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:

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)

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