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Here's our 10 cent analysis of Joe Mauer this season:
*He started out the year with a slightly different approach after his move to first base, feeling as though he needed to hit for more pop. His swing got a little longer, he struck out more, and it threw him all out of whack.
*After about three weeks, he started to find a groove. From April 24-May 3, a span of 32 at bats, he hit .406 with a 1.005 OPS. That included a double and a home run to right field. After that May 3 game, he was hitting .298 and had an OBP of .396. He still wasn't hitting for a ton of power overall, but he was squaring up the ball.
*On May 4, he left a game with back problems. He didn't play again until May 10. Whether he came back too early or had his timing thrown off, he hasn't been the same since -- not even decent, which he at least had been before the back injury. From May 10 through Wednesday, he hit just .220 with just a .291 slugging percentage and a .570 OPS. Those are weak-hitting middle infielder numbers. The more you fail, the more failure gets in your head. He looked tense at the plate, and every game that went by without an RBI seemed to fester. Combine that with increasingly shifting defenses taking hits away and a notion that at age 31 with a concussion history Mauer might be losing even a fraction of his hand-eye coordination, and you have cause for alarm.
*But last night we saw something different: two trademark Mauer hits. The first was a looping single to left, a classic Tony Gwynn-like stroke off a left-handed pitcher that drove in a run and tied the Twins 2-2. The second was a well-struck double down the left field line -- a clutch hit to break that 2-2 tie in the eighth and propel the Twins to a 4-2 victory. His swing looked short and compact, but still authoritative. He wasn't trying to do anything other than hit like he always has.
In FSN's postgame interview, we saw an honest smile on Joe's face a few times. A smile will not help you go 2-for-4, but going 2-for-4 and contributing to a win will help you smile. When you feel good, you gain confidence.
It was the kind of game that could propel him into the kind of hot streak he had started shortly before being injured, and we're guessing it will.
Through seven innings in Wednesday afternoon's game against the Blue Jays, Joe Mauer was 2-for-3 with a walk. That's a .750 on-base percentage for the slumping Mauer, and if he could keep that up for the rest of the season he would be the MVP.
But most of us understand those numbers are what we call a "small sample size" -- a sometimes relevant set of data, but numbers that nonetheless can't be extrapolated to inform us of a trend.
In the larger context, Mauer is having a poor season. But his diminished output only represents about 5 percent of his career at-bats. Are these two-plus months of Mauer still a small sample size?
We asked the honest question on Twitter: when does a small sample size for a hitter magically become an adequate sample size? Because while most of us like to toss around the "small sample size" phrase these days, very few of us are actually well-versed in what it means.
Here is the ENTIRE SAMPLE SIZE of the responses to our second tweet:
The most consistent response to that and a previous tweet pointed us to Fangraphs, which has attempted to tackle this very question. A study suggests the following benchmarks "when certain statistics stabilize for individual hitters":
50 PA: Swing % 100 PA: Contact Rate 150 PA: Strikeout Rate, Line Drive Rate, Pitches/PA 200 PA: Walk Rate, Groundball Rate, GB/FB 250 PA: Flyball Rate 300 PA: Home Run Rate, HR/FB 500 PA: OBP, SLG, OPS, 1B Rate, Popup Rate 550 PA: ISO
In essence, the size of a relative sample is relative to what you're measuring. With someone like Josmil Pinto, with limited career at-bats, this is fairly cut and dried. With Mauer, though, it's still complicated. Do we choose to believe the greater sample -- more than 5,000 career plate appearances, which suggest Mauer is a very good hitter -- or the smaller but still relevant sample size from this season?
That's the crux of the Mauer debate.
We professed yesterday a disdain for any more Joe Mauer or Christian Ponder discussions, hoping to move on to bigger and better things. As such, let's acknowledge that Mauer has been struggling mightily during the Twins' May run-scoring swoon ... but so have other players, as well.
The upshot? Mauer's problems have hurt the offense, but he's not the only one. Let's go player-by-player through many of the rest of the Twins' regulars:
*Brian Dozier (leadoff): It's hard to be too critical of Dozier because overall he's having a very nice season and his dip is pretty recent. That said, he's just 4 for his last 31 with two walks in his past eight games. The Twins have scored just 16 runs in that span, going 2-6.
*Trevor Plouffe (normally bats third): Plouffe ended April batting .304 with an .887 OPS. In May, he's hit into some tough luck with a large handful of hard-hit outs. But he's also not squaring up the ball as much, and it's added up to a .198 average and .606 OPS this month
*Chris Colabello (often batted in a power spot, now in Rochester): From April 24 to May 23, the final month he was here before being sent to Class AAA after that scorching start, Colabello was 8 for 73 with a .164 slugging percentage.
*Chris Parmelee: He gave the Twins an early lift upon his recall from AAA with two big home runs, but since then he's just 2 for 27 with a .185 slugging percentage.
*Jason Kubel: From May 2 through yesterday, a span of four weeks, Kubel did not have an extra base hit or an RBI. He was 9 for 60 in that span, with a .150 slugging percentage.
*Kurt Suzuki: Like Dozier, Suzuki has been one of the Twins' most consistent performers much of the season. But even he has been fighting it lately, going 5 for his last 30 to drop his average from .322 to .291.
That's a good chunk of the lineup that has struggled for either the past 10 days or in some cases much longer. While Mauer could certainly take some of the pressure off them with a hot streak of his own, his cold bat hasn't been the Twins' only problem.
The prevailing sentiment through the offseason and spring training for the Twins was this: they should be somewhat improved this season because it's hard to be much worse than they were from 2011-13. That feeling was bolstered by a starting pitching staff that figured to be good enough to offset what looked to be a potentially historically bad offense.
Through the first 25 games, though, everything was twisted around. The offense was on fire, scoring six runs or more in nearly half those games (12). The starting pitching was mostly wretched, though, and the team wound up with a 12-13 record in that span.
These last 25 games, then, have been more like what we expected: brutal offense, generally decent-to-good starting pitching, and still that overall sense of improved play -- since they also went 12-13 in that chunk of games, including last night's 1-0 loss to Texas, and now sit at 24-26 through 50 this season. They have stayed afloat thanks to pitching and the fact that their last 10 wins have been by 1 or 2 runs.
The Twins have scored six runs or more just twice in their last 25; the offense has been particularly anemic lately, with 12 runs scored in the past seven games.
What will the next 25 bring? It's anyone's guess, but our hunch is this: similar work from the pitching staff, with perhaps even a little improvement (Ricky Nolasco won't be this bad, Kevin Correia should be marginally better, and Phil Hughes figures to drop a little). The offense will kick up a tick. But the close games will even out, and the Twins will find themselves just a shade below .500 again -- better than last year, for sure, even if it's still not good.
We wrote last week after Phil Hughes' most recent dominant start (at the time) about how successful he had been throwing mostly fastballs (mostly four-seamers), which had helped him work quickly, stay ahead in the count and keep a ridiculous string of walk-free innings together.
PitchFX data had him throwing, for the season, 70 percent four-seam fastballs.
Our one caveat came at the end of that post: wondering if teams would start getting more aggressive with him early in the count, forcing him to adjust.
The answer came Tuesday in Hughes' next start ... and he answered brilliantly.
Texas knocked him around for two runs on four hits in the first two innings at Target Field. One hit came on a first-pitch fastball. Another came on a second-pitch fastball. Donnie Murphy's sacrifice fly, which would have been a three-run homer if not for a great play by Aaron Hicks, came on a first-pitch cutter.
In all, Hughes threw 31 pitches in the first two innings: 26 four-seam fastballs, four cutters and one two-seam fastball. All but one pitch was at least 90 miles per hour.
Hard, hard, hard. It had been working for Hughes, but he didn't quite have the same command Tuesday and he was getting smacked around.
So he and Kurt Suzuki clearly shifted the game plan. Here are the pitch breakdowns, per MLB.com, for the next five innings:
Third inning: 9 pitches – 3 cutters, 3 two-seamers, 2 curves and a 4-seamer
Fourth inning: 14 pitches -- 7 cutters, 2 curves, 4 4-seamers, 1 2-seamer
Fifth inning: 10 pitches -- 5 cutters, 3 4-seamers, 2 curves
Sixth inning: 18 pitches -- 11 cutters, 6 4-seamers, 1 curve
Seventh inning: 16 pitches -- 7 4-seamers, 5 curves, 4 cutters
Totals for final 5 innings -- 67 pitches: 30 cutters, 21 4-seamers, 12 curves, 4 2-seamers.
PitchFX had him at 12 percent cutters for the season, with another 11 percent some sort of curve.
Those curves last night -- which Hughes throws a la Mike Mussina's knuckle-curve -- all floated in between 72 and 76 mph, keeping hitters off his hard stuff just enough. He threw them 18 percent of the time in those last five innings, higher than his season rate. Combined with a much different mix of hard stuff (only 31 percent of his pitches in the final five innings were four-seam fastballs, with 45 percent cutters and the handful of two-seam fastballs), it added up to just one run given up on four hits in innings 3-7 (and that run was a gift after Chris Parmelee and Eduardo Escobar botched a leadoff pop-up in the sixth).
And for the record, he still didn't walk anyone -- meaning he will not give up a walk in the entire month of May since his next start will be in June.
Hughes' ability to adjust on the fly was not only encouraging long-term, but also kept the Twins in a game that could have turned into a blowout and a fifth consecutive loss. Instead, he kept them close, they rallied in the ninth to win, and the outlook is much sunnier today than it otherwise would have been.
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