As a former No. 1 overall draft pick, No. 1 overall prospect, three-time batting champion, and 2009 American League M.V.P., Joe Mauer seemed destined to dawn a Twins cap in his inevitable Hall of Fame induction. He claimed the title Mr. Minnesota, and the Twins payed him as such when they inked him to an 8-year, $184M contract starting in the 2011 season. However, Mauer’s sudden drop in production following his full-time conversion to first base left many Minnesotans cursing his name and clamoring for the vintage Joe Mauer. As a small market franchise attempting a rebuild, Minnesota desperately needs Mauer to live up to his contract if they plan to contend with their rising young core. While 2016 has started off miserably for the Twins – their division odds have already sunk from 7.6% to 1.5% – a resurgent Mauer provides one bright spot in an otherwise bleak outlook. While the usual sample size caveats apply here, Mauer’s improvements appear more than superficial.
Through the first couple weeks, Mauer has crushed the ball to the tune of a 173 wRC+, and has already surpassed his 2015 fWAR. He has raised his BB% to 12.8, the highest it’s been since 2012, cut his K% down to 8.5, lowest since 2008, and upped his isolated power to .154, its highest mark since his M.V.P. campaign in 2009. While Mauer most certainly cannot maintain his current .371 BABIP, underlying signals suggest that he may have broken out of his two-year slump and regained his All-Star form.
One indicator: his resurgence in batted-ball prowess. So far this season, Mauer’s Hard% is up greater than 10 points over the past couple seasons and has risen back to his previously dominant levels. Similarly, Mauer is pulling the ball more than ever, and is going to the opposite field less than ever before. Perhaps this is a sign of Mauer adjusting to an aging body – as his bat speed diminishes, he might swing earlier to try and get ahead of the ball. Another encouraging sign: his line-drive rate has risen to 33.3%, the highest he’s ever had it, while his fly-ball rate has diminished to 19.4% the lowest he’s ever been at. Considering how much his home park, Target Field, suppresses left-handed power, this seems a wise adjustment to make. On the downside, Mauer’s HR/FB rate and IFH% reside above his expected rates, providing obvious areas for his power and BABIP to regress. However, the overall batted-ball picture remains encouraging.
In addition to batted balls, Mauer is displaying an overall different approach at the plate. His O-Swing% is back to its previous low form while his Z-Swing% and overall Swing%, have sunk to their lowest levels in his career. After Baseball America rated him as having the best strike-zone discipline in the American League in 2012, his chase rates spiked tremendously in 2013 and had remained there since. Now Mauer seems to have regained that lauded discipline. Furthermore, his Zone% has actually dropped each of the past three seasons; this combination of less pitches in the zone and fewer chases out of it explains his rising walk rate. Additionally, Mauer has significantly raised both his O-Contact % and Z-Contact%. Overall, it appears Mauer has become more selective on which pitches he feels he can barrel up, hence the rising contact and line-drive rates.
Now if Mauer truly has made critical adjustments to improve his game, then we should expect to see pitchers alter their approach as well. Baseball is nothing if not a game of adjustments. According to Brooks Baseball, Mauer’s current relative mix of hard, breaking, and off-speed pitches seen remains the same as ever, suggesting that no major adjustments have been made yet. However, if his bat truly is slowing down and these are his adjustments, we should expect to see pitchers start attacking him with fastballs up and in. Currently, Mauer sees roughly 1/3 of his pitches off the plate low and away. Realizing that he won’t chase those anymore, pitchers will presumably begin attacking him in the zone more often. Whether Mauer can turn on these pitches and continue lining the ball the right will determine whether or not these results stick.
In the big picture, small-sample variance likely explains most of Mauer’s current success. However, Mauer does appear to at least be attempting to adjust his approach, hence we should not entirely disregard these results. Up to this point, Mauer has shown significantly more selectivity in which pitches he swings at, particularly in the zone, letting him barrel up the ones he feels he can hit with conviction. As pitchers adjust to his adjustments, we will see whether Mauer has truly made a triumphant return. The Twins desperately hope Mauer can maintain a modicum of these results, as he will earn $23M a year through 2018. Unlikely to go out and make a major free-agent splash, Minnesota needs Mauer to provide value commensurate to his contract if they plan to capitalize on their youth movement. Once (if) Sano, Buxton, Berrios and company develop, the Twins could have a devastating roster led by Mauer. Until then, in a season marred by underperformance and disappointment, the return of Minnesota’s favorite son could provide a potential beacon of hope.