August 30, 2005

Counting Mauer

I was talking about the Twins with my grandpa the other day and he opined that Joe Mauer should be more aggressive at the plate, particularly early in the count. I responded that a large part of Mauer's considerable value as a hitter comes from the fact that he works long counts, draw walks, and controls the strike zone. Sure, he misses out on some opportunities for hits early in the count, but that's the price you pay for the other benefits.

Mauer is just about everything I would want in a hitter, let alone in a 22-year-old hitter. It's tough to argue with a catcher who is hitting .302/.379/.443 with a 58-to-51 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 36 extra-base hits in 397 at-bats, and 11 stolen bases in 12 attempts in what is essentially his rookie season. Of course, none of that means he shouldn't be more aggressive at the plate, it just means his current hitting style is working pretty damn well.

In an effort to learn a little bit more about Mauer's approach at the plate and the results he is getting, let's take a deeper look at some of his numbers offensively. Rather than look at the typical stuff, like lefty/righty splits or his performance with runners in scoring position, let's examine how he does as his plate appearances progress.

Hitting With a 0-0 Count: .350/.350/.350 (14-for-40)

This is where my grandpa would like to see Mauer hacking more. A .350 batting average in this situation looks a lot better than it actually is, because a) it only counts balls put in play (so no missed swings), and b) the entire league hits very well on the first pitch. In fact, the American League as a whole is hitting .329 (with a .522 slugging percentage) when putting the first pitch in play.

What's interesting here is that Mauer has only put the ball in play on the first pitch 40 times in 568 career plate appearances, and has yet do anything but single. You'd think at some point a pitcher would have grooved a first-pitch fastball over the heart of the plate and Mauer would have driven it into the gap somewhere. Instead, he has 14 singles in 40 at-bats, which is certainly the type of performance that would have some people wishing he'd be more aggressive on the first pitch.

Just to put Mauer's numbers with a 0-0 count in some context, let's compare them to the performances of the Twins' three most veteran hitters in the same situation. Jacque Jones is a career .383/.395/.603 hitter when putting the first pitch in play, Shannon Stewart has hit .350/.372/.542 in those situations throughout his career, and Torii Hunter is at .309/.319/.530 hacking at the first pitch he sees.

Hitting After a 0-1 Count: .273/.299/.412 (71-for-260)

Since 40 of Mauer's 568 career plate appearances have ended with one pitch, that leaves 528 trips to the plate that lasted beyond the pitcher's first offering. In those 528 trips, Mauer has fallen behind in the count 0-1 271 times, or 51.3% of the time. In other words, 51.3% of the time Mauer either watches a first-pitch strike go by or fouls the first pitch off. Add that total to the 40 first pitches that he has put in play and you get an overall first-pitch strike percentage of 54.7%.

Fifty-five percent first-pitch strikes is a low number, although probably not so low that it eliminates the possibility of the cause being simply a small sample of plate appearances. One other explanation I thought of is that Mauer is so patient on the first pitch that he never turns a first-pitch ball into a first-pitch strike by swinging at it.

Interestingly, my grandpa's perception that Mauer is very passive early in the count is on the money, because 45.3% of the time he's staring at a first-pitch ball. That's a high number, and if you're watching just about every game like my grandpa is, it's probably enough to notice a general trend. Of course, if 45.3% of the first pitches Mauer is getting to look at are truly balls, then he's smart to be passive early in the count.

Hitting After a 1-0 Count: .327/.464/.553 (65-for-199)

Like most hitters, this is where Mauer has done his most damage. In plate appearances where he has taken the first pitch for a ball, Mauer has hit .327/.464/.553, which is excellent. The league as a whole hits .282/.388/.457 after getting ahead 1-0, so Mauer is well above average in those situations.

So if he's seeing an inordinate number of first pitches out of the strike zone and he becomes a .327/.464/.553 hitter the moment he gets ahead in the count 1-0, it's probably pretty smart to begin each plate appearance passively.

Hitting After a 1-1 Count: .303/.350/.477 (66-for-218)
Hitting After a 2-0 Count: .345/.616/.655 (20-for-58)

Once the hitter gets ahead 1-0, the second pitch is the big crossroad of the at-bat. Either the pitcher evens up the count at 1-1 to level the playing field or the pitcher falls way behind at two balls and no strikes.

Mauer has been excellent even when the pitcher has come back with a second-pitch strike after falling behind, hitting .303/.350/.477. And when he sees two balls in a row to open a plate appearance, he turns into a monster, hitting .345/.616/.655. That works out to a huge .310 Isolated Power (Derrek Lee leads all of baseball at .335), thanks to four homers and six doubles in 58 at-bats.

Hitting After a 0-2 Count: .260/.286/.423 (27-for-104)

This is where you can see just how mature a hitter Mauer is. Even when he falls behind 0-2, which is typically death for hitters, he still manages to hit .260 with decent power. His on-base percentage is low because it is extremely tough to draw a walk after falling behind 0-2, but he has managed to strike out just 28.8% of the time when one more strike will get him out.

Also, notice that the difference between Mauer's numbers after 0-1 (.273/.299/.412) and after 0-2 (.260/.286/.423) are almost identical. Not only is that probably extremely rare, I would guess it's due mostly to a statistical fluke. What it basically says is that once Mauer is behind in the count, it doesn't really matter how far behind he gets. If it's not a fluke, it's pretty amazing.

Here are all the numbers I talked about above, presented in a neat little table:

SITUATION      FREQUENCY      GPA
Overall 100.0% .285
On 0-0 7.1% .245
After 0-1 48.3% .238
After 1-0 44.6% .347
After 0-2 19.1% .234
After 1-1 42.1% .277
After 2-0 17.6% .441

Through this point of his career, Mauer's success can be attributed to getting ahead in the count a high percentage of the time and doing extremely well after doing so. The question becomes whether or not attempting to put the ball in play more often on the first pitch -- a situation where hitters as a whole do extremely well -- is worth the tradeoff of getting ahead in the count less often.

I tend to say no. First, I'm generally not for fixing what isn't broken. Beyond that, it seems from the admittedly early numbers that Mauer does a pretty good job differentiating between strikes and balls on the first pitch. There is no doubt that he has a lot of room for improvement when it comes to hitting first-pitch strikes for extra bases, but the fact that he doesn't put the ball in play on the first pitch, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.

If he were falling behind in the count a lot by taking the first pitch or he failed to take advantage of getting ahead in the count, I'd say he should start swinging away. But as it stands right now, Mauer is getting himself in favorable counts more often than the average hitter and he's doing extremely well once he gets there. That's a nice combination to have in a 22-year-old hitter, and if he can start taking advantage of a few more get-me-over fastballs on 0-0 counts I think he can take his hitting to the next level.

Today at The Hardball Times:
- Splitsville (by Aaron Gleeman)
- Business of Baseball Report (by Brian Borawski)

Today's Picks (93-83, +$785):
Arizona (Vazquez) +110 over San Diego (Park)


Open Chat: My Day Off

Sorry for the lack of a real entry today. I'm a little overwhelmed with some other writing stuff (the kind that pays money), so I'm going to take a day off. If you're still jonesing to read something I've written, check out my "Daily Dose" column at FoxSports.com or Rotoworld.com. Click here for Monday's or click here for today's.

Oh, and check out Will Young's Twins Blog, because he's been doing some great stuff over there this month. I'm jealous, because it's the sort of stuff I'd like to be doing here, if only I had more time (or fewer other obligations).

See ya tomorrow and feel free to chat away in the comments.

Today at The Hardball Times:
- Sociology of the MLB Player: 1952 (by Steve Treder)
- Batted Balls and DIPS (by David Gassko)

Today's Picks (93-82, +$885):
Cincinnati (Ortiz) +105 over Houston (Rodriguez)


August 29, 2005

Dr. Gleeman

A guy is riding his bike when a truck veers off the road and hits him. A passer-by calls 911, the biker is rushed to the emergency room, and after a few minutes a doctor pronounces him dead. Wanting to give it one last shot, another doctor takes out the defibrillator paddles and shocks him. Suddenly his heart starts beating again and everyone in the room yells at the original doctor, telling him how silly he was to have overreacted and how wrong he was about the biker being dead. Then, after 10 seconds the biker flat lines again, this time for good.

I feel like that original doctor today. I've been saying for the past month or so that the Twins were "done" and right now, at 68-62 and 5.5 games behind the Wild Card-leading Yankees, they are. They have too much ground to make up on too many teams, not enough time to do it, and their offense is simply not good enough to support the playoff-caliber pitching staff.

Yet for a very brief moment their heart started beating again. Just long enough to get hopes up, and just long enough for me to catch some flak for writing off the team. The funny thing is, if someone had taken a vacation to a deserted island the day Torii Hunter broke his ankle and returned to the civilized world this morning, they would have looked at the Twins' playoff chances upon their return and said, "Well, it looks like they were done after all."

We can still argue about whether or not they were "done" weeks ago (or whether or not I was "right"), and I'm sure we will. After all, maybe it'll take our minds off of just how disappointing this season has been and just how frustrating it is to watch the offense come up empty time after time. This pitching staff, from Johan Santana and Carlos Silva to Brad Radke and Kyle Lohse, deserves better, and it's been painful to watch the lineup be held in check by guys like Chris Young far too often this season.

Here are the Twins' current ranks among the 14 American League teams:

Runs Per Game         13th
Batting Average 11th
On-Base Percentage 11th
Slugging Percentage 12th
Ground-to-Fly Ratio 14th
Double Plays 12th
At-Bats/Home Run 13th
Extra-Base Hits 13th
Isolated Power 13th
Line Drive % 14th

Only the lowly Royals have less power than the Twins, and no team in the AL hits a higher percentage of their balls on the ground or a lower percentage of line drives. They also don't hit for average or get on base, and when they do get a runner on they've hit into the third-most double plays in the league.

* * * * *

And on that depressing note, here's an excerpt from my "News, Notes and Quotes" column over at The Hardball Times today:

It's a shame the Minnesota Twins can't score any runs this season, because Johan Santana is making a second-half run that looks an awful lot like the amazing stretch he put together on his way to winning the American League Cy Young last season. After shutting down the Rangers yesterday afternoon, in Texas—where they average a league-leading 6.0 runs per game at home—Santana now has a 1.54 ERA and 52-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nine second-half starts. Dating back to 2003, Santana has the following extraordinary numbers after the All-Star break:

GS        IP      ERA      W      L      SO      BB
38 255.0 1.94 27 2 269 57

That includes second-half records of 8-1 in 2003 and 13-0 last season, plus this year's 6-1 mark since the break. He may not be Mr. October, but Santana is definitely Mr. July, August, and September. Unfortunately, while he was holding the Rangers to one run over seven innings, the Twins' lineup was held scoreless. They finally scratched out a run in the eighth—single, sacrifice bunt, ground out, single—to tie the game at 1-1, which at least gave Santana a no-decision instead of a loss when the Rangers eventually won the game 2-1 with a run off reliever Jesse Crain in the bottom of the ninth.

Had Santana been given a few runs to work with, he would have improved to 7-1 since the All-Star break and 14-6 on the season. Instead, he's stuck on 13 wins while guys like Bartolo Colon make a charge toward the magic 20-win mark. Regardless of whether or not Santana ends up as the most valuable pitcher in the AL this season, he's going to have a very difficult time getting the votes necessary from the win-obsessed Baseball Writers Association of America to repeat as the league's Cy Young winner.

Santana has started 14 games this season in which he's either gotten a loss or a no-decision, and he is 0-6 with a 4.67 ERA in those 14 starts. To put that in some context, Rodrigo Lopez of the Orioles has a 4.61 ERA on the season ... and he's 13-7. In fact, a total of 14 big-league pitchers—Lopez, Jeremy Bonderman, Tim Wakefield, Jeff Weaver, Jeff Francis, Chan Ho Park, Jason Schmidt, Matt Clement, C.C. Sabathia, David Wells, Jamie Moyer, Gil Meche, Bronson Arroyo, Horacio Ramirez—have at least 10 wins and a winning record with an ERA of 4.25 or higher.

Now, Santana has certainly had a few clunkers this season—either three or four in 27 starts, depending on your definition of "clunker"—but the point is that he has had to be nearly flawless just to squeeze out a win. Twice he's lost despite giving up just two runs (once in eight innings, once in seven innings) because the Twins' lineup was held to one run each time. In his eight no-decisions, Santana has averaged seven innings a start with a 3.60 ERA and he has nothing to show for it.

Today at The Hardball Times:
- News, Notes and Quotes (August 29, 2005) (by Aaron Gleeman)

Today's Picks (93-81, +$1,020):
Chicago (Buehrle) -135 over Texas (Dominguez)


August 26, 2005

Link-O-Rama

  • Francisco Liriano at Triple-A last night:
     IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR
    7.0 8 2 2 0 9 0

    He struck out nine, walked none, and gave up two runs in seven innings, yet his ERA actually went up. Liriano is now 9-1 with a 1.67 ERA and 102-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 starts at Rochester.

  • FoxSports.com (*PLUG ALERT*), where you can find my "Daily Dose" column on the MLB page six days per week, came out with their Top 200 College Football Players for 2005. The first three names on the list are familiar ones -- Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, his USC teammate Reggie Bush, and the best running back in the country, Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson.

    According to FoxSports.com (via College Football News), the fourth-best player in the entire country is none other than the University of Minnesota's own Laurence Maroney. Maroney is an amazing player about to have an incredible junior year now that he's the Gophers' featured running back, but it seems strange that he's suddenly being talked about as one of the top players in the country. He's deserving, of course, but he was just as deserving last year.

    YEAR     CAR     YARDS     AVG     TD
    2003 162 1,121 6.9 10
    2004 217 1,413 6.2 12

    The Maroney bandwagon went from zero to sixty awfully fast recently, when it should have been cruising along at a pretty nice speed for the last two years. Incidentally, Marion Barber III, who left school early rather than spend his senior season splitting time with Maroney, is going to make the Cowboys as a special teams player and third-string running back after Dallas took him in the fourth round of the draft.

  • Speaking of football, Rotoworld's K.C. "The Football Scientist" Joyner was recently hired by ESPN.com to join their NFL coverage. Since ESPN.com is now hiring from Rotoworld, one can only assume that I'm next. (Note: In this context, "next" means "never going to be hired by ESPN.com.")
  • I came across the following image while finding San Diego Chargers news for my Rotoworld gig earlier this week. It is by far the funniest thing I've seen this month:


    The guy on the left at least looks the part, whereas the guy on the right just looks creepy. Also, I'm fairly certain the world could have gone on without a replacement for Siegfried and Roy, especially considering the original version was forced into retirement when a tiger nearly ate one of them.
  • Happy anniversary to the Stick and Ball Guy, who celebrated one year of blogging Monday. SBG and I have exchanged several billion e-mails about the Twins over the years and have even hung out in person a few times, so it was interesting to read about how he gradually gained readership (especially since he had some nice things to say about me). If you haven't already, check out his one-man "online magazine."
  • On the long list of bad ideas involving young, millionaire athletes, taking a group of them to Las Vegas for a "bonding session" has got to be near the top. My favorite part:
    [Timberwolves general manager Jim] Stack said they are planning a few events away from the court, including a team dinner and possibly a bowling trip, to try and bring the team closer together.

    Yes, because nothing beats bowling in Las Vegas.

  • This may come as a huge shock to everyone, but Lawrence Phillips is in trouble again:
    LOS ANGELES - Former NFL running back Lawrence Phillips, who was wanted by police for domestic violence, was arrested Sunday after allegedly running his car into three teenagers who argued with him during a pickup football game, police said.

    That is such a wonderful paragraph on so many different levels. Can you imagine playing a little football with a few of your buddies and having a former NFL running back show up to play? Beyond that, trying to run people over in your car is never a good idea, but if you're wanted for "domestic violence" already wouldn't you think about keeping a low profile?

    But wait, here's the kicker:

    The car was reported stolen in San Diego last week.

    You'd be hard-pressed to make up a story that is more ridiculous than a former NFL running back wanted on domestic violence trying to run over three teenagers after a pickup football game in a stolen car. It's like Law & Order: Mad Libs. (Which I'm copyrighting just in case NBC tries to steal it for their fall schedule.)

  • Finally, if you haven't been checking out my "Daily Dose" columns at FoxSports.com on a regular basis and you're interested in reading them, here are links to the columns from Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
  • Today at The Hardball Times:
    - The Curious Case of Emil Brown (by Dan Fox)

    Today's Picks (92-79, +$1,170):
    Cleveland (Sabathia) -145 over Toronto (McGowan)
    Kansas City (Wood) +300 over New York (Johnson)

    Saturday's Picks:
    Cleveland (Millwood) -150 over Toronto (Downs)


    August 25, 2005

    Just like pulling off a Band-Aid (and other Twins notes)

  • Joe Mays is such a buzzkill (among other things). The Twins have lost three times in their last 13 games, and two of those losses came courtesy of Mays. After giving up five runs on nine hits in just 4.2 innings against the White Sox last night, Mays is now 1-6 with a 7.48 ERA in eight starts since the All-Star break.

    That's testing the limits of how bad a major-league pitcher can be for a contending team while still holding down a job. Or so you'd think, particularly with the following two pitchers currently putting up these numbers at Triple-A:

                             GS        IP      ERA      SO     BB     OAVG
    Scott Baker 22 134.2 3.01 107 26 .242
    Francisco Liriano 12 79.0 1.59 93 22 .160

    Mays is now 6-9 with a 5.16 ERA and 54-to-36 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 141.1 innings this year, and has allowed opponents to tee off on him to the tune of a .313 batting average and .497 slugging percentage. He missed the 2004 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. His ERA in 2003 was 6.30. His ERA in 2002 was 5.38. His career ERA is now 4.76.

    Yanking Mays from the rotation shouldn't be a particularly hard decision for Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire, and it is made even easier by the fact that there is almost zero chance of Mays returning for next season. So you help the team now and begin preparing for the future. Yet according to Gardenhire in Patrick Reusse's column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune today:

    That's not the way we do things here. We have too much respect for Joe. If we did that, the guys in that clubhouse ... let's just say they would be very upset, knowing what Joe's gone through to get back here.

    At this point in the season, I can't imagine anything making a group of players more upset than watching someone on their team perform like Mays has every fifth day. And if that's not "the way we do things here" then perhaps someone should take a long, hard look at "the way we do things here."

  • Here's an interesting note from the Elias Sports Bureau on Tuesday night's incredible pitching duel:
    Freddy Garcia allowed only one hit Tuesday, but Jacque Jones' home run was enough for the Twins to post a 1-0 victory over the White Sox.

    In the last 10 seasons the only other pitcher to lose a game in which he allowed only one hit was Ted Lilly for the Yankees on April 27, 2002. In that game, at Safeco Field, Lilly took a no-hitter to the eighth inning of a scoreless game, but with one out Dan Wilson drew a walk. Pinch-runner Luis Ugueto moved to second base on a wild pitch and scored on Desi Relaford's single, the only hit allowed that night by Lilly.

    In the last 20 seasons, two other pitchers have lost a complete game one-hitter on a home run: Kevin Appier for the Royals against the Rangers on July 27, 1993 (home run by Rafael Palmeiro in the seventh inning) and Paul Menhart for the Blue Jays against the Orioles on Aug. 2, 1995 (homer by Harold Baines in the second inning).

    To which I say, who the hell is Paul Menhart?!

  • I thought this quote from Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen was a little confusing:
    The reason the Minnesota Twins played good in the second half is because of Santana. It's not because they play great baseball. They have a great pitching staff.

    I must have missed the memo where the pitching staff isn't part of a baseball team. Johan Santana, incidentally, is now 6-1 with a 1.57 ERA in the second half, making him 27-2 with a 1.96 ERA after the All-Star break during the past three seasons. And yes, you read that right.

  • My THT colleague, Ben Jacobs, broke down the American League Wild Card race Wednesday, and had the following to say about the Twins:
    The first conclusion to draw is that things don't look good for the Twins. They're on a nice run right now, but they have a tough schedule left, no offense and some serious injury problems. They also have to climb past three other teams, which is difficult to do even when it's only 2.5 games.

    All of which is more or less the same conclusion I came to while breaking down the remaining schedules here earlier this week.

  • Remember Adam Johnson, the #2 overall pick in the 2000 draft who turned out to be a complete bust for the Twins? Here's an interesting note I saw about him in the Contra Costa Times last week:
    The A's signed Adam Johnson, 26, who was pitching for the independent San Diego Surf Dawgs.

    Johnson was 8-1 with a 2.58 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 76 2/3 innings and had been named Golden Baseball League Pitcher of the Week three times this season.

    He was scheduled to make his first appearance tonight for Triple-A Sacramento, the A's top farm team. Johnson, who attended Cal State Fullerton, was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2000 draft by the Minnesota Twins. He reached the major leagues a year later, pitching 26-1/3 innings over two seasons. He was released by the Arizona Diamondbacks after throwing two innings in spring training.

    "He's a very highly thought of prospect who pitched well all summer," said A's assistant general manager David Forst, who signed Johnson to a minor league deal. "We want to see what he can do."

    Reports had Johnson throwing from 87-91 mph, according to Forst, who reserved judgment on whether the pitcher could be a Sept. 1 call-up.

    "He hasn't thrown one pitch for this organization," Forst said. "We're not going to jump ahead of ourselves."

  • The San Diego Surf Dogs of the Golden Baseball League is the team Rickey Henderson currently leads off for (he has a .459 on-base percentage in 68 games). Johnson's comeback isn't go so well, as he has a grotesque 12.91 ERA in two starts for Triple-A Sacramento, giving up 11 earned runs in 7.2 innings.

  • The more I read Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan the more I find myself disagreeing with his overall premises while admiring some of his one-liners. I would compare reading his columns to going to a restaurant and hating the main course, but loving the dessert. Sometimes it's worth struggling through it just to get to the good part, but sometimes it's not.

    For instance, his "It's just following tradition for the White Sox to choke" column last week was fairly silly considering the current standings in the AL Central, but I did like his line about Joe Mauer being "the best 22-year-old hitter since Cassius Clay." Souhan's column also contained this amusing bit:

    As the Twins' hitters slumped, Johan Santana and Carlos Silva started acting silly. Now that the Twins have won seven of eight, Gardenhire doesn't even attempt to shower at the Dome.

    "If I'm going to get chased around the shower," he said, "it's going to be by my wife."

    Good to know the Gardenhires continue to have a thriving sex life at their age. I'd make some sort of a joke about not dropping the soap, but this is a family site after all.

  • Today at The Hardball Times:
    - Ten Things I Didn't Know Last Week (by Dave Studeman)
    - The Fall and Rise of Jason Giambi, Part Three (by Larry Mahnken)

    Today's Picks (92-78, +$1,290):
    Los Angeles (Lackey) -120 over Baltimore (Lopez)


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