Going Deep: Joe Mauer is Different

(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

Joe Mauer used to be cool. At his peak, Mauer was both a top defensive catcher and one of the best overall offensive players in the game. He won batting titles as a catcher, which had hardly been done. He won an MVP as a catcher, which had been done by just three players in league history. From 2006-13, Mauer accumulated the sixth-most position player WAR in the game. He achieved all this employing a peculiar profile. The years since have seen a precipitous decline, an Mauer may not be so cool anymore. But he is still doing peculiar things.

As seen in his batting titles, Mauer’s hitting is unlike most of his peers at his positions. He’s a bit of a plate discipline god, boasting elite BB/K ratios throughout his entire career. He hit 28 home runs in his MVP year, but has failed to hit more than 13 in any other season. Mauer has thrived on hitting line drives to the opposite field, rarely elevating fly balls and knocking a large number of his batted balls into the ground. He’s batted .307 for his career with a 12.8% strikeout rate and 12.1% walk rate. His 138 career long balls represent a career home run pace of 12.6 per 162 games. For a guy who has played catcher and first base, that profile is anomaly. Mauer is evidently strange.

I mentioned that Mauer has hardly hit fly balls in his career. He has even less of late, as his 21.7% fly ball rate is the eight-lowest across the last five years. I also mentioned that Mauer likes to use the opposite field. His 36.1% opposite field rate is the third-highest across the last five years. You can see how this adds up to nearly no power. Poking line drives the other way lends itself to the high batting average that he has demonstrated. It does not lend itself to lots of balls leaving the yard.

Jeff Sullivan wrote an article about DJ LeMahieu’s fly ball profile last season and how he faced a crazy shift against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Like Mauer, LeMahieu too sends a bunch of his air balls the opposite way. Here is the shift LeMahieu faced:

The left fielder is a hair shaded off dead center. And then there are two guys standing in right field. Absurd.

This article has always stuck in my mind when thinking about unique batted ball profiles. Mauer’s strangeness brought me right back to this article and got me thinking about shifts. With the career numbers I pointed too, it’s evident Mauer doesn’t have much pull power at all. Guys with little pull power aren’t going to pull very many fly balls. So an outfield shift would make sense. I discovered this shift employed by the Chicago White Sox against Mauer early last season (remember LeMahieu is a righty and Mauer is a lefty so shifts will be inverse):

The Sox left fielder is not even in the frame, and that’s right fielder Avisail Garcia playing right about where the left fielder was against LeMahieu. Mauer got an outfield shift nearly identical and just as absurd as the one played to LeMahieu. This shift confirmed the extremity of Mauer’s fly ball profile.

Most fly balls that are not home runs are not pulled, but their distribution rarely demands a shift of the outfielders. You have to be quite strange to garner a full outfield shift. There are outliers like LeMahieu who will face this shift. And then there is Mauer. Now, prepare yourself, here is Mauer’s fly ball spray chart the last five seasons, excluding home runs:

Right field is nearly entirely empty. In 263 non-home run fly balls, just four have managed to be pulled. Check out how Mauer’s fly ball tendencies in this time span compare to league average.

Fly Ball
Direction
Mauer League
Pull 1.5% 17.4%
Center 27.0% 41.1%
Oppo 71.5% 41.5%

1.5% of his fly balls have been pulled. That is the lowest in the league in these last five seasons, with Domingo Santana coming in at the second-lowest with a 1.9% rate. No one else is under 4.6%. Mauer has produced the strangest fly ball distribution in the entire league. He flew out to Aaron Judge in right field back on April 25th, here:

The last time he did that before then was April 27th, 2016. Mauer went nearly two years between fly outs to his pull side. Remarkable. This is just even more evidence to demonstrate how unique Mauer is as a player. How does a 6’5, 225 lb. catcher/first baseman hardly hit any home runs? How does he manage to demonstrate almost zero pull power? Yet still be one of the best players of a generation? Mauer transcended positional and physical norms and expectations. He rode his differences to an incredible run and is one of the most interesting players in the league. He’s weird. So pulling just four fly balls across five seasons fits right into who Mauer is.

Henry Still

Henry is from Houston and has contributed to the Fangraphs Community.

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