Joe Mauer kills the Royals. Just absolutely kills us with his bat. Every time he gets up there I know he’s going to get a hit or hit the ball hard. And it drives me crazy because I know we can’t stop him no matter what we do. I want to examine how he does this.
Mauer seems to be a constant hitting machine. He has an MVP award, he hits for power, he hits for average, and he hits to all fields. What really sticks out to me when I watch Mauer play is his approach to hitting the baseball. It is what every dad should teach his son or daughter, what every coach should teach his players. It is what the baseball gods think of when they dream. It’s perfect.
The first thing about Mauer is he knows what he can do as a hitter. This is vital to the success of any hitter. If I know the pitches I can handle and what I can realistically expect to do with that pitch, I will be much more successful than if I think I can hit every pitch out of the yard or every pitch whenever I want. A hitter has to understand what his game is, and a lot of times, hitters are held back because they do not know what their game is or they think their game is something that it is not. If you watch any high school game, you will see probably at least half the players on the field trying to do something they are incapable of doing with the bat. Usually that mistake is hitting for power. But chicks dig the long ball. But coaches dig on base percentage, moving runners, and hitting the ball hard.
The biggest thing about this is what you are looking for in each count. If it’s the first pitch of the at bat and we aren’t in a take situation, I’m looking one location, one pitch. I’m not swinging out of my shoes because I know that I can hit this particular location and pitch hard with my normal swing. Any time I’m ahead in the count, I tighten the pitch selection of what I am looking for. Any time I am behind in the count, I have to expand that zone. So if I get behind in a count, I have to know that I’m not going to swing at a pitch on an edge. I’m looking for a pitch in the strike zone about 2 inches in from each edge and at a level I’m comfortable hitting. I’m not going to swing at a pitch on the black on my knees or a pitch just above my hands. If I get down and I’ve got two strikes on me, I’m now expanding the zone two inches all the way around. I can not rely on an umpire in this situation, I have to rely on myself as a hitter. And Joe is capable of this. And he practices it.
The second thing is very similar to the first. This is following that understanding in your mind and acting upon it. Mauer does not try to do more than he is capable. It’s one thing to mentally have a grip on this, but it is another to get in the box and have the self-control to follow the mentality. A lot of times you see a hitter’s eyes light up and he tries to crush the pitch, but this usually creates bad mechanics in the swing because of tension and the hitter hits a fly ball or groundball. Self-control is not pulling the fastball away on the knees and grounding out to short.
Pitchers are taught to let a hitter get himself out in three pitches or less. They do this by getting ahead in the count, changing speeds, and then pitching on the edges of the plate. Most of the time, a hitter will lose track of his approach at the plate and chase anything that is close to the plate and will hit something moderately or weakly somewhere. As a pitcher, I love to see guys chasing and forgetting their approach on a one strike pitch. But Mauer does not do this, he just stays honed in and hits.
The third thing Mauer does is he rarely over swings. If you give Joe a pitch on the middle in, he’ll have a more powerful attack on the ball, but he will not spin himself into the ground or fly open. Mauer will look to hit that ball out of the yard, but not at the expense of losing his swing mechanics. This goes hand in hand with the two things above, having an approach and sticking to it. Hitters generally think they can develop more power by swinging harder, when in fact, you create tension and lose some bat speed. The human body is always faster and in this case more efficient, when it stays in a relaxed state. The doesn’t mean your swing is limp and wimpy, it means you are powerful to the ball but relaxed as you do it. It’s something you develop when you hit on a T, when you hit soft toss, or hit in a cage. You learn to accelerate the relaxed body into a position of power. Your muscles will tense as they fire, but do not allow yourself to squeeze with your hands. One trick is to flex your abdominal muscles hard before the swing takes place and this makes your mind focus on firing the muscles in your core, allowing the hands and forearms to relax. It works for pitchers as well.
The fourth thing is balance. I don’t think I can name you more than two or three times that I’ve ever seen Mauer off balance in his swing. I might not even be able to tell you one time. It’s not that Mauer isn’t fooled by a very good change from a RHP or a tight slider from a LHP, it’s that when he is fooled, he still is balanced enough to foul that pitch off or slap it the opposite way for a single. Joe understands the concept of waiting for something you can hit.
You put all these things together, and I’m blown away by Joe Mauer’s ability to hit. Perhaps most by his ability to just take what you give him, and be patient and controlled enough to be happy with the result. If you pitch Joe inside, he’s going to hit it for power into right field. If you pitch Joe down the middle of the plate, he’s going to drive something back into one of the alleys. If you pitch Joe away, he’ll just slap it into left field for a single and be completely content in trusting that his teammates will get the job done. And Mauer understands what the bat will do to the ball if it hits the sweet spot. The ball will be hit hard with very little effort. Watch Joe hit the fastball on the knees away into left field. There is no over swinging, and in fact, it looks like he takes a half swing sometimes. But he knows this is a base hit and he knows his team has a runner on first base now.
It’s what every hitter should be able to do. It is what should be taught to every player coming through high school or college. And whether they decide to follow that approach is up to them. But they and their team will have more success if they do follow the approach of Joe Mauer.