Joe Mauer Is Returning to All-Star Form
It's been a while since Joe Mauer has been Joe Mauer.
Just a few years ago, that was a name associated with batting titles, Silver Sluggers, and an MVP award. Now, it's often followed by a smattering of boos at Target Field, a slight brought on by two years of down production.
There's something different about what Mauer is bringing to the Minnesota Twins early in 2016, though. Instead of continuing with the struggles that dragged his stock to its lowest depths in 2014 and 2015, Mauer is producing at a high level and hitting like one of the best in the game again.
The reflex here is to dismiss this turnaround as simply the product of a small sample size, and that may be exactly what we're seeing. When you're talking about a guy who's set to turn 33 on Tuesday and has been battling the after effects of concussions for over two years, that would be the most likely scenario.
But there are signs that this may be sustainable, and if it is, the Twins could finally have their $23-million man back.
Excelling in Quickly-Stabilizing Statistics
We can gawk over Mauer's .372/.472/.512 slash all that we want, but there's really no reason to buy into those types of numbers after only 53 plate appearances. Instead, we want to look at numbers that will stabilize more quickly, such as strikeout rate, walk rate, and batted-ball numbers. It just turns out that Mauer is excelling there, as well.
One of the major reasons for Mauer's downturn the last two years was his strikeout rate. During his MVP season in 2009, Mauer only struck out in 10.4% of his plate appearances. He also drew more walks than he had strikeouts as recently as 2012, but things were different from 2013 to 2015. There, his strikeout rate jumped all the way to 17.6%. This is still below the league average, but it's not the Mauer who was tearing leagues apart a few years ago.
This is the first area in which we've seen a new hitter in 2016. Mauer has struck out in only 4 of his 53 plate appearances (7.5%), and his 94.4% contact rate is the second-highest in the league. He also sits second in swinging-strike rate and has only chased 16.8% of pitches outside of the zone, the 13th-best mark in the Majors.
Those same numbers have allowed Mauer to draw walks in 8 trips to the dish (15.1%), a significant increase from his 10.1% mark last year. His walk rate has declined each of the previous four seasons from 14.0% in 2012, the high-water mark of his career.
We can check off two of the boxes we were looking for to see if Mauer's turnaround was legit in a high walk rate and a low strikeout rate. The next box would be his batted-ball data, where we see more of the same positive vibes.
Mauer has put only 39 balls in play so far this year, placing him about halfway to the mark where we could expect those numbers to stabilize. That said, his hard-hit rate is a stout 37.5%, which would be his highest since 2010, and his soft-hit rate is 10.0%, his lowest since that same season. By every measure you can concoct, this is a different player than we have seen the past two years.
All of this is great and fuel to the fire for those looking to believe in what Mauer has done. Our concerns from the top do still exist, though. How many soon-to-be-33-year-old players suddenly flip a switch and revert back to the days of their youth? Despite what we've seen, it'd be important not to buy in fully quite yet.
The Reasons for Pause
In addition to our concerns with small sample sizes, we've got two other things pushing back against the potential for a full-on career resurrection. The first is that Mauer's fly-ball rate is still depressed, and the second is that we've seen similar resurgences from him in the past. Let's parse through both of these.
Mauer has never really been a big-time fly-ball hitter. Even when he jacked 28 bombs in 2009, his fly-ball rate was only 29.5%. Now, though, it's all the way down to 20.0%, the 18th-lowest mark in the league. Without fly balls, you can certainly have a high BABIP, but you're never going to see tremendous power numbers.
He has always compensated for this with a lofty line-drive rate, and 2016 hasn't been any different there. His line-drive rate is at 32.5%, which also sits 18th among qualified hitters. That's going to come down, though, as the highest season-long line-drive rate since 2010 is 31.0% by Freddie Freeman. So, when those balls in play aren't line drives, are they going to become ground balls or fly balls?
If they turn into grounders, Mauer's ceiling would be Dee Gordon without the stolen bases. If some of them turn to fly balls, then he may still be able to churn out some extra-base hits, but it's not guaranteed that this will be the case. It's a definite concern, and it's something to focus on when dissecting Mauer's hot start.
As mentioned above, this isn't the first time we've seen a bit of an up-turn from Mauer. In fact, he did a similar thing at this time last year.
In the month of April, Mauer had a .318/.392/.412 slash. Clearly, there's not a lot of power there, but those are respectable on-base numbers for a guy at the top of the lineup. It just didn't translate into season-long success as he slashed .256/.329/.375 the rest of the way and entered another offseason on a disappointing note.
There is one key difference between that hot start and this year's, though, and that lies in the things we looked at in the first section. Check out the table below, which compares Mauer's April numbers from last year to what he has done this year. Again, remember that we're still dealing with small sample sizes, but there is no question which start was more sustainable.
|Timeframe||Walk Rate||Strikeout Rate||Soft-Hit Rate||Hard-Hit Rate|
Mauer's numbers are better across the board this year -- and significantly so in the realm of strikeouts of hard-hit balls. He may not be the old Joe Mauer again, but he's a better Joe Mauer than we saw during last April's mini spurt.
It's still only April, and we shouldn't be making definitive conclusions from such small sample sizes, but it's okay to get a little bit excited about what we've seen from Mauer so far in 2016.
When we take a deeper look at each of the stats that stabilize over the smallest sample sizes, Mauer starts to look less like a decaying former great and more like a guy who can still contribute near the top of a team's lineup. He's striking out less and making contact more, and when he does make contact, it has largely been quality.
We do still have the trepidations about power potential with his low fly-ball rate, and that means our expectations for the rest of the season should be for a guy who will still hit a lot of singles. If his regression in line drives comes in the form of additional fly balls, though, then things will certainly be looking up.
It's highly unlikely that we ever see the same Mauer who hit 28 jacks in 2009 or who had a .416 on-base percentage in 2012 ever again. But as long as these small shifts in his plate discipline and batted-ball profile stick around, don't be surprised if those boos at his home park disappear along with his recent-year struggles.