Today in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Kelsie Smith penned a nice piece raising the question that no one really wants to talk about in light of a certain, large, recently-signed contract: What’s going on with Joe Mauer? As Smith notes, the response in the Twins clubhouse is fairly uniform: Mauer is stinging the ball and tending to hit it right at people. As Ron Gardenhire put it:
“We could watch video and I could show you probably 25 balls that he’s lined out. I guarantee, most hitters, you might see 10. Mauer you’d see 25, maybe 30 balls where he’s lined out. Rockets hit at people. It all evens out; that’s what they say. Well, let me tell you, right now, Joe’s got about two weeks of base hits (coming) to even out.”
Anecdotally, this seemed entirely plausible to me, just judging from my own observations. As it turns out, the numbers do, in fact, back up Gardenhire’s claim. Over Mauer’s career, he has hit just under 23% of all balls in play as line drives. According to The Hardball Times, line drives typically fall in for base hits around 75% of the time – easily the highest percentage among line drives, fly balls and ground balls. For his career, Mauer’s batting average on all balls hit in play is .342. This year, so far, Mauer is posting a ridiculous line drive percentage of 27.3%, but his average on all balls in play has dropped to .327. So, despite stinging the ball at a ridiculously high rate – much higher than his career percentage – Mauer is seeing fewer batted balls go for hits. Gardenhire is right: Mauer is simply smashing the ball right at people at an absurdly frustrating rate.
Whether or not this means that we’re due to see “two weeks of base hits” is another matter. Defenses may be playing Mauer differently than in the past, meaning they’re in better position to handle his line drives. Furthermore, it’s rare that a player can sustain a 27% line drive rate. We may see Mauer’s line drive rate drop and his average on balls in play remain rather constant as a result. However, if he can keep hitting the ball as well as he has, there’s no doubt we’ll see that batting average and slugging percentage spike.