2014 was not a normal year for the two Joes. Both Joey Votto and Joe Mauer dealt with fallout from injuries, with Votto not having effective use of his lower half, and Mauer possibly dealing with lingering effects of a concussion sustained in 2013. For both players, the injuries affected overall production when they played, but it was especially acute in the power department for Votto. Joe Mauer, with the exception of one year in which his home run to fly ball ratio was off the charts, never had much power to begin with.
Both Joes still posted wRC+ numbers north of 100 in their playing time in 2014, because that’s what both Joes do, almost without fail. Votto and Mauer are some of the best contact hitters in the game, and that’s what we’re going to focus on today. Yes, they share other traits as well: they’re both 31, left-handed, and they walk a lot, with Votto being a particular master in that category. Maybe they both also have the same type of small dog, or are baritones.
However, by far the most unique shared trait between these two is that they never hit infield fly balls. By “never”, I’m talking about a colloquial form of never — the kind that finds itself in relation to the task of hitting baseballs thrown at high velocities by people who don’t want you to hit them well. Never has a hard time being absolute in that circumstance.
We know that Votto doesn’t hit infield fly balls: it’s been expertly covered a few times here before. He’s popped out in the infield four times in the past four years, exactly once a year. That’s amazing.
Joe Mauer has popped out in the infield twice in the past four years. Is that more amazing than Votto? At this level, the excellence is to a point that it’s hard to judge. But probably, yes, it’s a little more amazing. Between 2011 and 2014, Mauer compiled exactly 2,000 plate appearances, and in just two of them he made out an out to a player standing within the bounds of the infield dirt. Overall, Mauer didn’t have great years in 2011 and 2014 compared to what he usually produces, but that didn’t impact his IFFB%. For posterity, I think we must bear a quick witness to the rare two infield popups who made it into existence.
The first was in 2012, because Joe Mauer went all of 2011 without an infield fly. The fateful day was April 12th, 2012, against an 0-2 Dan Haren cutter with the bases loaded in the third inning:
Mauer took two questionable outside corner strikes to start the at-bat, fouled off another outside fastball, then Haren threw an inside cutter. Mauer did a very un-Mauer thing, taking a weak hack that produced his one and only infield popup of the 2012. On a better day, Joe might’ve fouled that pitch back, but it was the ninth game of the season — perhaps he was still finding his swing. Haren didn’t do as well with a cutter two innings later, and Mauer had his revenge:
The second Mauer infield fly was on May 8th, 2013, when he swung at a 1-2 Ryan Dempster splitter in the sixth inning:
Again, a poor swing, and more evidence that Joe Mauer may perhaps be a human. On a better day, he might get around on this one and line it to right field, as it’s a splitter that hangs up in the happy zone for a left handed hitter. Two innings later, Mauer did a bit better with an inside fastball:
Mauer didn’t have an infield fly ball in 2014, so we can wrap this particular part of the study up. For those keeping score at home, that’s two infield popups, then a home run, double, and four RBI’s in the two plate appearances following the popups. We knew by looking at the raw stats that Joe Mauer doesn’t like hitting infield fly balls, and we now know that he really doesn’t like hitting infield fly balls.
Votto and Mauer are, by far, the players who hit the fewest popups in the majors for the past few years. There are a few players that had a singular year in which they excelled at not popping out – Shin-Soo Choo, for instance, had zero such outs in 2014 – but for players that show a continuous, yearly skill at doing so, they are the only ones.
That got me thinking: is this just a talent these guys have? Is there a magic plate discipline approach that never yields infield fly balls that Votto and Mauer practice? Both of these hitters have great contact skills: we know that in part because they have above-average line drive rates. Beyond great contact, is there something more to it?
First, I’ll set this up by providing a table showing how many infield fly balls Votto and Mauer have hit over the past eight years. You’ll see that Votto really got great at avoiding them completely in 2010, while Mauer dropped his in 2011. Since then, well, they’ve both been pretty good about it:
|Year||Mauer IFFB||Votto IFFB|
Then I mapped their plate discipline statistics onto a line graph for those eight years and animated it to see whether there is any noticeable overlap or change corresponding to that table above. Let’s take a look:
Both hitters are off on their own for the first few years, with some tightening starting around 2008 and 2009. Then 2011 comes, and they get noticeably closer, followed by 2o12, when we see eerily similar rates for O-Swing%, Swing%, and Z-Contact%. By 2013 and 2014, Mauer and Votto have extremely similar plate discipline statistics. Is it a coincidence that two hitters who share such a unique skill — that of preventing infield fly balls — would have such strikingly similar plate discipline?
There isn’t an exact set of parameters for plate discipline that cuts out infield fly balls — it might be a part of it, but there’s too much that goes into hitting for that to be the case. Votto and Mauer are some of the finest contact hitters in baseball, and there are a million tiny traits that cause them to be that way. Plate discipline is one of them, and it doesn’t surprise me that they’re very similar in that way. What’s amazing is just how similar they are in some of the measures. In a way, you could even say Votto is Mauer, and Mauer is Votto.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.