Joe Mauer Swings Away

A league-average hitter swings at about 46% of the pitches he sees. That much hasn’t really changed over at least the last decade. Roughly 5% of the time, a league-average hitter will end up in a 3-and-0 count. Roughly 7% of the time, a league-average hitter will swing at the next pitch. There’s nothing inherently wrong about swinging in a 3-and-0 count — the pitcher, often, will try to throw something straighter and over the plate. Often, then, there’s potential damage to be done. But a good deal might be learned about a hitter by examining his behavior in 3-and-0 counts. You can get a sense of a hitter’s eye, and you can get a sense of a hitter’s passiveness. Or, you might prefer, pickiness.

Joe Mauer is far from a league-average hitter, in both results and approach. For his career, Mauer has swung at about 37% of the pitches he’s seen, and last year he had the lowest swing rate in baseball. He swung at just about 8% of all first pitches, tied for the lowest rate in the league and against an average of 27%. Of all of Mauer’s career plate appearances, 9% have proceeded to a 3-and-0 count. In 3% of those plate appearances did Mauer offer at the next pitch. Joe Mauer has the eye to swing 3-and-0, but Joe Mauer has not often swung 3-and-0.

Mauer got into 56 3-and-0 counts last season, and ten of those were on the way to intentional walks. Which leaves 46 other 3-and-0 pitches, and it’s not like none of the ones that Mauer took were grooved. From Texas Leaguers, here’s Joe Mauer’s 2012 3-and-0 called strike zone:

mauertake

You can see some hittable pitches in there at which Mauer neglected to swing. Now, one’s first instinct isn’t to complain, because Mauer happens to be fresh off a .416 OBP and 140 wRC+. Clearly, Joe Mauer’s approach works for Joe Mauer. But Mauer is highly paid and he hits in the middle of the order, so sometimes patience doesn’t go over so well. Sometimes people just want to see Mauer swing the bat. From last August, after a game between the Twins and the Mariners:

Mariners manager Eric Wedge summoned lefthander Lucas Luetge, who quickly fell behind in the count 3-0. Mauer had the green light, but he opted not to swing at a sinker down the middle. On 3-1, Luetge threw a slider for strike two. On 3-2, Luetge missed low with another slider, and Mauer took his walk.

Six pitches, zero swings.

That loaded the bases for Josh Willingham, but Wedge brought in closer Tom Wilhelmsen, a righthander with filthy stuff. Willingham flied out to right field, ending the inning, and the Mariners wound up winning in their half of the ninth.

I didn’t have time to ask Mauer about his plate appearance, but I’m just going to say this: He has to have more urgency to swing the bat there.

By walking to load the bases, Mauer put Willingham in position to drive in a run with a hit, a walk, a hit-by-pitch, or an error. Mauer did more good than harm, but if the 3-and-0 pitch was right down the middle, you can see why one would wish for Mauer to be aggressive. He has such a sweet, beautiful swing — why not put it to greater use? Over the years, plenty of things have frustrated Twins fans. This, on occasion, has been one of them.

Mauer just does not like to swing in 3-and-0 counts. You figure, if Joe Mauer swings 3-and-0, the pitch has got to be just about perfect. So grooved, so hittable, that even Joe Mauer can’t let it pass by. Mauer swung at three 3-and-0 pitches in 2005. Then three in 2006, then one, then three, then two. Then it was 2010, and Mauer didn’t swing at a single 3-and-0 pitch. Then it was 2011, and Mauer didn’t swing at a single 3-and-0 pitch. Then it was September 2012, and Mauer hadn’t swung at a single 3-and-0 pitch.

On September 20, there took place a rather pointless game between the Twins and the Indians. It doesn’t matter who won; the Twins ended the day 62-88, and the Indians also ended the day 62-88. In the top of the fourth inning, Mauer batted against Corey Kluber, with Ben Revere having led off with a single. After ball one, Kluber tried a pickoff attempt. After ball two, Revere stole second. Then came ball three, and Mauer reached a 3-and-0 count.

Mauer, as noted, is no stranger to 3-and-0 counts. But he hadn’t swung in a 3-and-0 count since July 18, 2009, in a plate appearance against Jason Jennings. So it had been more than three full years. Mauer’s disciplined enough to be given the green light, as he can tell the difference between a strike and a ball. But Mauer likes walks, and he doesn’t like ceding a hitter’s advantage by letting the pitcher off the hook. For Mauer to swing 3-and-0, conditions would have to be special.

Conditions, on September 20, must have been special. Revere had just earlier gotten ahead 3-and-0, and Kluber threw him a 90 mile-per-hour fastball right down the heart of the plate that Revere took. Mauer might’ve had that in mind when Kluber threw him a 91 mile-per-hour 3-and-0 fastball. The pitch was over the plate, and above the knees, and Mauer uncharacteristically pulled the trigger.

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In case that isn’t doing it for you, here’s a still, giving you an idea of the pitch’s location:

mauerswing

There was a run to drive in, and a hittable pitch on the way to the plate. Mauer didn’t want to let pitchers think they could always get away with a 3-and-0 meatball. Every so often you have to keep the opposing pitchers honest, and this gets into matters of game theory. Mauer, presumably, wasn’t thinking in terms of game theory at the time. Mauer, presumably, was thinking he saw a hittable fastball, and he wanted to hit it, damn the chance of drawing a walk.

Welp, hitters aren’t perfect. Not even the Joe Mauer hitters.

MauerSwing2.gif.opt

For the first time in more than three full years, Joe Mauer swung at a 3-and-0 pitch. He swung with a runner in scoring position, just like people have wanted him to do, and he pulled the ball on the ground harmlessly to second base, leading to the first out of the inning. The runner did advance from second to third, but the whole idea behind Joe Mauer isn’t exactly that he’s a reliable source of productive outs.

It’s that, relatively speaking, he isn’t often a source of outs. In the top of the eighth inning, Mauer got ahead 3-and-0, and he wound up drawing a walk. Over what little of the season remained, Mauer wouldn’t swing 3-and-0 again. He isn’t likely to do it very often going forward. Sometimes, hitters have success swinging 3-and-0. Last season there were 30 3-and-0 home runs, and 50 3-and-0 extra-base hits. But there are also too many 3-and-0 outs, and so Mauer’s approach isn’t necessarily the wrong one. It can be frustrating to watch a 3-and-0 meatball pass by unchallenged. It can also be frustrating to watch a 3-and-0 delivery turn into a grounder. There is an argument, to be sure, over whether or not Joe Mauer is too passive at the plate. But, personally, I’m going to assume the guy with the career .323 average and .405 OBP has things pretty close to being optimized.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


25 Responses to “Joe Mauer Swings Away”

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  1. Cliff says:

    Assuming the batter knows a pitch is a strike, the question is whether the value of swinging 3-0 is greater than the value of the rest of a 3-1 at-bat. Maybe that could be investigated given various pitch locations. I have no doubt the value of swinging at a center-of-the-zone 90 mph fastball with runners on is greater than the value of a 3-1 count.

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  2. Nick says:

    Just a thought:

    Mauer would normally go the other way with that pitch, but he knew that he needed to pull the ball to at least garner a productive out. The fact that there were zero outs probably played a huge roll in how he swung the bat. Had their been two outs, he probably would have laced the ball into left field.

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    • Bryz says:

      Counterpoint: When Mauer attempts to pull the ball and fails (as does many hitters), he hits a weak grounder to his pull side. As a Twins fan, I know that Mauer does this often, and spray charts will confirm it. He hits grounders to his pull side, and hits line drives to the opposite field.

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  3. Ian says:

    I remember arguments about that Seattle game a lot. I think the one thing in the quoted example you brought up is that, late in a game, I’d rather have to rely on Mauer against a tough lefty than Willingham – or anyone else really – against a tough righty. (As an aside, Morneau used to like having Mauer walk in front of him, esp late, b/c he knew he’d face the same pitcher and probably be pitched similarly). In Mauer’s defense, he later said he didn’t expect a grooved sinker and the two sliders were tough pitches.

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  4. Phantom Stranger says:

    It’s also possible that Mauer was going off inside scouting info the Twins had on this pitcher. Almost all scouts will track how a pitcher throws on 3-0 counts, whether they lay a straight fastball down the pipe or refuse to give in so easily to the hitter. Some pitchers are very predictable on 3-0 counts, especially with runners in scoring position.

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  5. RTG says:

    “Sometimes, hitters have success swinging 3-and-0. Last season there were 30 3-and-0 home runs, and 50 3-and-0 extra-base hits. But there are also too many 3-and-0 outs….”

    What a tease! How many 3-and-0 outs were there last season?

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    • Al says:

      After 3-0:

      1540 ABs – 458 Hs = 1082 Os

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      • TKDC says:

        Is that on 3-0 or after? Those are different.

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      • philosofool says:

        It’s after. There were 270 AB in a 3-0 last season and 94 hits, 3544 BB, of which 933 were intentional. Interestingly enought, there were 1055 IBB, so 122 IBB occurred with at least one strike. 5 occurred with 2 strikes, all of which pissed off the pitching coach, who had been pretty happy with his pitcher for getting ahead in the count.

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  6. Al says:

    League-wide OBP on 3-0 counts is .950, and only .581 after 3-1, so if it’s a strike even league-average hitters should be swinging, right?

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    • philosofool says:

      That figure, .951 is only for 3-0 counts that terminate on the pitch, not AFTER 3-0 counts. You need to compare AFTER 3-0 and AFTER 3-1, and you need to remove IBB too. See my comment below on wOBA contact in 3-0.

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  7. philosofool says:

    On the game theory side, here’s the start of a breakdown:
    wOBA-on-Contact in 3-0: .459
    wOBA after 3-1: .479
    wOBA in 4-0 (BB): .7

    These mean you can’t really get the breakdown for the game theory without incorporating the game state. (This is not complaining that the article didn’t.) With such close values between the contact wOBA and the 3-1 wOBA, it’s clear that the number of outs and base runners is important. With two outs and no one on, many guys should probably be swinging at meatballs. With no outs and a runner in scoring position, almost no one should be swinging.

    It’s also important to remember that there’s serious bias in 3-0 wOBA-contact, because pretty much only dudes who crush dingers get the green light (1 in 9 3-0 batted balls cleared the fence last year.)

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  8. BookWorm says:

    The quote in this post from the local press is pretty charitable compared to some. There’s not always a ton of appreciation for his OBP (or even batting average!) from the local newspaper writers. They built him up so much during and after the 2009 season that they refuse to believe he’s truly trying.

    Take this quote, for example: “While he possesses a keen baseball intellect, Mauer has no idea how many of the people he sees every day viewed him last year [2011], when he did nothing to dissuade the belief that he was more concerned with minor or invisible injuries than the fortunes of the franchise paying his $184 million contract.”

    From this story, published a year ago: Clueless Joe not cutting it anymore

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    • TwinsfanTravis says:

      The whole reaction of the MN sports media to Joe Mauer is absolutely asinine. There criticism discounts the fact that A) Joe puts more butts in the seats than most other players in the game and B) the Twins built a stadium that destroys lefty power. So to Joe’s credit, instead of trying to pull the ball over the fence every AB to satisfy numskull local media writers, he plays to his strengths and is above average in XBH and LD%.

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  9. When I was a wee lad, I was watching the Dodgers play some team in LA and they had worked the game back to a tie or something close to it. This was back in Raul Mondesi’s heyday.

    Well, as I was playing Little League at the time, I knew you don’t swing on 3-0 counts. The count got to 3-0, the announcers said something along the lines of “Mondesi may have the green light here if he likes the pitch”, and then bam, three run shot to left center field.

    So ever since then I have pretty much figured that everybody should just hit homeruns on 3-0 pitches.

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  10. Nickname Damur says:

    Ted Williams used to be criticized by the Boston press and players for taking walks in clutch situations. Covered in his book A Baseball Life somewhere around page 340.

    His response (paraphrased in A Baseball Life): No hitter gains an advantage by doing something on a Friday that he wouldn’t do on a Tuesday.

    Implication: if you start swinging at pitches just out of the zone, pitchers will adjust accordingly until you are swinging at pitches further out of the zone.

    Another implication: if you are superbly successful at what you are doing, it is seldom productive to change your approach.

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  11. Damien says:

    Sounds like the old Frank Thomas criticism. Media (and managers) got on the Big Hurt because he was supposed to be an “RBI-guy” and therefore he should expand the zone to drive them in.

    Mauer, though, is an extreme example. I wonder how his behavior has been impacted by target field. Even the best thumpers struggle to hit the ball out of RF, so why not take 3-0 if HR is not a potential outcome?

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    • adohaj says:

      If I am not mistaken the vast majority of Mauer’s HRs are to the left side of the outfield.

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    • rhcjr2 says:

      Ryan Howard is the complete opposite of Mauer in terms of OBP, and all other stats, and gets criticized for the exact opposite because of his K’s. He swings long and hard at 3-0, 3-1, and 3-2 counts and has real good numbers w/ men in scoring position both BA and RBI as well as OBP. but not as good w/o men on. The question is then the value of do you want your run threats swinging away or getting on base and letting others clean behind them. Either way once the paycheck goes into the stratosphere they are never going to satisfy everybody.

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  12. Ryan says:

    One thing people overlook about Mauer is that he puts up very high OBP in front of very good hitters. Often a guy will be around .400 since teams would rather just walk a guy and pitch to the next hitter rather than give a hitter a good pitch. However, Mauer puts up these numbers in front of very good hitters. Morneau was once an MVP caliber player, and Willingham was a very good hitter last year. You could put Mauer in front of any hitter in the league and he would be around/above .400; no other player in the league could do that

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    • Josh says:

      There isn’t really proof that hitting in front of good or bad players changes anything all that much. But Mauer is all-time good regardless.

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  13. Eric says:

    Mauer only sees batting average. He figures that if he hits ground balls 70% of the time, he will bat >.300 and make it to the Hall. He is not a fan favorite in Minnesota for this and many other reasons. He doesn’t see runs, only singles. So much potential, and so little care for the betterment of his team.

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