No one questions Joe Mauer‘s ability to hit. One of the best young players in the game, the 24-year-old Mauer finished the 2006 season with a .347 average, becoming the first catcher ever to win an American League batting title. Among the tallest regular backstops in baseball history at 6’5″, the Twins standout does face questions about his power numbers and whether he’ll remain a catcher deep into his career. Mauer was out of action for five weeks with a strained quadriceps muscle earlier this season, but is hitting .302/396/.455 with four home runs.
David talked to Mauer about quality at-bats, his home run production, and his future behind the plate.
David Laurila: When you look at your offensive statistics, which are the most important to you?
Joe Mauer: I’m not a big numbers guy outside of win-loss, but offensively it would probably be on-base percentage. I’m hitting in the third spot, and the middle of our order is pretty good with Cuddyer, Hunter, and Morneau behind me, so if I get on base one of them will probably drive me in. Baseball is a numbers game, and that might be the most underappreciated one.
DL: How would you describe a quality at-bat?
JM: Seeing a lot of pitches, fighting bad pitches off–basically, just waiting for a pitch you can handle. Whether you’re a power guy, or more of a slap hitter guy, if you find a pitch you’re comfortable in handling, that’s a quality at-bat. If you get on base or drive a ball up the gap, you pretty much know you had a good plate appearance. But it’s mostly about making sure you get your pitch.
DL: Are you big on charts and video, or are you more of a see-it-and-hit-it guy?
JM: I’m more of a visual learner. There are a lot of guys who rely on those things, but the only time I really look at video is when I’m struggling.
DL: What are you typically looking for with video?
JM: Mostly little things. Being a catcher, there are times I go up to hit where I’m a little tired, and I tend to lean out over the plate–I’m bending down a bit. Little things like that can throw everything off, so that’s one thing I look at. I look at my front foot to see if it’s getting down on time or not. I look to see if my hands are still.
DL: What about charts? Do you like knowing a pitcher’s tendencies?
JM: I’ll look at them a little bit. That’s another thing–it seems like when I’m going bad, I’m guessing on pitches a lot. I like to go up there with a pretty good idea of what the pitcher wants to do to me, but I try not to put all my chips on the table, either.
DL: Because they spend so much time focusing on pitch selection, are catchers more susceptible to guessing?
JM: I guess that’s possible at times, yeah. On the pitch before, if I might have been cheating on a fastball, I’ll think an off-speed pitch might be coming next because it’s how I’d be thinking behind the plate. But, like I said, that’s usually when I’m not feeling too good at the plate.
DL: If you’re hitting in the late innings with your team down a run, is the at-bat any different than if you were ahead in the game? Does the hitter or the pitcher have more of an advantage in that situation?
JM: One thing about the game is that the pitcher always has the advantage, just because he has the ball. Successful hitters still fail seven times out of ten, and those odds aren’t very good. But there are different things that go into a situation. You’d like to think that you’re going to be the same every time you go up there, but we’re human, too. I remember last year, that last day, when I was going for the batting title. My first at-bat, there were a lot of nerves and emotions running, and I probably swung at some pitches I normally wouldn’t have. It almost felt like my first major league at-bat. After I got that out of the way I kind of settled down, but over 600 at-bats, or whatever you get in a season, they’re not going to all feel the same.
DL: Would you rather face a pitcher who is confident and comes right at you, or a guy who lacks confidence and maybe tries to pitch around you a little?
JM: The guy who’s not as confident tends to pick around the plate a bit, so he’s usually more susceptible to making a bad pitch. As a hitter, you want to face a guy who’s not as sure of himself, because he’s more likely to make a mistake than a guy who feels like he’s in control.
DL: What do you see when the ball is coming out of the pitcher’s hand?
JM: Well, right now it’s not that good! Everyone goes through slumps; it doesn’t matter how good of a hitter you are. I guess that what separates the good hitters is how fast they get out of them. As for what I see, when you’re going well at the plate you see the rotation, and it almost seems like the ball is coming at you in slow motion. The hitting background and the balls themselves–how they were rubbed up–are part of it, but it really depends on how I’m feeling.
DL: How differently do you see the ball out of the pitcher’s hand when you’re catching? Are you focusing on the release-point and spin in much the same way?
JM: When you’re catching, you know what’s coming, so you can anticipate where the ball is going to go. You know that a slider from a right-hander is going to break to your right. Do I see how it’s coming out of the pitcher’s hand? I try to, because part of a catcher’s job is to help his pitchers make adjustments. If he’s flying open, or not finishing a pitch, you can see that from behind the plate. You’re seeing more than just following the ball.
DL: If a certain pitch isn’t working well for someone on a given day, how much does that impact what you’re calling?
JM: We have Johan Santana, who’s probably been the best pitcher in baseball over the last three years, but it’s pretty rare for a pitcher to have full command of all of his pitches in a game–something we call a lights-out performance. Even Johan is more likely to have two of his pitches going really well rather than all three. It’s kind of like hitting, where you’re not going to go 4-for-4 every night. You’re not going to be perfect very often.
DL: Curveballs have a downward break because of spin. How would you describe the rotation of a split-finger pitch?
JM: Well, there are some guys who have a really good split-finger pitch. I’ve faced Roger Clemens once, and his split looked just like a fastball coming in, so it was hard to read. With some splitters you can see the seams better. We don’t have anyone on our staff who throws one, but from hitting against them they kind of tumble over–they have a tumbling action. A fastball has this kind of rotation, and a split is more the other way.
DL: How about recognizing a conventional changeup, like a circle-change?
JM: When I’m seeing the ball really well, I’ll sometimes notice the pitcher turn his hand over. You know, on a fastball he’ll stay behind it and on a changeup he’ll kind of turn his hand over… With some guys it’s easier to see that, while with others it’s not.
DL: In March 2004, BP’s Joe Sheehan wrote, “If Mauer’s bat develops as his proponents expect, he’s not going to remain a catcher deep into his career.” Do you agree with that?
JM: I don’t know. I love catching, and hope to do it as long as I can, but if switching positions means that I can add years to my career, I’m all for that. I want to stay behind the plate as much as I can, though. I think I can be a great catcher for some time.
DL: From a statistical analysis standpoint, your value to the team would decrease if you moved to first base or left field and put up the same numbers. What are your thoughts on that?
JM: I think the demands of the position have something to do with it. Both physically and mentally, catching wears on you. Let’s say you take a Pudge Rodriguez and put him at first or third for his whole career–I’d bet you that his offensive numbers would go up. So I think it’s just the nature of the position. With me behind the plate, I think our team is better as a whole.
DL: When you look at your home run numbers, what do you see?
JM: Well, I think I can definitely improve upon them. As a player, I’m always trying to get better, and I think I will get better in that area. Still, I’m not losing any sleep over it.
DL: How does a hitter go about improving his power numbers?
JM: It’s mostly just looking for the right pitch and being more consistent when you get it–sitting on a pitch and putting a good swing on it. Maybe getting a little stronger. Sometimes I kid around with my teammates that I always seem to find the deepest part of the ballpark. But I think it will come.
DL: Two word question: Tony Oliva?
JM: That’s a guy who could hit. It’s great for us to have someone like Tony around; he’s at every home game, and he’s always smiling, laughing, and you can always ask him for advice, and he’ll tell you exactly what he thinks.
DL: What type of advice does he offer?
JM: He’s more hands-on in spring training, and down there I’ll ask about how he used to go about doing certain things. One piece of advice is that when you’re not going well, you should simplify things and concentrate on hitting the ball up the middle. Stuff like that. He obviously knows a lot about hitting, so he’s a great resource.
DL: It’s often said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. What’s second?
JM: Well, I agree with you that that’s probably the hardest. What’s second? That’s a good question. I suppose there are a lot of guys who couldn’t play in the NBA or NFL. I’d say being an NFL quarterback would be pretty tough. There are so many things, from trying to read defenses, to trying to not get your head ripped off, to finding the right guy to get the ball to. Just the speed of the game, at the top of every profession, is what’s really tough. That goes for everything from tennis, to football, to baseball.
DL: Doug Mirabelli told me that 90 percent of catchers throw a knuckleball. Do you?
JM: I used to when I pitched. It’s more than just catchers, though; I think 90 percent of all players throw a knuckleball, just messing around on the side. Everybody thinks they have one, especially pitchers. But while they think they have one, Tim Wakefield is someone who really does. That’s why he throws one every game and they don’t.
DL: If the Twins let you pitch in a blowout someday, what will you throw?
JM: Hopefully it won’t come to that, but I’d probably just throw fastballs–fastballs on the outside corner. I’d mostly be trying to get out of there quick and not hurt myself.
DL: How often would you shake off the catcher?
JM: I probably wouldn’t, to be honest. It’s a different view on the mound than it is behind the plate, and while I’d see things out there, I’d just go with what he called for. You should always trust your catcher.