COMMENTARY | The Minnesota Twins' Joe Mauer has been getting as good of results as ever, which I wrote about last month. However, his strikeout rate has jumped a lot this year, which is a concern for his future success.
Through the games of Sunday, June 9, Mauer was batting .332/.414/.498, and all three numbers are better than his career averages. In fact, Mauer's .498 slugging percentage would be the highest for a season since his Most Valuable Player season of 2009. He also is the current active leader in the major leagues in career batting average for players with at least 3,000 plate appearances.
With such good results so far, it seems silly to worry about his strikeout rate. However, it hasn't jumped just a little bit. In fact, if it were just about any other batter, it would be alarming.
Mauer has struck out 52 times in 261 plate appearances. This gives him a strikeout rate of 19.9 percent, which is right at the American League average. Prior to 2013, Mauer had a strikeout rate of 10.4 percent. Last year, he set a career high with a strikeout rate of 13.7 percent, but he still walked more than he struck out.
This year, Mauer has just 32 walks. This gives him a walk rate of 12.3 percent, which is right in line with his career rate of 12.2 percent.
Strikeouts Are Up Throughout Major League Baseball
At least part of Mauer's increase in strikeouts can be explained by an increase in strikeouts throughout the major leagues. There were more strikeouts last year than ever before, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and AL batters are striking out at a higher rate this year. In fact, the AL strikeout rate has steadily risen since 2005, the last time the rate was lower than the previous year.
Mauer also has the disadvantage of not facing his own team's strikeout rate. Twins pitchers have the lowest strikeout rate in the AL at 15.1 percent. This means Mauer is facing more pitchers with swing-and-miss stuff than ever before.
Despite this, Mauer's strikeout is a concern. This is because when a player's strikeout rate increases, it usually means that his bat speed is slowing down or he has a hole in his swing. However, that would usually show up in a decrease in the overall numbers, which isn't the case for Mauer.
When strikeouts increase and the batting average stays steady, as it has for Mauer, that means that more balls that are put in play are going for hits. Mauer's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) this year is a robust .409 while the AL average is .297.
This could indicate that a player is getting lucky with more weakly hit balls going for hits than you would expect. However, Mauer's career BABIP is .348 and he had a BABIP of .373 in his MVP year of 2009, so .409 is not really that unusual for him.
Minnesota Twins' Joe Mauer Has Career-High Line-Drive Rate
Mauer also has a line-drive rate of 28 percent, which is the highest of his career. The AL has a 21 percent line-drive rate, which also is Mauer's career percentage.
When he hits line drives, Mauer is batting .816 this year. The AL average on line drives is .699. So, Mauer might be avoiding some bad luck by getting more of his line drives to be hits than you would expect. However, Mauer is batting .747 on line drives in his career, so this again isn't such a big difference. Mauer just hits line drives harder than the average batter.
Mauer also has greatly reduced the number of ground balls he hits. His ratio of ground balls to fly balls is 0.82 this year. His career ratio is 1.03. So, it appears Mauer is replacing ground balls with strikeouts, which would explain his career-low double-play rate of 4 percent. In his career, Mauer has grounded into double plays in 13 percent of his opportunities.
Amazingly, Mauer is batting .299/.348/.410 with two strikes this year. Mauer is a .257/.312/.359 hitter with two strikes for his career. Somehow, he has gotten better with two strikes despite striking out more than ever. When Mauer doesn't strike out with two strikes this year, he is batting .467.
While it is difficult to imagine anyone to continue to hit like Mauer has this year, he's always been uniquely talented. That's why he has won more batting titles than any catcher in the history of the game. And that's why I don't see him slowing down anytime soon.
Darin McGilvra has been a professional sportswriter since 1997 and has been a Twins follower since Kirby Puckett's breakout season of 1986. He has been published in The Californian, a newspaper covering Riverside County, and numerous other websites.
Follow Darin on Twitter at @SoCalTwinsfan.
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