Lost in all the hoopla created by Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera’s run at the Triple Crown, and the various pennant races is the fact that Joe Mauer is having another amazing season. He currently leads all of baseball with a .414 OBP and has what feels like the quietest 141 wRC+ in baseball history. He is seeing more and more time at first base and DH these days (only 70 starts behind the plate this year), but that’s an amazing offensive effort regardless of position. It’s part of the reason why his performance on Wednesday afternoon is so noteworthy.
The 29-year-old Mauer has now played 1,059 games in his big league career, and on only six occasions has he struck out three (or more) times in a single game. Two of those six games came back in 2005, which was essentially his rookie season after the knee injury in 2004. Another came in 2007, another in 2009 (his only career four-strikeout game), and two this year. Ryan Dempster got him three times during interleague play back in July, and yesterday CC Sabathia struck him out in each of his first three at-bats. That’s not all: those three strikeouts came on nine total pitches.
Contact and knowledge of the strike zone is the name of Mauer’s game. He’s swung and missed at just 4.0% of the pitches he’s seen in his career, a rate than is less than half the league average. PITCHf/x data says he’s swung at 22.6% of the pitches he’s seen outside of the strike zone since 2007, which is roughly two-thirds of the league average. The guy doesn’t have a career 0.86 K/BB by accident, Mauer’s innate ability to get the bat on the ball and lay off pitches out of the zone are the elite skills that make him an elite player. Which is why three strikeouts on three pitches is so hard to believe.
Sabathia and Mauer are certainly familiar with each other thanks to the big left-hander’s time in the AL Central with the Indians, and in fact only two pitchers to have held the Twins’ franchise player to a lower OPS than the Yankees’ ace (min. 20 PA). That would be fellow lefties C.J. Wilson (.258 OPS in 24 PA) and former 21-game loser Mike Maroth (.364 OPS in 22 PA). Sabathia has held Mauer to a .436 OPS in 45 PA, and he’s struck him out 17 times. Justin Verlander has whiffed Mauer nine times, and no other pitcher has rung him up on strike three more than seven times. If you were going to put money on someone striking Mauer out three times in one game, Sabathia is as good a bet as any. He’s now done it twice, and only pitcher who can make that claim.
Anyway, let’s get back to yesterday’s game. Sabathia and catcher Chris Stewart used two different pitch sequences in Mauer’s three strikeouts. In first inning they started him off with 91 mph fastball right down the middle for a called strike, then busted him up-and-in with a 90 mph sinker. Sabathia missed his spot on the second pitch — Stewart set up down-and-in and Mauer fouled it off even though it was up and out of the zone. After the up-and-in fastball, the Yankees’ battery followed with a classic down-and-away slider, Sabathia’s moneymaker…
The Yankees pitched backwards in Mauer’s second at-bat, getting away with a high first pitch curveball and a high 92 mph fastball for called strikes one and two. The put-away pitch was another down-and-away slider for a swing-and-miss. Sabathia and Mauer went back to their first inning approach for the third strikeout, pouring a 93 mph fastball down the middle for a called first strike before following up with the down-and-in sinker. Sabathia located the pitch where Stewart intended this time and Mauer again fouled it off. They went back to the down-and-away slider well for the strikeout, but the left-hander missed his spot…
The slider sailed armside but still managed to catch the inside corner for the called strike three. You can kinda see Mauer start to lean out over the plate a bit in anticipation of another slider away, but Sabathia made a mistake and it worked anyway. That’s one of my favorite things about baseball. You can do everything right and still have nothing to show for it, or you can do something wrong and still get rewarded. It’s part of the randomness of the game and usually that stuff evens out over the course of the season.
Mauer didn’t screw around in his fourth at-bat against Sabathia, swinging at the first pitch fastball and grounding out to second. The nine pitches in the three strikeouts were broken down into four called strikes, three swinging strikes, and two foul balls. It was only the seventh time Mauer swung and missed three times in a single game this season and only the 24th time he’s done so since Opening Day 2008, the unofficial start of the PITCHf/x era and a span of 618 games started. He has 315 zero swing-and-miss games (not counting pinch-hitting appearances) during that time. That is kind of ridiculous.
You can make a very strong case that Mauer is the best pure left-handed hitter in the game today, a hitting marvel with off-the-charts hand-eye coordination and military-style plate discipline. Sabathia is one of the best left-handed pitchers of his generation and a guy who historically owns same-side hitters, but Mauer is no common lefty. Striking him out once is an accomplishment, striking him out thrice is a minor miracle, and striking him out thrice on nine total pitches is like … once in a career type stuff. Seriously, there’s a non-zero chance that Mauer will never strike out on three pitches in three consecutive plate appearances ever again. That’s a testament to his ungodly talent, but it goes to show that even the truly elite can have a rough day at the office.