Joe Mauer has been one of the best hitters in the game for years. He owns a career .321 batting average and has walked more than he has struck out each year since 2006. His remarkable bat control has made him one of the game’s most valuable players, but questions about his lack of power have always followed him. Listed at 6’5 and 230 pounds, Mauer has the frame of a guy who should be able to drive the ball, but he’s never hit more than 13 home runs in a season. A compact, level swing and an opposite field approach have led him to develop into a really good singles hitter with gap power – until this year, anyway.
Since returning from the disabled list, Mauer has slugged eight home runs in 86 plate appearances. His next home run will tie his 2008 season total, and he’s 547 plate appearances away from matching his opportunities from last year. When you see a 26-year-old show a huge power spike like this, the natural assumption is that he’s finally learned to turn on the ball, and is starting to tap into his natural pull power.
The problem, however, is that it’s not true. Here’s his home run chart for 2009, via Hit Tracker Online:
Of the seven home runs that Hit Tracker has the data for (they’re still working on last night’s shot, I’m sure), five of them have been to the opposite field and two have been to dead center. The grand slam he hit yesterday against the White Sox was to nearly the same spot where he has hit all his other home runs. He has yet to pull the ball over the wall this season.
Now, opposite field home runs are great. Having a guy who can take a pitch on the outer half of the plate and deposit it over the wall drives pitchers nuts, and there’s no good way to pitch to a guy like Mauer. However, if we were looking for evidence that Mauer’s power surge in May has been caused by a significant shift in his abilities, we’d be more apt to give credence to the long ball barrage if it hadn’t been built on series of just enough shots to left center field.
Mauer’s a great hitter, and he’s having a great month. There’s probably some real power growth being displayed as he’s muscling balls over the wall in left field, but if he ever wants to be a 30+ home run guy, he’s going to have to pull the ball with some authority, and he’s not doing that right now.
I love Joe Mauer as a player, but if you were thinking that he’s showing signs of becoming one of the game’s elite sluggers, I don’t think it’s in the cards. He’s a fantastic hitter, but I wouldn’t count on seeing too many more months like this any time soon.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.