The Minnesota Twins have won the first three games against the Chicago White Sox in this four game series and what do you know, Joe Mauer has played a big role in those victories. This entire season Mauer has taken a ton of criticism because of career low numbers and many in the fan base are up in arms about it. He’s hitting .257/.332/.336 and his average is even worse with runners in scoring position, leaving runners on base all over the place. Perhaps adding to the ire against him, his OBP actually goes up with RISP to .382, suggesting a willingness to take a walk and passing the responsibility onto the next guy. Mauer’s approach at the plate has generally always been harped on but now that the results have slumped and dried up, every other fan has an idea as to where Mauer should be hitting or playing and not too many of them are positive.
At the end of May, Parker Hageman at Twins Daily wrote a great piece about Mauer’s struggles and attributed a good deal of them to the defensive shifts that opposing defenses have started using. Usually a defensive shift means a field-wide placement further left or right than normal to combat pull hitters. But teams are strongly shifting their outfields to the opposite field for Mauer, where most of Mauer’s power comes from and it has worked like crazy. Striking out at an 8% higher rate than career average (20.5% to 12.8%) certainly doesn’t help his stats and falls squarely on his shoulders but Mauer is still stinging the ball without the rewards. His 2014 line drive rate of 28% is almost five points higher than his career rate but his hits are finding gloves way more often. To say Mauer’s 2014 season is a victim of shifts is too strong of language because his peripheral stats are sagging as well but he is definitely getting hurt by the evolving shifts against him.
Hageman’s article and news from the clubhouse suggested that Mauer was tinkering with his approach to adjust to the shift by trying to pull the ball more often. Those changes, if he stayed true to them, only helped him to a worse June than May. But through these three games against the Sox he is 4-12 with 4 RBIs and has had a breakthrough of sorts, knocking in key runs in the process. The thing with his big hits though is that they have still all been to left field. His RBI single in Thursday’s game dropped right in front of the left fielder, his RBI double later in that game lined past the 3rd basemen, his RBI double in Saturday’s game went off of the top of the left field wall. People will say it’s good to see Joe hit the ball with authority the other way again but he has been doing that all year. Mauer didn’t find success suddenly by going around the shift but by going head on right through it.
Challenging a shift is a hard game to play but messing with an approach that deserves Hall of Fame attention could be even harder. Mauer will likely continue to go with what the pitcher gives him and all the team can hope for is balls that fall in the increasingly small cracks that the outfield gives him. Hopefully Joe can heat up as the summer does as well.