TORONTO – The mind can interfere with hitting. Even the mind of Joe Mauer, one of baseball’s great hitters.
The Twins star, a .320 lifetime hitter, leaned against a wall in the visitors’ clubhouse at Rogers Centre this week and talked about his uncharacteristic season. The increase in ground balls, the high strikeout total, the success of opponents’ defensive alignments against him, the times when he stings the ball without it resulting in a hit.
Mauer’s batting average is sitting at a career-low .263, to go with two home runs and 15 RBI through 58 games and 263 plate appearances. New Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki has nearly doubled Mauer’s RBI total, with 29. All of this in a season when the All-Star Game is at Target Field, and Mauer, a six-time All-Star, is serving as the game’s ambassador.
“I’m really frustrated,” said the 31-year-old Mauer, which is strong language for him. “Beyond that, I’m just trying to stay positive. It’s not like I’m just going out there having terrible at-bats. I’m not going to say that every at-bat out there I’m hitting balls on the screws, but a lot of times I’m not having things go my way.
“Everyone kind of goes through slumps. I think I’ve been around long enough to know that you stick with it and keep working and things will go your way. It just hasn’t happened yet.”
Mauer’s WAR — wins above replacement, a stat that attempts to measures a player’s full contributions to his team — was 5.3 last year, but a mere 0.5 so far this season, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Mauer’s struggles at the plate led to Twins manager Ron Gardenhire sitting his first baseman down Sunday at home against Houston, citing the three-time American League batting champion’s need for a mental break. One day later in Toronto, Mauer came to the plate with a man on, no outs in the eighth inning and the Twins trailing 4-2, and he tried to drop a bunt down the third-base line. Just like his season has gone, the ball rolled just foul, and Mauer eventually hit into a double play.
Mauer maintained he “probably” would have attempted the bunt even if things were going well. But it didn’t appear to be the move of someone brimming with self-confidence.
“I know his numbers aren’t great,” said Gardenhire, who indicated he is not interested in dropping Mauer in the batting order. “We’ve seen him smoking hot and make it look so easy that we are all spoiled rotten. This is just saying he’s a little human. The game is getting him a little bit, that’s all. There are people in the Hall of Fame who have had a rough year every once in a while.”
So many of Mauer’s batting numbers are uncharacteristic. Mauer’s ground ball rate is 54.6 percent, up from 46.9 last season. His fly ball rate is 19.1 percent, well down from 25.4 percent last season. Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky said that might stem from Mauer trying so hard to make contact that he has relied on his upper body too much.
“He’s got a gift, and he knows if he wants to get hits, he can swing all upper body, hands and eyes, and hit line drives,” Brunansky said. “I think he got caught up in that a little bit. He stops using his lower half a little bit.”
Mauer struck out a career-high 13.8 percent of his plate appearances in 2012, then broke that last year at 17.5. This year, is striking out 19 percent of the time, and he is on pace to have more than 100 strikeouts for the first time in his career. He said this year’s increase stems from taking a lot of called strike threes early in the season and overcompensating by expanding his strike zone or chasing pitches early in at-bats to stay out of two-strike counts.
Those are areas that his tried-and-true approach to hitting can win out in the end. Mauer is spending extra time in the batting cages with Brunansky.
“I know it’s weighing on his shoulders, psychologically,” Brunansky said. “It seems that what can go wrong is going wrong. But as far as mechanics of his swing and hands and contact, it is pretty solid.”
The age of increased defensive shifting hasn’t helped, and Mauer has seen a variety of them. Opposing teams frequently play Mauer to pull infield grounders but shift their outfielders to the left.
“I’m human,” Mauer said. “It’s frustrating when you square some balls up and guys who usually shouldn’t be in that spot are there.”
Brunansky is trying to help Mauer through that, too.
“You are having quality at-bats,” he said he has told Mauer. “You are hitting the ball hard. You can’t control the shifts. Don’t place it. Don’t think about having to hit, just go out there and continue to do what you are doing. Who you are is who you are and you are going to be there at the end.”
On Wednesday, Mauer had a flashback performance in a 7-2 Twins victory over the Blue Jays. After striking out in his first at-bat, dropping his season average to .253, he doubled to left in the third inning, singled to left-center in the fifth, walked in the seventh and singled to center in the ninth. All the hits were well-struck balls. He hit .107 over his previous seven games before Wednesday.
“We tried to get the ball,” Gardenhire quipped.
Mauer is moving forward. He is reminding himself that his track record shows that he will hit and that he shouldn’t make things worse by worrying about shifts or chasing pitches out of the strike zone.
“They say it eventually evens out,” Mauer said, “So someone is going to be in trouble.”