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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Joe Mauer and the Infamous 4-3 Putout

Joe Mauer 4-3 putouts: That's the
way he rolls
One of the more common Joe Mauer complaints in Twins Territory is that he grounds out to second base, and does it a lot. This phenomenon was on display last night in Anaheim, when Mauer was retired on a 4-3 putout in each of his three at-bats. And if you go back to his last plate appearance on April 29, before his day off against lefty C.J. Wilson, Mauer grounded into a 4-6-3 double play. That marks 4 straight at-bats in which Mauer has been retired on a grounder to second.

As we all know, everything with Mauer is viewed under a microscope -- some things fairly, and others unfairly. It's become common to bemoan these outs. On the one hand, a weak grounder to second base, repeated time after time, is frustrating output from your #3 hitter that you expect to hit the ball hard, and often in the air. On the other hand, though, we all know that Mauer's swing is best when he's hitting line drives and hard grounders, and many of these 4-3 putouts this season have been well struck -- it's just that they were within range of the second baseman. Some of this, too, is perception versus reality -- much like I noted last week with respect to Mauer's clutch hitting ability: some Twins fans are now on the lookout for Mauer groundouts to second base. In his brief time before he hit the disabled list in 2011, it seemed like grounding out to second was all that he did, so perhaps there's reason for the fan concern.

Let's see what the numbers suggest. For purposes of consistency, a ground out to second also includes an error charged to the second baseman on a Mauer grounder, as well as a fielder's choice grounder to second where Mauer reached, and of course a grounder to second that started a double play. Thanks to Fangraphs, I can tell you that Mauer has grounded out to second base 18 times in 99 plate appearances thus far in 2012. That corresponds to roughly 18.2 percent of the time. This season, Mauer has grounded out to second more often that he has lined out or flown out to left and center field, combined (13 times). Interestingly, Fangraphs indicates that Mauer hasn't once flown out or lined out to right field all season. Is that possible? The fact that the groundouts seem to come in bunches -- 4 in his past 4 plate appearances as I mentioned, 2 in a row on April 17 against CC Sabathia, and 2 in a row on April 18 against Hideki Kuroda -- certainly doesn't help Mauer's case with respect to fans' perception of the frequency of Mauer 4-3 plays.

For comparison, let's look first to Mauer's grounders to second in that brief period of time in 2011 before he was placed on the disabled list. Keep in mind when evaluating these numbers that he was suffering from bilateral leg weakness, and perhaps even Lyme's Disease and a broken heart. In 38 plate appearances, Mauer hit into the ol' 4-3 10 times, which translates into 26.3 percent. A smaller sample size, indeed, but if your perception was that Mauer was grounding out to second more frequently, you were correct. 3 of the groundouts also came in succession.

Now let's look at Mauer's 2009 MVP season. In 606 plate appearances in that historic season, Mauer grounded out to second 74 times, which corresponds to 12.2 percent. This number probably makes sense to you: my recollection of 2009 is that Mauer hit the ball in the air at a higher rate -- not just the home runs, but the doubles, as well.

So, after the first month of the 2012 season, Mauer, at 18.2 percent is roughly in-between his 2009 4-3 putout rate (12.2 percent), and his 2011 rate (26.3 percent) that he compiled while playing injured. The takeaway from these numbers is that, yes, a Joe Mauer groundout to second base has been a common occurrence in 2012, more prevalent than when Mauer was playing his best baseball. And it's probably always going to be the most common method of retiring Mauer. But even in 2009, Mauer was still hitting into the 4-3, or the 4-6-3, over 10 percent of the time. For 2012, if Mauer can start to turn into line drives just a few of those balls that are currently grounders, he'll see that batting average creep up, and the 4-3 percentage go down closer toward that 2009 figure. On the other hand, though, if that 18.2 percent suddenly hits 25 percent, I'm going to begin to wonder how Mauer's body is handling the grind of catching, and if his lower body is as strong as it should be.  

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