The Mauer We Don’t See

Mike Salk · June 4, 2010 at 8:25 am · Filed Under Mariners 

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…

So far in 2010, Mauer has a WAR of 1.6. He’s behind Brett Gardner, Andres Torres and David Eckstein. He’s 42nd in the league. But ask his peers, and Joe Mauer rises to the top.

Comments

36 Responses to “The Mauer We Don’t See”

  1. Mariner Melee on June 4th, 2010 8:36 am

    Great post Salk.

    It’s interesting, because sometimes we tend to get lost in the numbers and don’t really get to hear things like this. If a guy pulls the ball foul to most fans that is just a simple do over, not necessarily something to awe over.

    Glad you could offer a little insight to how players perceive other players.

  2. luckyscrubs on June 4th, 2010 8:45 am

    Welcome to the USS Mariner, Salk! Great first post and I look forward to reading many more.

  3. beef on June 4th, 2010 8:51 am

    agreed, excellent post.

  4. ThundaPC on June 4th, 2010 9:07 am

    I’m liking this deal already! Thanks for the insight, Salk! Welcome aboard!

  5. Jay R. on June 4th, 2010 9:08 am

    Thanks, Salk. Very interesting. Welcome!

  6. Jeff Sullivan on June 4th, 2010 9:23 am

    Great post.

  7. PositivePaul on June 4th, 2010 9:25 am

    So far in 2010, Mauer has a WAR of 1.6…

    Wait a second… I thought you weren’t going to ‘fool with anything complicated like UZR, WAR,…’

    So how’s Boston treating ya these days? Sheesh…

    (In case anyone thinks my feeble attempt at snark is serious – it isn’t. I just wanted to be the first to give you grief about something you posted on USSM so you’d feel more welcome ’round here ;-) .

    Glad to have your perspective here. Great stuff! Indeed Mauer is a fantastic player and seems to be a good human being. That he stayed in Minnesota instead of chasing the big bucks elsewhere (not that he wasn’t paid handsomely in Minny) shows that he does care a little more about little things in life.

  8. BrownL on June 4th, 2010 9:33 am

    This is a great idea, and I’m looking forward to further installments! I can’t help but smile thinking of professional baseball players going all fanboyish.

    If I had to nitpick a little bit, Salk, it’d be about the point you made about Mauer’s WAR. Catching defensive metrics are still a bit tricky, so his overall WAR probably doesn’t fully reflect his value.

    If you sort all players by their batting value (based on wOBA, adjusted for park factors), you’ll see that Mauer is hitting better than Gardner, Torres, and Eckstein, though only barely in the first two instances.

    Interestingly enough, Mauer’s actually only 55th in batting value according to Fangraphs, so I suppose the main point still holds true.

  9. MBK on June 4th, 2010 9:35 am

    Wait a second… I thought you weren’t going to ‘fool with anything complicated like UZR, WAR,…’

    “…nor will I fool around with anything more complicated than OPS, WAR, or UZR.”

    BTW – Great post Salk. I love reading things from an insider’s perspective.

  10. Jasper on June 4th, 2010 9:36 am

    Great piece Mike. You’ve set a high bar for your future posts.

  11. AssumedName on June 4th, 2010 9:37 am

    Hey man. Nice post.

  12. mlathrop3 on June 4th, 2010 9:51 am

    It’s always interesting to hear how players become fans in certain situations… Welcome to USSM

  13. Chris_From_Bothell on June 4th, 2010 9:54 am

    Fantastic insight! I love hearing about things like this. It gives us a great look into how these guys go about their work, without getting into gossip or breaking the unwritten codes about what is supposed to stay in the clubhouse.

    Makes me wish I could hear more comments during a broadcast like the bit about how difficult that Mauer double was. We get that sometimes from Blowers since he’s an ex-player, but it’s really neat to be able to admire how technically difficult or impressive a hit is. Especially since sometimes credit is given to a pitcher or a hitter by a broadcaster when that credit is not necessarily due to them… ;)

  14. MrGenre on June 4th, 2010 10:12 am

    Nice post, Salk. Keep these up (and keep Brock away from the keyboard), and I’m sure we’ll enjoy what you’ve got to contribute for many posts to come.

    Always nice to hear that insider perspective. And I won’t mention that I’m both impressed to hear about the reverence for that double and unimpressed to hear the three players who thought it was amazing. Granted, they’re all major leaguers, but that’s a debatable quality here at USSM. Looking forward to more posts in the future.

  15. Westside guy on June 4th, 2010 10:15 am

    A great post! Thank you for writing it – I look forward to your future contributions. I think seeing though your eyes will definitely help us better understand and enjoy the game.

  16. joser on June 4th, 2010 10:24 am

    Welcome, Salk! Looking forward to reading more of you here, particularly since you set the bar high with this first one.

    Mauer is a remarkable talent (as his contract suggests) and, as noted in the comments already, WAR doesn’t yet fully capture the defensive value of catchers (though it does award a significant positional adjustment), not to mention even less-quantifiable aspects like handling a pitching staff; it’s probably safe to say that Mauer is somewhat more valuable than David Eckstein no matter how great a season the latter might be having.

    Mauer’s remarkable ability to hit dingers anywhere and everywhere, and in particular his unusual (esp for a lefty) tendency to go to the opposite field, has been commented on elsewhere over the past couple of years. This article at Fangraphs has a nice visual representation of it vs other LH batters, and DriveLine Mechanics offers a lovely slo-mo capture of his swing.

  17. wallywwu on June 4th, 2010 10:32 am

    You the man Salk! On a side note – please never let Chris Egen take your place again. The week with him at the helm was brutal.

  18. Diehard on June 4th, 2010 10:55 am

    Hey man! You rock Salk even if you are from Boston!
    Mauer is an absolute stud and the Twins were smart to lock him up long term.

  19. Transient Gadfly on June 4th, 2010 11:09 am

    This post is totally awesome in every way. I nearly wept with joy to see it here.

  20. marc w on June 4th, 2010 11:30 am

    Great stuff, Salk.

  21. marc w on June 4th, 2010 11:33 am

    So…did Vargas or Kelley talk about how they attack a guy like Mauer? If you’ve seen him pull a 97MPH fb from Verlander down the line, what do they do?
    How aware are they of things like the hittracker data that joser posted, and what sorts of information do they use to gameplan a guy like that?

  22. Omerta on June 4th, 2010 12:02 pm

    Enjoyed this, please continue collaborating.

  23. robbbbbb on June 4th, 2010 12:12 pm

    “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?

    That sounds so much like Edgar, it’s not even funny. I can’t remember where I read it, but I recall a pitcher saying once, “If you pitch Edgar outside, he goes the other way and rifles it into right-center for a double. If you pitch him in, he’ll turn on it and hit it out of the park for a homer. Your best bet is to throw it right down the middle, and hope he gets confused.” (I’m working from memory. Assume this is paraphrased.)

    And that sounds just like Mauer, too. Placid confidence and ability.

    Good stuff, Mr. Salk. Please continue.

  24. spankystout on June 4th, 2010 12:16 pm

    Nice addition.
    Mauer reminds me of John Olerud. He has the Olerud zen mentality, and even the silky smooth lefty swing.

  25. killer_ewok18 on June 4th, 2010 12:22 pm

    Good stuff! I think only good things can come from diversifying the information on both this site and your own blog.

  26. Redheadedstepchild on June 4th, 2010 12:32 pm

    Although I am a M’s fan through and through, I have to give credit where it is due. Mauer is amongst THE TOP PLAYERS in baseball today. After reading this post it just makes that statement so much more solid. I gotta agree with spankystout (nice name btw) he’s got that mentality down pat. joser’s right too. Eck may be having a great season, but Mauer handles a pitching staff great. That’s a tool some catchers lack. Not Mauer.

  27. smb on June 4th, 2010 12:37 pm

    Great post, Salk…I think you have really nailed the spirit of this exchange.

    I would absolutely love a piece about the difference in yours and Dave’s job roles from your perspective, as in generic terms they sound like the same job (covering the team, providing analysis) but are at a closer look significantly different. There are some obvious trade-offs but I’m thinking you probably have some pretty unique insights, too.

    Obviously no one with any self respect would come here and trot out the old “bloggers aren’t real journalists” thing, so I’m not talking about the discussion of the two roles’ relative “legitimacy”, which we know is the eternal argument for people from both sides who prefer to argue above all else, but more about how working in an official capacity as you do, and being in a position to build relationships with actual players, coaches and team officials on a daily basis affects the way you cover the team and the type of service you provide to us in your job.

    So many of us read USSM and listen to KJR about equally for M’s related stuff. How is it different for you in terms of the themes you touch on in this initial post, as opposed to the sabremetric blogs’ comparative distance from the actual players, and how might it be, in your opinion, for them while working in a technically unofficial capacity? Pros and cons and all that.

  28. Milo on June 4th, 2010 12:45 pm

    Great insight Salk, it’s going to be fun reading you on USSM.
    Brock and Salk is the only sports radio show I listen to, always entertaining.

  29. Mathball on June 4th, 2010 1:56 pm

    The one thing I always think of with Joe Mauer, is that there isn’t a team in MLB, that doesn’t get alot better if you were to switch catchers straight across. Don’t know if you can say that about anybody else.

  30. Mid80sRighty on June 4th, 2010 2:11 pm

    Thanks for the words, Salk! Good stuff! Like others have said, it’s fun to read ‘insider’ stuff like this. This was just about on par with Drayer. ;)

    Oh, and don’t fall in love with Dave’s work on your blog…we’re not dumb enough to trade him for Sweeney. :)

  31. Carson on June 4th, 2010 2:18 pm

    This is great!

    Honestly, this is the stuff I’d like to see from our beat writer at the Times, but instead we get snarky fake round table interviews and stuff.

    I mean, this is really, really awesome. We might be sabernerds, but we love this game just as much as anyone else and it’s awesome to get insightful stuff like this instead of the same old boring clubhuose chemistry quotes.

  32. fiftyone on June 4th, 2010 3:05 pm

    Thanks Mike, good to have your insights here. And when you get comfy with WAR and UZR and OPS, I would suggest looking into two slightly better hitting and pitching stats: wOBA and xFIP. Not to bore your salks off, but the first metric is the best tool to evaluate hitters, and can be read like OBP, while the second is an improvement upon ERA and is made to look like it too.

    Please send more posts soon.

  33. Joeyjojo Jr Shabadoo on June 4th, 2010 3:41 pm

    Ugh, I feel like I’m covered in sap after all that gushing. These guys are ball players. Quick, someone get Derek Zumsteg to post an anti-Jim Street rant. I can’t take this much reverence.

  34. jefffrane on June 4th, 2010 4:32 pm

    spankystout on June 4th, 2010 12:16 pm

    Nice addition.
    Mauer reminds me of John Olerud. He has the Olerud zen mentality, and even the silky smooth lefty swing.

    The description of Mauer at bat reminded me exactly of John Olerud. I loved watching his at-bats because he didn’t fidget, twitch, adjust gloves, just sat there waiting for the pitch. Mauer is good enough that I enjoy watching him work, even when playing the M’s. I’m not crazy about the results, because they’re so often bad news, but still…

  35. Breadbaker on June 4th, 2010 4:43 pm

    And the good thing is that we kept Mauer and Morneau in check and won three out of four.

    I’m imagining that the difference in the amount of time the Mariners spent discussing how to pitch to and defend the Twins’ catcher compared o the time the Twins spent worrying about the Mariners’ catchers was infinite.

  36. Dutch on June 5th, 2010 11:40 am

    Salk, I’m a hen too! Look forward to more of your posts on the site.

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