Sports outcomes are random. They are more random than we can possibly tolerate. They are so random that we are forced to tell stories to stitch them back together, to explain the randomness. What would be the point, after all, of watching people play games at a very high level if their skill wasn’t enough to banish the randomness?
Joe Mauer’s season contains too stark a contrast for us to endure the randomness in it. Right now, the random matter of his batting success has split his season in two, between a remarkable beginning and a grisly slump.
But I think his complete season will probably resemble a five-act play, not a black-and-white contrast.
Act One: He’s missing. He has surgery to relieve back problems stemming from a kidney blockage, and misses all of spring training and the first month of the season. His absence hangs over the Twins, and the team gets off to a mediocre start.
Act Two: He returns in the most triumphant fashion imaginable. Any rational fan reconciled himself to patience—Mauer couldn’t possibly have all his baseball powers fully at his fingers after such an absence. In fact, who knows how well he’ll bounce back from his back woes. But he starts May with a home run, and starts hitting for average and for power. We have never seen him look better.
Act Three: The power quietly leaks away. Mauer still hits some homers and beefy doubles, but he’s back to lacing liners into left. The swing is still shimmering, the average is still otherworldly. But that whole miracle of equaling his last year’s home run total in about one month is over.
And the glory of the average is hidden under a cloud. Missing the first month, Mauer doesn’t collect enough at bats to be in league lists until right before the All-Star break. He is at .400 for a time, but when he finally cracks the official tabulations, he’s in .380 territory.
Act Three ends with Mauer trudging off to the All-Star festivities with a cold he’s had trouble shaking and big expectations for his participation in the Home Run Derby. A week or so before, he’s treated to the Sports Illustrated cover curse—his .400 average has disappeared two days before the magazine hits the stands with a discussion of whether he’s the guy who can match Ted Williams’ feat.
Now we’re in Act Four. And what once was so startlingly easy for Mauer has become impossible. In the last game before the All-Star break, he struck out four times. He was 0-for-6 against Texas on Sunday, for the first time in his career.
His July batting average is .264, sucking his cumulative BA down to .353. After hitting better than anyone in any league at any time this season, he’s now parked behind Ichiro Suzuki. He’s struck out 11 times this month.
In tonight’s game against the A’s, through nine innings he has a strikeout and a hit. A single that advances a runner but leads to no runs. The kind of hit we fans are now looking at with our microscopes, picking it up in our tweezers to see this endangered species, Maueronomous Hittibus.
Yes, that’s how we dissect these things. We’re baseball fans, off on the sidelines, no more capable of hitting a single 90-mph pitch than we are of curing cancer. But we’re experts, and we’re desperate for meaning. Mauer’s problems are our problems, but at the exotic distance of problems we can blame on someone else. Joe! Joe!
We’re indignant, or cynical, or passionate with grief. But we’re not indifferent. It can’t be randomness. Not possible. You can’t do something beautifully for two months and then, suddenly, stop. You need magic, voodoo, superstition to break out of a slump. Because it couldn’t be random.
So now I’ll introduce some game narrative. The game was a 2-2 tie since the fourth inning. Dallas Braden started for the A’s and kept the Twins quiet but for a small outburst in the fourth, pitching seven strong innings. Anthony Swarzak started for the Twins and gave up 4 hits and 2 runs over seven innings.
We’re in the tenth. Mauer’s slump is still hanging over him, but with one out he gets a solid hit. And on Michael Cuddyer’s triple, he scores the tie-breaking run. Then in the bottom of the inning, Joe Nathan mows them down 1-2-3 to preserve the one-run lead for a Twins win.
What is a slump? It’s not merely and purely randomness. There is a massive psychological component to most slumps. Mauer’s cloud is of his own making, but he’s a distinctively well-integrated young man, from all we can tell watching him.
Remember Paul O’Neill, the Yankee right fielder who nearly exploded in fury when he struck out? Mauer is his baseball opposite. It’s reasonable to expect Mauer to work his way calmly out of this particular pit.
And while he does, none of us will be able to acknowledge the randomness of it. We literally can’t see such things. We see stories. We need stories. We have to explain the ability to hit precisely because it is a nearly inexplicable skill. Joe, I’m waiting for Act Five.