Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Prescription: Rest, Dammit

Let’s try and diffuse this Mauertov cocktail a bit. This mix of a beloved icon, incredibly high expectations and a demanding and underachieving position can become highly explosive when you add the catalyst of questionable health.

That’s because there is no shortage of opinions. There are those who want him to move to a different position, which they guarantee will resolve any health issues. There are those to whom the thought of moving him out from behind the plate is ridiculous, negating a substantial amount of his vaue. There is also the faction who questions his toughness, because they expect their superstars to play every day. And, of course, there are those who just love him and sideburns, and want to stuff a gallon of Kemps whole milk into all the Negative Nellys’ pie hole.

These are all fun, and make for great column fodder. But I’m not feeling especially rhetorical tonight, and besides, I’ve wanted to study something for a while. Last year, I kept noticing that Mauer seemed to hit his home runs after a day of rest. It also seemed that Mauer’s offensive surge in the second half of last year coincided with a lot more rest. And of course his 2009 MVP season started with a month or rest.

So let’s try and take the rhetoric out of this. I’m not going to try and judge his perceived toughness or softness, or whether he should want to play more, or should play a different position. What I want to know is: does Mauer hit better when he’s been recently rested?

First, let’s see if I was right about those home runs last year. Mauer hit just nine home runs last year, so let’s take a look at each one and see how close they came to a day where he wasn’t playing catcher:

#1. at LAA– It was only two days into the season, so just two days from an off day for the whole team.

#2. at NYY – Three days earlier he had a day off. He had actually had quite a bit of time off, because he had been hurt, but didn’t go on the DL, and then seemingly rushed back from injury for the Yankees series.

#3. at PHL – The big ninth inning home run versus the Phillies. The whole team had the day off two days earlier.

#4 at TOR – The Twins had an off day the day before.

#5 at BLT – The day before Mauer had been the designated hitter.

#6 at KC – The day before, Mauer had a day off.

#7 at CLE – The day before, the Twins had the day off.

#8 vs CWS – Mauer’s first home run in Target Field came two days after the team had a day off.

#9 at CWS – Two days before this, Mauer had been given the day off.

First, let’s state the obvious: Mauer struggled to get home runs at Target Field, which isn’t too surprising since many of his dingers in 2009 cleared the right field fence. That’s a considerable challenge at the new ballpark.

But it also suggests that maybe there is something to this rest thing. Four of his home runs came the day after he was rested. Four more came two days after a break. One came three days later and none came four days after a break. Incidentally, Mauer played 22 games last year where he had played catcher four days in a row or more.

That’s a fun anecdotal analysis, but let’s take it a step further. If we look at his overall batting line, did he hit considerably better after a little rest? Let’s see:

Oh, right – you don’t like numbers. Let’s turn it into something a bit simpler:

Last year, Mauer’s batting average went down the more days in a row he caught, and it REALLY affected his power. If we want to get into some treacherous small sample size territory, we can carry it further:

Apparently Mauer is REALLY good after catching seven days in a row! Actually, Mauer only started four games where he had been catching seven or eight games, and in one of those he went 4 of 7, thus the spike at the end. But the rest of the line seems to further support the thesis: Mauer is quite a bit better when he is frequently rested.

This isn’t proof. Anyone who wanted to poke holes in this analysis would start with the fact that these are fairly small sample sizes, none greater than 40 games. They’ll get no argument from me that this is a long way from proving that Mauer needs his rest.

Instead, let’s take is as directional evidence. Last year, Joe Mauer hit quite a bit better and for a lot more power when he was frequently given a break from playing catcher. Whatever your blustery opinion on how he should be used in the future, it might pay to try that strategy going forward.