Mauer’s Splits

There are a lot of interesting tidbits of information that can be gained through the new splits pages found here on FanGraphs, but there is one that shines above all the rest – Joe Mauer. The Twins star catcher is not just a tremendous hitter; he’s also a tremendously weird hitter.

Take, for example, Mauer’s career spray chart numbers for balls hit to different areas of the field.

There are a few things that should jump off the page immediately. How about that crazy 10.09 GB/FB ratio when he pulls the ball, which is the result of that even crazier 7.6% FB% on balls to right field. Seriously, seven point six percent of his balls to right field are categorized as fly balls. When Mauer turns on a pitch, he’s beating it into the ground. That flips entirely when he hits the ball the other way, though, as nearly 50% of his balls in play to left field are fly balls. That latter number is entirely normal, actually – it’s the batted profile on pulled balls that is so nutty.

Actually, for reference, let’s just give the league averages for all hitters on their spray chart data.

That’s the norm. You’ll see the obvious pull power, with both LH and RH hitters posting .280 ISOs when they hit to their pull field. That gets cut in half when a normal hitter goes up the middle or the other way. For pretty much every hitter in baseball, their lowest wOBA is going to be to the opposite field, where fly balls are high but home runs are low, leading to a lot of weak fly outs. Mauer, though, is no normal hitter. His power is almost entirely to left field.

When he goes the other way, he runs a .410 wOBA, and his ISO is twice as high to LF (.257) as it is to RF (.122). When he pulls the ball, he’s pretty terrible, posting just a .289 wOBA, thanks to the copious amount of ground balls. The difference between his pull/opposite field numbers are stunning, especially in comparison with how pretty much every other hitter on earth functions.

In fact, given this data, there’s actually a case to be made that teams should consider employing two different shifts against Mauer; an outfield shift playing him as if he was a pull-heavy right-handed batter, and an infield shift treating him as a pull-heavy left-handed hitter. Groundballs to the left side and flyballs to the right side comprise such a small percentage of Mauer’s batted ball profile that a straight-up alignment is an inefficient way of defending him, and he’s made a living by taking advantage of it.

If you employ the traditional infield shift, with three defenders on the right side, you should be able to limit his hits through the hole from the crazy amount of grounders. At the same time, shifting your outfielders the other way, shading towards left field, will cover more of the areas where he traditionally racks up his extra base hits. By having the outfielders shifted towards left, you’re also more likely to cut off balls that roll past the third baseman, who is left to defend that side of the infield by himself, before they get to the wall.

It would look really weird, and Mauer’s a good enough hitter that he may just render the whole thing moot by changing his swing and swatting balls to the right field corner, but I’d love to see a team give this a try. The current way of trying to get him out certainly isn’t working, and his batted ball profile is so unique that it almost demands a radical change in how you position your fielders when he’s at the plate.

So, stat guys working for MLB clubs reading this, this is your challenge for 2010 – convince your manager to give the double-shift against Mauer a chance. Make him change his approach in order to get on base. Stop letting him beat you just because he’s so different than a normal hitter.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

35 Responses to “Mauer’s Splits”

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  1. Big Oil says:

    Zach and Brian:

    C’mon: what does your team have to lose?

    Then again, knowing this, maybe you’d be wise to leave Yuni on the left side.

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  2. Taro says:

    This also might suggest that pitchers are better off attacking him inside.

    I wonder what his production is on pitches close to his hands?

    It would also be interesting to see whether or not pitchers currently take advantage of this yet or not. Typically, inside and down-and-in are treated as Lefty “hot zones”. Are pitchers assuming that Mauer is like a normal lefty and pitching him away (playing right into his game)?

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    • Mike Rogers says:

      This would be a good 2 part article — Dave’s above and then Dave Allen with some PITCHf/x on how Mauer handles pitches in on the hands.

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    • Luke in MN says:

      I think teams pretty much had the pitch-him-inside-thing figured out, at least by midseason last year. People definitely saw quickly that all his homers were going to left.

      As for his success to left, it’s just the way he hits. He waits to the last possible second to pull the trigger and see as much of the pitch as he can. I think it has something to do with this:

      I like your idea and the shift, but I think he makes the adjustments. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him figure out how to jack that inside pitch over the short right porch at Target Field.

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  3. Mike Rogers says:

    I’d guess he could have just as much success pulling the baseball if he wasn’t so focused on going the other way.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      Probably. But don’t you at least think about making him prove that, rather than just letting him hit .350 with power again?

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      • Mike Rogers says:

        Oh, I agree with you. Might as well make him change his approach completely and keep up his numbers. I just wouldn’t be shocked at all if he were to come close to replicating his success if he were a pull hitter only.

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  4. Brian says:

    His launch angle to LF is really consistent. I’d love to see the HIT F/X data on Mauer, especially to LF. He lines out to LF more than anyone.

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  5. Temo says:

    It’s not as unique as you might think– Derek Jeter and to a lesser extent Yunel Escobar are similar hitters.

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    • Temo says:

      Hmm, certainly meant to say “and to a lesser extent Joey Votto”, not sure where Yunel came from.

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    • Xavier says:

      Jeter is a right-handed hitter, though, so you can’t really employ an infield shift. Most outfields play him as they would a left-handed hitter with moderate power.

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    • delv says:

      Cano would probably be the best comparison. He and Mauer have a ton of similarities, except that Cano pulls his HRs. Otherwise, his numbers break down very similarly to Mauer’s.

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  6. roymoss says:

    As a Twins fan, Mauer is as good as anyone I have seen taking the inside pitch the other way. That being said, his 4-3 clutch grounder is awfully frustrating and a running joke among the local sports media.

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    • teo says:

      I think that his 4-3 grounder is frustrating, but I don’t think he’s a 4-3 clutch groundball hitter. I’m a die-hard Twins fan and I haven’t seen a better Twins hitter. He is simply the most talented and he works the hardest at manipulating pitchers.

      I’d love to see the double-switch here, where infielders play like he’s a pull hitter from the left side and outfielders play like he’s a pull hitter from the right side. The only thing is that a single to third base turns into a single to left field. . . .

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  7. CircleChange11 says:

    Those stats just show Joe’s “swing type”. He rolls over on pitches when he tries to pull them, and stays “on” them when he goes oppo.

    He’s not changing that. Probably had the same swing since high school or before.

    Worked pretty well so far.

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  8. NEPP says:

    Mauer is one of the best hitters in the game…probably #2 behind Pujols.

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  9. Ben says:

    No one pointed out his 34% HR/FB stat to right field. It is above league average for pulled shots. And watching him when he pulls a flyball, he can absolutely crush it.

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    • mattlock says:

      Yeah, that was what jumped out at me. Only 7% of his batted balls to right are fly balls, but dang, of that 7%, 1 out of 3 will be a home run.

      That’s just nuts.

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  10. CircleChange11 says:

    Anyone know Mauer’s bat velocity?

    Elite power hitters are generally 100+mph, Pujols is upper 80s.

    Could be that Mauer’s bat speed + approach is suited to hitting like he does.

    … or it could be the “quickswing” hitting tool. (<– sarcasm). To those giving the quickswing tool some credibility, wouldn't that most likely lead to him being a pull hitter? Oh yeah, I forgot … he waits and waits until the ball is almost in the catcher's mitt and then 'quickswings' it to left-center. C'mon fellas.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Pujols endorses this …

      If you used the “quickswing machine” with this “lightning rod” bat you’d have the bat control of Mauer combined with the power of Pujols. Throw in the Jeter hit-a-way trainer, and you could be the most complete hitter ever …. or your money back.

      FWIW, we (me and my 8yo) actually do use the lightning rod to hit wiffle golf balls in the front yard, and the sweet spot bat for visual drills (point of contact), and getting your hands inside the ball on inside pitches. I like those.

      As for Mauer’s quickswing machine …. soft toss with someone throwng it over your shoulder and hitting it in front of the pate works as well. But, I don;t see how it builds bat speed, but rather “ball tracking”. Want more bat speed? Get stronger or more athletic parents (the latter before conception).

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  11. Matt Lentzner says:

    This is not unusual at all. All hitters tend to hit to the pull side when they top a ball. Batters who “go the other way” will see this even more since their topped balls are more likely to stay fair compared to a hitter who is trying to pull.

    I wrote an article about this:

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  12. Andrew says:

    Seems to me like this pattern isn’t that uncommon. Adrian Gonzalez likely has similar numbers.

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  13. MikeS says:

    All hitters lose a little bat speed as they age and start to cheat a little on the hard stuff. The good teams use this and watch the spray chart – especially on a power hitter. As they hit fewer HR’s to center and the other way, it’s time to let them go rather than keep payong even though they are still hitting 30/year. Pretty soon, time catches up and they fall off a cliff. Those pulled home runs become fouls or warning track flies and they can’t get anything the other way anymore.

    So what does that mean for Mauer?

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      IMO, Mauer will have a hitting career a lot like George Brett … long and successful, due to consistently strong line drive type contact.

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  14. CircleChange11 says:

    Looks like lefties in general hit more in the air to LF than when pulling. Makes sense.

    I wonder how often LHBs get pitches from RHPs that move away from them (2-seamers, changeups, etc) based on the stereotype of lefties “loving the low and in pitch”?

    The biggest difference with Mauer seems to be his average to LF.

    I wonder what Tony Gwynn’s chart would like like. He seemed to put quite a few hits either over SS or through SS/3B.

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  15. AdamOnFirst says:

    A cool look at the numbers, but to be honest with you, I could have told you about the double switch thing just from watching Mauer over the last few years as a Twins fan. Actually, we’ve seen something like it from a number of teams already, really. To be honest, opposing managers and pitchers have really tried pretty much every combination of pitch locations and defensive alignments possible against him. one dangerous thing, though, about committing too much to the hard infield shift is he’ll happily drop down a bunt and run it out if the third basemen isn’t even with the bag, so you’d have a massive hole on the middle/left-side with 3 guys right of the bag or Mauer would get a bunt hit every time.

    And the very high HR/FB% to right is interesting, and again, I’m not surprised. It was the newest addition to his bag of tricks this year. Pretty much when he hit fly balls to right, his eyes would light up like the friggin’ Washington DC Christmas tree and he’d completely obliterate the ball. His homers to left-center are mostly wall-scraping liners, but damn, those fly balls to left are just monster shots.

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  16. jak says:

    I am almost certain that Mauer would adjust his swing to take advantage of any shift put his way. I think his weird numbers are a result of him trying to go the other way and up the middle all the time, perhaps a bit to a fault. So balls that go to right are balls that he was trying to hit up the middle or to left and was late on, thus turning them over (I know almost nothing about hitting FYI).

    If he tries to pull the ball my guess is that he’d do it more proficiently. But offensively he is doing so well that just trying to force him off his normal game plan might pay some dividends. Someone should try the double shift to see what happens. What do you have to lose? He’s killing you anyways.

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  17. andrewreinsch says:

    During interleague in 2006, Mauer was on a distinctly Mauer-esque tear (he hit .452 that June) and seemed capable of taking any pitch and lining it hard back up the middle. I recall (rather vividly, but I’m welcome to correction) a few of the NL teams, particularly those visiting the Dome at the end of the month, shifting the infield to the right side against Mauer – but I don’t recall the outfield shifting much. I would never have been bold enough to suggest Mr. Cameron’s corresponding outfield shift (though the “what do they have to lose” argument is pretty persuasive when he had 11 hits in three games against the Dodgers) but the only-infield version seemed rather silly with a player so content and so able to go the other way.

    He had three doubles and a triple during the interleague homestand period I’m walking about. So if the outfield was doing anything unique and I missed it, it doesn’t appear to have worked.

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  18. glassSheets says:

    Some of these might be better suited as replies but i’m putting them all together

    1) I’m taking credit as the impetus for the post from my comment in the “intro to splits” whether it’s actually true or not.

    2) I believe John Dewan reached the same conslusion (two shifts) in the Fielding Bible before the season. Bring two leading analyzers to a front office and you have a strong case.

    3) Some team did the inverted double shift this year (I want to say the White Sox) but can’t recall exactly and am open to being corrected.

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  19. Tim says:

    The outfield shift may have some benefit, but I just can’t see the infield shift working. It’s a lot more difficult for Mauer to change to pulling the ball in the air than it is to change to just hitting everything the opposite way. Besides, as you can see by the disparity in results, he does a pretty good job of hitting the ball at infielders in the standard configuration. Seems like shifting the infield would be handing him a bunch more hits.

    I’d like to see the splits for which field he hits to based on the count, too. From observation I think he’s also weird in that he pulls the ball a lot with two strikes.

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    • The Nicker says:

      This is exactly what I was thinking. Combined with Mauer’s speed and willingness to bunt it seems that only the reverse outfield shift is necessary.

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