obviously dealt with his share. That examination also indicates that baseline performance won’t be what it was pre-injury.
It’s possible that he’s dealing with latent effects of the concussion he sustained on a backswing while crouching behind the plate in mid-August. It kept him out for the remainder of last season. He was declared symptom-free in October. Still, his production could be compromised for a while, like Justin Morneau’s was.
I believe that his batted balls will start to find the floor more often, ultimately. There seems to be enough reason to think that a little misfortune has been in play. There’s too much insistence from his camp that he’s hitting the ball “on the screws.” Nothing about the small sample of plate appearances of his I’ve seen this season says that he’s not.
So, yes, I think that it’ll get better. When? And how much better? Until he’s a few more months, at least, away from the date on which he sustained that concussion, assuming no other health problems, we may not have a clear idea of what the baseline for this version of Mauer looks like. Assuming that there’s a place to which to get back and he gets there, it’s virtually certain that his standard will be worse than it was in 2012 (.319/.416/.446) and 2013 (.324/.404/.476).
I may have to suck it up and to drop him in the next edition of catcher tiers.
Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.