Veteran remains a force while being selective at plate
By David Adler
Joe Mauer will wait. He will wait and wait, and when you finally crack and throw him his pitch, he will hit it hard.
The crisp left-handed swing, keen eye and unbending discipline are still there. Close to four years after Mauer's last game at catcher, and eight years after his American League MVP Award-winning season, the 34-year-old veteran continues to preside over the heart of the Twins' order.
"I've always been a guy that's seen a lot of pitches," Mauer said. "For me over the years, it's been a little bit more of a comfort to gauge the timing and also see the ball, how it's moving, where it's coming out, at what arm slot."
Now, Mauer is as selective as he has ever been. He has swung at just 16.3 percent outside the strike zone this season, the third fewest among 156 hitters to see at least 300 such pitches, behind only Joey Votto and Matt Carpenter. It's Mauer's lowest chase rate in the pitch-tracking era (since 2008).
"It's been his M.O. for as long as I can remember," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "Even coming in, he had tremendous patience as a young hitter. He was rewarded with batting titles and MVPs."
Mauer controls at-bats and then pounces. One in four of his swings this year (24.8 percent) has produced a hard-hit ball, using a Statcast™-tracked exit velocity of 95-plus mph as a baseline. That's the highest rate of any Major League hitter who's swung even 25 times this season, and there are 470 of them.
So while Mauer's slash line might look more pedestrian than it once did -- he is hitting .266/.338/.367 through 38 games, although in May that mark is .322/.420/.492 -- the numbers belie his true skill.
"He's a very selective hitter. He's got a really good approach," said Royals ace Danny Duffy, who has been pitching to Mauer in the AL Central since 2011. "He's very patient when he needs to be, but he'll also get you. With runners in scoring position, he's ready to ride from the jump. He's a tough guy to pitch against."
Mauer can still line a 100-mph Aroldis Chapman fastball, lefty-lefty, for a clean hit the other way, like he did in his lone plate appearance against the fireballer last season. He can spit on your out pitch, like he did with Danny Salazar's changeup on April 17, and on the next pitch lace a knee-high, outside-corner two-seamer into left field. Mauer can hammer a 95-mph fastball at his letters out to left-center for a walk-off home run, like he did against the Red Sox on May 5.
Statcast™ helps highlight Mauer's ability to translate discipline into hard contact. Mauer is well within the top 10 percent of MLB hitters in hard-hit balls -- he's hit 53 balls 95-plus mph, as many as hitters like Nolan Arenado, Evan Longoria or teammate Miguel Sano.
But he's done so on far fewer swings. Mauer has swung 214 times, compared to, for example, 336 for Sano. Among qualified hitters, only Brett Gardner has offered at pitches at a lower rate than Mauer's 34.1 percent. Mauer will hit you because he outwaits you, and he doesn't miss.
Mauer has whiffed on just 8.4 percent of his swings in 2017, another personal low and behind only Jonathan Lucroy among hitters with 100 or more swings. Throw him a strike, and he's virtually guaranteed to make contact -- he has on 97.5 percent of swings, most of any hitter with 50 swings at pitches in the zone.
"I think his discipline helps his contact, and the reason he has discipline is because he trusts he can see the ball a long time," Molitor said. "You see young hitters on the converse side, they get sped up and don't recognize pitches. It's very rare when Joe expands too much, especially with two strikes. He trusts that he can get the bat on the ball."
Statcast™, using a player's combinations of exit velocity and launch angle, generates an expected Weighted On-base Average. Mauer's estimated 2017 wOBA is a strong .368, well above his actual wOBA of .317. That 51-point gap is 10th-largest in baseball. Mauer, it indicates, may be hitting better than he has to show for it.
"I don't even pay attention to his numbers," Duffy said. "He's so locked in on every pitch."
One reason behind the discrepancy is likely that Mauer, with his line-drive, opposite-field swing, does not elevate the ball much, and hard grounders are often outs. But his average launch angle has near-doubled from the first two seasons of the Statcast™ era: 3.8 degrees in 2015, 3.7 degrees in 2016, 7.3 degrees this season. It's a good sign on top of the contact quality and swing selection that are quintessentially Mauer.
"I'm just trying to have good at-bats," Mauer said. "I don't think much has changed."
David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler. MLB.com associate reporter Mandy Bell contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.