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What exactly is Joe Mauer up to?

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Our erstwhile hometown hero has radically altered his approach at the plate, but to what end?

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals
Joe Mauer is an old dog who’s learning some new tricks.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Joe Mauer walked twice Wednesday night against the Oakland Athletics.

Joe Mauer walking twice in a ball game shouldn’t be terribly noteworthy: entering Wednesday’s game, Mauer had walked more than once on 155 occasions since his 2004 debut for the Minnesota Twins. He walked twice in his first big-league game. Walking is the polite, passive-aggressive way to reach first base, and thus our erstwhile local hero embraces it — quietly and without wanting to make a whole goshdern production of it.

But Tuesday’s two-walk evening was Mauer’s first multi-walk game of the 2017 season — and in April, Mauer walked just five times, tying a career low for any month in which he played full time.

In April, Mauer also posted the third-longest BB-less streak of his career; Joe didn’t walk in 10 straight games from April 9 to April 20, one game short of his career-high 11-game walk-less streak, which he’s done twice in his 14-year career.

Entering Wednesday’s game, Mauer’s walk rate was 5.6%, a shockingly low number made all the more shocking by just how patient his teammates have been. Mauer’s never posted a single-digit walk rate in any healthy season. (Whether he can ever really be considered “healthy” again after his numerous concussions is a discussion for another day.)

Image via Fangraphs

But the drop in walks tells only half the story.

Joe Mauer has also stopped striking out.

Image via Fangraphs

Mauer entered Wednesday’s game with a career-best strikeout rate of 6.7%. He’s only had one season prior to 2017 with a single-digit K-rate, and it came in 2008 — remember back then? The world economy was crumbling, sure, but at least we could still count on ol’ Steady Joe.

Since his concussion, Mauer’s seen an uptick in strikeouts while his walk rate has remained strong. Last season, Mauer posted his second-highest career walk rate and his lowest strikeout rate post-concussion. The two numbers were getting close to meeting; Mauer’s BB/K ratio in 2016 was 0.85. This year, they’re just as close — through 22 games Joe has a 0.83 BB/K mark — but both have dropped precipitously.

Image via Fangraphs

In most major offensive categories, Mauer is off to a calamitous start to the ‘17 season. Through his first 22 games, Mauer is batting .226/.270/.310, giving him an OPS 36% worse than the league average and a value of -0.2 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference.

But the more interesting story than his general offensive ineptitude is Joe Mauer’s change in approach this year. Mauer has cut his strikeout and walk rates to the floor and is putting the ball in play more than ever. But is that a good thing?

Battling the BABIP gods

The Pioneer Press’s Mike Berardino tackled Mauer’s struggles from the “one-month-in” POV on Monday, and much of the article focused on Mauer and his teammates’ assertion that Joe is hitting the ball well and just waiting on the results to match the process.

“I’ve been feeling pretty good,” he said. “I just really haven’t had a whole lot of results here early. I think it’s just been frustrating because I’ve been making some good contact and just not having any results from it. That’s baseball. Hopefully that shifts soon. ... “I feel like I’m striking the ball pretty well,” he said. “You’ve got to try to stick with the process, and hopefully those results change.”

...

“I know his numbers don’t show it, but he’s swung the bat probably better than anyone has,” outfielder Robbie Grossman said.

As I wrote earlier this week and must reiterate every time we analyze “changes” this early in the season, we’ve still yet to see statistics like walk rate and strikeout rate stabilize. That will happen around the 150-200 plate-appearance mark, and we’re not there yet.

Contact rate stabilizes around 100 plate appearances, however, and we’re just about there. Mauer’s always been a contact hitter, as I’m sure some drunk knob has informed you at a Minnesota bar (or is it just me?), but he’s taken that contact-heavy approach to the extreme this season. Mauer boasts the highest contact rate and lowest swinging-strike rate in the majors thus far.

Both in and outside the zone, Mauer is making contact at career-high rates. (O-Contact% is outside, Z-Contact% is inside.)

Image via Fangraphs

Mauer’s uptick in contact rate has coincided with a massive drop in Batting Average on Balls in Play, which Berardino notes. Mauer’s BABIP of .234 is more than 100 points below his career average and about 70 points below where he’s resided the past two seasons.

Just over one month into the season, it would appear Mauer has had some rotten luck: Mauer has either barreled or made “solid contact” on eight balls that became outs, tied for fifth-highest in MLB so far, according to MLB’s Statcast data. The top of that leaderboard is a who’s-who of MLB mashers and hot-starters.

Image via Baseball Savant

This table would seem to augur well for Mauer; he’s clearly making hard contact and that hard contact has yet to translate into base hits, but that should all even out, right?

Well, click on Mauer’s name and the nature of those eight hard-hit outs emerges. You may sense a theme.

Image via Baseball Savant

Every one of Mauer’s well-struck outs was caught by either the left fielder or the center fielder.

Mauer’s batted-ball profile has changed drastically since last season, and through 22 games in 2017 it’s unlike any season he’s ever had: he’s hitting more fly balls than he ever has, and hitting fewer balls to right field than he ever has. (FB% & Pull%, respectively.)

Image via Fangraphs

In 2017, Mauer has settled into a more exaggerated version of his usual batted-ball profile: fly balls to left and center, ground balls to the right side.

Image via Baseball Savant

The above image goes some way toward explaining why Mauer may be running afoul of the BABIP gods: it’s fairly easy to position your outfielders against him.

If we take a look at some of Mauer’s hard-hit outs from this season, we can get a better sense of this. (All data via Statcast.)

April 15, vs. Tigers RHP Jordan Zimmerman: 103.6 MPH Exit Velocity, 21.1-degree launch angle. Typical Batting Average on Batted-Ball Type: .867. Extra Base Hit%: 83%

April 12, vs. Tigers RHP Michael Fulmer: 101.5 MPH Exit Velocity, 19.6-degree launch angle. Typical BA on Batted-Ball Type: .701. XBH%: 64%

April 5 vs. Royals RHP Ian Kennedy: 102.5 MPH Exit Velocity, 18.9-degree launch angle. Typical BA on Ball Type: .672. XBH%: 63%

April 30 vs. Royals RHP Kelvin Herrera: 100.4 MPH Exit Velocity, 24.6-degree launch angle. Typical BA on Ball Type: .653. XBH%: 65%

April 6 vs. Royals RHP Jason Hammel: 101.4 MPH Exit Velocity, 21.6-degree launch angle. Typical BA on Ball Type: .651. XBH%: 63%

April 15 vs. White Sox LHP Jose Quintana: 100.9 MPH Exit Velocity, 21.8-degree launch angle. Typical BA on Ball Type: .651. XBH: 64%

These are the six outs Mauer’s hit into this year with an Expected Batting Average over .600; these were all smoked.

And, as you may have noticed, out of these six only the liner off Herrera that Alex Gordon tracked down in the left field corner would be considered a difficult catch. In a few of these, the outfielder looks downright tickled to be catching baseballs while remaining relatively stationary, and I can’t say I blame them.

All six of these — and all eight of Mauer’s hard-hit outs in 2017 — also came against divisional opponents, who know Joe Mauer’s fly ball proclivities intimately. If Joe Mauer is going to hit more balls in the air to left and center, you can bet that the AL Central will be ready for it.

Joe Mauer is making more contact than ever, and the majority of those balls in play are heading to center and left in the air — many of them hit hard. Mauer’s BABIP is bound to come up as more of his batted balls find gaps and holes.

But, at least in the outfield, those gaps and holes seem smaller than ever. Mauer is operating in some highly contested air space.

In 2017, Mauer’s approach has been to make more contact and hope for some mercy from the BABIP gods. But if his opponents consistently know where the ball’s going, Mauer may need more than mercy. Joe may need some divine intervention.