Throughout the last two weeks, Joe Mauer handled repetitive questions about his sudden burst of power without much illumination. Mauer’s 11 home runs in May are more than he hit all last season, and two short of his career-high 13 in 2006 — this after spending much of the winter recovering from kidney obstruction surgery, then missing all of spring training and the first month of the regular season with back problems.
The whole thing is counter-intuitive. The surgery kept Mauer, the two-time American League batting champion, from his usual off-season weight-training and conditioning. He said he isn’t any bigger, doesn’t feel any stronger and doubts his back is more flexible than before. His batting stance, his swing and his hitting approach have not changed. Mauer still peppers line drives to left and left-center and rarely pulls the ball with power, though his upper-deck homer to right May 24 at the Metrodome (estimated at 437 feet) shows he’s capable.
So how is Mauer generating the extra 10 to 15 feet of flight that turns warning-track outs into home runs?
Last Monday, Mauer told MinnPost that no one had yet asked him the toughest but most obvious question — whether the All-American Boy from St. Paul might have used steroids to compensate for his lack of winter work. Mauer seemed more amused than offended by the subject, and before the question could be put to him bluntly, offered this: “That’s something you never have to worry about with me.”
How to explain power surge
That still leaves Mauer’s surge to be explained. Twins strength and conditioning coach Perry Castellano thinks that Mauer, at 26, has finally grown into his 6-foot-5, 225-pound body.
“There’s a difference between biological and chronological age. Does a kid’s age match his body type?” said Castellano, who helps Mauer stretch out every day. “I don’t think he’s changed that much physically, but his body has gotten to the point where he’s more efficient with his power. That’s got to be part of the maturing factor.”
Fox Sports Net analyst Ron Coomer, who played nine seasons for the Twins, Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers and studied power hitters throughout his career, offered a more technical answer that makes the most sense.
As a field reporter, Coomer often watches from a perch near the third-base dugout at the Metrodome, the perfect angle to observe a left-handed hitter. Coomer said Mauer corrected a minor flaw in his weight shift that previously hindered his power.
In the Metrodome press box on Wednesday, Coomer assumed a left-handed stance and demonstrated what he called “weak-side drift” — a slight forward motion of Mauer’s right hip (the one facing the pitcher) just before the swing.
Mauer’s hand-eye coordination is so good that he could still hit line drives while his body drifted forward, Coomer said. But the wasted motion — no more than 4 to 6 inches, he said — made it harder for Mauer to whip the bat through the strike zone and drive the ball deep.
Tweak in batting stance boosts swing
Now, Coomer said, Mauer “loads up” his weight on his back leg like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Albert Belle used to, and his head remains in the same place throughout the swing, like a golfer’s. That makes Mauer’s swing slightly shorter and more direct to the ball, creating loft and distance without uppercutting.
“Now,” Coomer said, “the ball is jumping off his bat into left, instead of slicing toward the left-field line.”
You’ve seen the results. Mauer hit 10 homers in his first 22 games, the fastest catcher to reach double figures since Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Famer Roy Campanella slugged 10 in 21 games in 1953. Well before the last home stand wrapped up, Mauer broke Harmon Killebrew’s 1961 Twins record of 29 RBIs in May. Mauer’s 11 homers and 32 RBIs for May led Major League Baseball but fell short of Killebrew’s single-month marks for homers (14 in June 1969) and RBIs (37 in June 1964).
His .414 average for the month wasn’t a club record either; Rod Carew batted .486 in July 1977, the year he finished at .388. But at one point last week, Mauer was hitting over .500 against righthanded pitchers (now down to .493) and over .500 at the Metrodome (it dropped to .462 with Mauer’s 1-for-10 finish to the home stand).
Mauer’s hitting, and that spectacular dive-back tag of Brett Gardner at the plate at the new Yankee Stadium on May 17, added to his growing legacy. Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire agreed with certain New York sentiment that the Gardner play showed as much baseball smarts and instinct as Derek Jeter’s famous backhand flip in Game 3 of the 2001 American League Championship Series in Oakland. (Jeter drifted from the mound into first-base foul territory to grab right-fielder Shane Spencer’s overthrow and nail Jeremy Giambi at the plate.)
Gardenhire praised Mauer’s presence for remembering the runner at second, after Jose Mijares knocked down Francisco Cervelli’s comebacker with his glove and Mauer pump-faked to first. Unnoticed by most: Mauer, the former Cretin-Derham Hall quarterback, straight-armed the sliding Gardner in the chest with his bare hand to keep him off the plate.
High praise from All-Star catching colleague
“That was an impressive play,” said Red Sox captain Jason Varitek, the three-time All-Star catcher who called Mauer “probably the best at our position in the game right now.”
It’s not unrealistic to suggest Mauer’s value rises with each home run, especially if the Red Sox and Yankees seek to replace the aging Varitek and Jorge Posada, respectively, in 2011. Mauer’s four-year, $33 million extension runs out after next season, and the $12.5 million he is due in 2010 will trail only Justin Morneau’s $14 million on the Twins payroll.
Mauer said he and his agent, Ron Shapiro, have yet to hear from the Twins about a contract extension. That’s not surprising. Teams often see how players return from significant injuries before discussing multi-year deals, and it will take a lucrative one to keep Mauer in a Twins uniform.
Conjecture abounds regarding how lucrative. One former major-league executive told me Mauer merited “an A-Rod deal” and predicted he would leave Minnesota.
In 1998, it took the richest contract in major-league history at that time — $91 million over seven years — for the Mets to retain Mike Piazza, the best-hitting catcher in the game, a deal that included use of a luxury box at home and a hotel suite on the road. And that was for a catcher with a poor arm and questionable defensive skills. Mauer won his first Gold Glove last year. When Tampa Bay was here in April, manager Joe Maddon said Mauer’s presence alone shuts down a running game, like Pudge Rodriguez used to, unless the pitcher is slow to the plate.
“He makes you think differently,” Maddon said. “He’s the kind of guy who makes you want to hit runners (to advance them) instead of stealing a bag, and makes you want to game-plan accordingly.”
Twins position themselves for Mauer contract
The Twins positioned themselves to ante up for Mauer by committing to only three players beyond 2010 — Morneau (his deal runs through 2013), Joe Nathan (through 2011 with an option for 2012) and Scott Baker (through 2012 with a 2013 option). The Twins also hold 2011 options on Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Nick Punto.
Shapiro represented four Hall of Famers who spent their careers with one team: Kirby Puckett, Cal Ripken Jr., Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson. The first two played entirely in the free agent era. Puckett, of course, turned down a richer offer from the Red Sox after the 1992 season to remain in Minnesota. Mauer has never publicly indicated any wanderlust, and offered no hint of his thinking to MinnPost.
“I’m more focused right now about staying on the field, to tell you the truth,” Mauer said. “I’m not too worried about it. We’ll deal with it when the time comes.”
This may be an encouraging sign: Mauer’s down-to-earth, almost boyish sense of wonder about his fame remains intact. At his locker Wednesday, Mauer beamed as he autographed a photo for an entertainer more widely known for his love of soccer — Elton John.
“He’s a baseball fan,” Mauer said with a smile. “I had to sign ‘Sir Elton.’ I’ve never done that before.”