Which Joe Mauer Can We Expect in 2015?
Death. Taxes. Terrible records for Minnesota professional sports teams. Joe Mauer having an on-base percentage above .400.
Three of these things happened in 2014. Sure, the Minnesota Wild made it to the second round of the playoffs, and the Lynx were in the conference final (Maya Moore da gawd), but not a whole lot was cooking for the North Star State. That, surprisingly, included its $23-million first baseman.
Mauer battled through a strained oblique as he only appeared in 120 games. When he did play, he wasn't the Mauer we have come to expect. He hit for a .277/.361/.371 slash with a .322 weighted on-base average (wOBA). This for a guy who is a career .319/.401/.459 hitter.
Now, Mauer gets clean slate in his second year out from behind the plate. Which version of this three-time batting champion can we expect in 2015? Let's take a look.
Not His First Down Year
The discussion we are having now is essentially the same one many had after the 2011 season. In that year, Mauer had a slash of .287/.360/.368 with a .321 wOBA and three home runs in 333 plate appearances. No bueno.
A big part of his struggles was, similar to 2014, injuries. Mauer had arthroscopic knee surgery before the year, which led to a decreased workload during spring training, which led to every Minnesotan becoming acquainted with the phrase 'bilateral leg weakness.' It was, in essence, a nightmare year for Mauer.
The next season, he rebounded well. His slash shot up to .319/.416/.446 to go with a tasty .376 wOBA. That .416 on-base percentage was the highest mark in the American League. He even hit double-digit home runs for only the third time in his career, so you know the pee tests went off the heezy for him that off-season.
Mauer faces a similar task this year. He has had a full off-season to recover from his various ailments. The problem is that Mauer was in his age-29 season the last time he made a comeback; now he'll be 32 in April. But there are still reasons to believe we'll be talking about another bounce-back once October rolls around.
The Dreaded Concussion
Concussions aren't just for football and hockey, y'all. They pop up in baseball, too, and when they do, their effects can be brutal.
Mauer suffered his concussion in 2013, ending his season after 113 games and taking him permanently out from behind the plate. Then his vomit-inducing 2014 happened. This probably isn't a coincidence, and you don't even have to leave Mauer's own team to see evidence.
In their careers with the Twins, both Justin Morneau and Denard Span sustained concussions that curtailed their production for a significant period of time. In Morneau's case, he has never been the same hitter since.
Morneau's first major concussion occurred in 2010 at a time when he was hitting .345/.437/.618 with a .448 wOBA. He had recorded a wOBA of at least .370 three of the previous four seasons.
After the concussion, though, he didn't even have a wOBA above .330 again until he moved to Coors Field in 2014. Then it jumped back up to .373, but, again, Coors, bruh. It's safe to say Morneau will never be the same hitter he was prior to the concussion. While Morneau's concussion was more severe than Mauer's and he also sustained one the following year, this isn't encouraging for Mauer's outlook.
At the same time, Morneau did still show improvement several years after the concussions, even if it did take a significant amount of time. Mauer is now about 17 months removed from his most recent concussion. If he is finally back and done with its wickedness, then maybe 2015 is when Mauer makes his re-breakout.
Outside of injuries and age, there is one thing that could prevent Mauer from returning to his 2012 and 2013 form. That would be the rather drastic shift in his plate discipline numbers.
Swing Away, Joey
This is the one part of Mauer's game that started to change even before his concussions. From 2006 to 2012, there was only one season in which Mauer struck out more times than he walked. That was the bilateral leg weakness season, which as we've already discussed, is an outlier within Mauer's career.
This has not been the case for the past two seasons. In 2013, Mauer walked 12.0 percent of the time while striking out 17.5 percent. Last year, those numbers both shifted in the wrong direction with final tallies of 11.6 and 18.5 percent respectively. These are still pretty sweet totals, but they don't rival the marks that helped Mauer become one of the best offensive players in the game.
The interesting thing about this is that the strikeouts have been on the come-up for quite some time now. In 2010, Mauer finished with a strikeout percentage of 9.1 percent. This was awesome. Since then, that number has become progressively less awesome. His strikeout percentage has risen every year, going from 9.1 to 11.4 to 13.7 before his 17.5 and 18.5 percent finishes the past two years. His strikeout total has more than doubled since 2010. There's your reason for concern.
There are plenty of reasons this has happened, but the main two are an increased first strike percentage and a decreased contact percentage.
Anybody that has watched enough Joe Mauer knows that he doesn't swing at the first pitch. Ever. The problem is that pitchers know this, too, and they exploit the living crap out of it. Back in 2009, pitchers threw the first pitch in the zone 51.7 percent of the time with Mauer batting. In 2014, that number was 59.1 percent, which was above the league average of 58.5 percent.
Then there's the whiffs. So many whiffs. If we look back to 2010, Mauer made contact on 96 percent of the pitches at which he swung that were in the zone. That dropped down to 88.8 percent last year. Overall, his contact percentage dropped from 91.1 to 84.7 over that same span.
While the high numbers last year may have been partially due to the after-affects of the concussion, there is little reason to believe he will magically stop striking out again. Considering dude only struck out once in his entire high school career, that has to make you at least a little bit sad.
What the Projections Say
Heading into 2014, most projection systems ragged on Mauer's projected value following his move to first base. Then the actual season happened, and the computers looked brilliant. Funny how often that's the case.
For 2015, the projections are saying roughly the same thing as the rest of this article: Mauer should be better than he was in 2014, but not overly so. Steamer has Mauer down for a .284/.370/.403 slash with a .341 wOBA and a 2.5 WAR. This is obviously an improvement but not a drastic one.
Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections see Mauer as a .285/.371/.396 hitter with a .332 wOBA and a 2.0 WAR for 2015. Even though these aren't as optimistic as Steamer, the ZiPS still project Mauer to be, at the very least, better than he was last year.
Again, these projections still have him as a league-average type guy, which isn't bad. It's just not the perpetual MVP candidate that we used to see.
numberFire's projections for 2015 will be out soon, but I'd expect they'll say the same thing for Mauer. It's just hard to see a guy entering his age-32 season posting the numbers he did in his more youthful days prior to having his innocence stripped by bilateral leg weakness and his brain being turned to mush one foul ball at a time.
All of this said, I would love to see Mauer prove everybody wrong and turn things around. He has seen some seriously putrid baseball the last couple of years, and he deserves to be on a contender again. That won't be 2015, but there is a possibility of that a few years down the pipe. If he can crank things back up this year, the Twins will be just one step closer to doing so and taking Minnesota sports back out of the dumpster.