The Mauer We Don’t See
By way of introduction, I wanted to say thanks to Dave for trying this little experiment where he will post once a week on the Brock and Salk blog, and I’ll post as often as I can here. I am a huge fan of this blog, although I don’t always agree with everything on it. That’s the way it’s supposed to be!
Though I thoroughly enjoyed Moneyball, I won’t pretend to have a complete (or even incomplete) understanding of sabermetrics nor will I fool around with anything more complicated than OPS, WAR, or UZR. But I hope to offer some thoughts that show the way baseball players see the game – or at least what I can discern by talking to them in the clubhouse.
I returned to the Mariners’ clubhouse after a recent vacation and started to catch up with Josh Wilson (one of the nicest, most normal baseball players you will ever meet). I thought things seemed quiet after a tumultuous couple of weeks before I had left. Let’s make some news today, I told him.
“The Twins are in town,” he said dryly. “So if Joe Mauer doesn’t get 10 hits this week, that will be about the biggest news you could imagine!”
I’m not sure if Mauer is the best player in baseball. You could probably make a case for
Albert Pujols, Evan Longoria, Alex Rodriguez, and a few others. But the guy I hear other players mention with the most reverence is Mauer.
And the reasons why range from his hands to his head to his swing to his words.
I first found out about the players’ obsession with Mauer while watching him hit against Justin Verlander in a meaningful double-header late last year. Verlander threw a 97-mph fastball up and in and Mauer turned on it down the line for a double. OK, I thought, that’s a normal double…
Well, not to the players watching in the clubhouse. Ryan Langerhans, Rob Johnson, Matt Tuiasosopo and a few others started hooting and hollering like someone had just hit a 550 foot home run. When I asked why, they explained that it was nearly impossible to keep that ball fair. They said that 99% of players would either break their bat, hit that pitch foul or, at BEST, fist it into the outfield. But Mauer had the bat speed and power to actually drive it with authority. That’s when I found out that Mauer was truly special.
Jason Vargas found out on Tuesday.
Yeah, he already knew that pitching to Mauer was a difficult proposition and yeah, it was Vargas who had snare a line drive marked for his face in order to avoid serious injury. But while he was impressed with Mauer’s hitting, he was more impressed with what happened after. Mike Sweeney flew out to lead off the next inning. When he came back to the dugout, he delivered a message to Vargas. According to Sweeney, Mauer told him, “I would have loved to get a hit, but I would much rather have seen him catch that ball!” All class.
And that class translates into leadership on the field. Many fans want their players (or managers) to show fire, feeling and emotion. When they are upset at what is happening on the field, they want to know that every player is equally as upset. And while guys like Paul O’Neil and Kevin Youkilis do exist, the vast majority of ballplayers learn to control their emotions because failing seven times out of 10 can be exhausting!
“Mauer is just a calm presence,” says fellow backstop Rob Johnson. “He has an air about him which some guys can fake but his seems real. It’s convincing.”
Of course, it’s his hitting that deserves the most attention. And while many players might mention bat speed, plate discipline or sheer power, it seems to be what Mauer doesn’t do which impresses his peers.
“He is never off-balance,” says Vargas. “He just lets the ball come to him and so he’s never fooled.”
Of course, if a batter is never fooled, it’s tough to craft an approach against him. Where do you throw it if you can’t fake him into swinging at bad pitches and he hits “pitchers’ pitches” like the one from Verlander? You start to see how a guy can hit .365 with an OPS of 1.031 in 2009.
And apparently, his ability to stay in control of an at bat starts with his hands.
“His hands are just very quiet and that keeps the rest of him relaxed,” says reliever Shawn Kelley who faced him for the first time this week. “There is not much movement and it seems like he just waits for the ball to come to him. He is comfortable but still aggressive in the strike zone.”
It seems as though comfort is at the heart of the Mauer legend. Whether it’s keeping his hands still or his emotions in check, it’s the calmness (combined with talent) that seems to impress his peers the most. Amazing, considering the explosion that occurs when his bat his the ball.
The funny thing is, as I read these quotes, I’m realizing that they don’t quite do justice to the reverence in their voices. Yeah, the words and descriptions are telling, but you need to see the look on the players’ faces when they’re talking. They get that expression that you or I might have when we’re talking about our favorite player from childhood. That awe-inspired, excited gleam in the eyes…