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Player Background

The Minnesota Twins drafted local high-school player Joe Mauer with the first overall pick in the 2011 draft. He was a two-sport athlete, and was the top-ranked college football prospect in the class of 2001 according to most college football scouts. The Twins persuaded him to play baseball for his hometown team rather than play quarterback for Florida State.

Mauer developed quickly, especially considering that he was playing catcher, a position where prospects notoriously take a long time to develop. He made it to the majors in 2004 as a 21-year-old and looked like he belonged from the start, hitting .308/.369/.570 in 122 plate appearances as a catcher with a good defensive reputation.

From 2005 through 2010, he played 109 games or more per season and was one of the best players in baseball. His worst season over that period was 2007, when he hit .293/.382/.426 in 471 plate appearances. Excluding the previously mentioned 2007 season, his lowest average over that period was .327, his lowest OBP was .402 and his lowest slugging percentage was .451. He made a lot of contact, hit for a high average, drew a lot of walks, hit a lot of doubles and a few home runs, too. On top of all that, he also won three consecutive Gold Gloves at catcher during this period, 2008 through 2010. The season that stands out here is 2009, when he led the AL in average (.365), on-base percentage (.444), and slugging percentage (.587) while hitting more than twice as many homers (28) as his previous career high and winning his second Gold Glove at a premium defensive position. He won the 2009 MVP award in a landslide.

In 2011, the big backstop dealt with several nagging injuries and issues. He played only 82 games and hit .287/.360/.368 in 333 plate appearances, an excellent line for most catchers but a subpar one by Mauer’s standards. He returned to form in 2012, hitting .319/.416/.446 over 147 games, showing no lingering effects from his injury-shortened 2011 season. Among his offense, the fact that he played a premium position and his defensive prowess, Mauer was on a Hall-of-Fame track through his age-29 season.

2013 looked like another typical monster season from Mauer through mid-August. He was hitting .324/.404/.476 over 508 plate appearances, a typically great line for a perennial All-Star. But on Aug. 19, while working behind the plate, Ike Davis tipped an Anthony Swarzak pitch into Mauer’s catching helmet. The Twins backstop took a few moments to collect himself, then went back behind the plate and caught the rest of the game. The next day, however, concussion-like symptoms kept him out of the lineup. He did not play another game that season.

Mauer has not caught a game in the majors since that day, splitting time between first base and designated hitter in an effort to keep him in the lineup and avoid another concussion. While the Twins had started playing Mauer at first base as early as 2011 in an effort to preserve his health and prolong his career, the 2013 concussion made that move a necessity rather than a preventative measure. Despite the move to the less-physically demanding end of the defensive spectrum, Mauer’s offensive numbers declined significantly in 2014 and stayed at that new lower level in 2015 and 2016. The following table shows his performance through 2013 compared to his performance from 2014 through 2016:

Year

PA

Primary Position

AVG

OBP

SLG

OPS+

2004 – 2013

5,060

C

.323

.405

.468

135

2014 – 2016

1,760

1B

.267

.353

.380

103

As a light-hitting 34-year-old first baseman coming off three straight seasons as a league-average hitter, expectations were not high for Mauer coming into 2017.

What Went Right in 2017

2017 was a good year for Mauer. He didn’t post the kind of line he did during his prime, but he hit significantly better than he had since the move to first base. It’s time to revisit the table posed above, but with 2017 included as its own line.

Year

PA

Primary Position

AVG

OBP

SLG

OPS+

2004 – 2013

5,060

C

.323

.405

.468

135

2014 – 2016

1,760

1B

.267

.353

.380

103

2017

594

1B

.305

.384

.417

116

He got his average back over .300 to the delight of Twins fans and anyone who owned him in fantasy leagues. He also added more than .030 points to his on-base percentage and pushed his slugging percentage back over .400. But how did he do it?

Year

K%

BB%

Ground

Ball %

Line Drive %

Fly Ball %

Pull %

Center Field %

Opposite Field %

2014

18.5%

11.6%

50.8%

27.2%

21.9%

22.4%

35.7%

41.8%

2015

16.8%

10.1%

55.7%

24.1%

20.2%

30.5%

37.4%

32.1%

2016

16.1%

13.7%

51.9%

26.8%

21.3%

30.8%

34.0%

35.2%

2017

13.6%

11.1%

51.6%

24.8%

23.6%

24.8%

37.6%

37.6%

Mauer lowered his strikeout rate by 2.5 percentage points, putting the ball in play more often. And while a large number of players across the majors were trying to pull the ball, hit it in the air and hit it hard at the expense of batting average and strikeout rate, Mauer hit the ball on the ground at around the same rate he had for the last few years while taking the ball up the middle and to the opposite field more often, hitting for a higher average and striking out less at the expense of home-run power.

What Went Wrong in 2017

Not much went wrong for Mauer in 2017. Granted, he only hit seven home runs while it seemed like every undersized second baseman in the game hit at least 20. The fact that he was a better-than-average hitter at age 34 after three straight seasons as a league-average hitter has to be considered a success.

What to Expect in 2018

The Twins signed their hometown hero to an eight-year, $184 million contract extension before the 2010 season that paid Mauer $23 million per year. That makes 2018 Mauer’s final season under the contract and Minnesota’s final season with a financial commitment to him. Before his bounce-back 2017 season, it was easy to imagine a scenario in which he was a bench player in 2018. That seems a lot less likely now, although his age does make him a risk for a performance drop-off or health problems while his power remains far below the standard for corner infielders. The Twins, under relatively new management, could opt for a first baseman with more power in an attempt to build on their 2017 playoff appearance with an eye toward supplementing their young core of players with guys who could be solid contributors for several years to come.

The Great Beyond

As it stands right now, Mauer will be a free agent following the 2018 season. There are too many variables to guess what will or should happen at that point. Will he be as productive in 2018 as he was in 2017? Will he be healthy in 2018? What will the market look like for a first baseman with good on-base skills but minimal power entering his age-36 season? Will Mauer seriously consider retirement? Will the Twins be willing to entertain the idea of their hometown hero playing for a different team? Where does he fit in with Minnesota’s young core? Will Mauer be willing to sign with anyone else, giving up on the idea of being a lifelong Twin? There’s no way to answer any of these questions credibly at this point. Without those answers, trying to predict what Mauer will do in 2019 and beyond is a fool’s errand.

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bhacking
10/03
Well played Scooter. Well played.
bugthecat
10/04
Thanks, I appreciate that.
uncasf1
10/03
Mauer 2017; a K rate less than 15% and close to a 1-1 K-BB ratio. How refreshing! As a fan, I am sick of the abundance of Ks.