It’s easy to look at the numbers and say Joe Mauer underperformed last season. Maybe underperformed isn’t exactly the right word. Overall, Mauer was better in 2016 than in 2015, and not by a small margin. Though he didn’t stay on the field as much — 158 games down to 134 — two of his three triple-slash marks increased last season while he moved back toward career norms in walk and strikeout rate.
In fact, Mauer’s walk rate in 2016 (13.7 percent) was actually better than his career mark (12.1 percent) and the second-best of his entire career. Even though this isn’t the Mauer of yore, the eye remains very, very good at the plate.
But what if Mauer was better than we thought, or at the very least, there was a way to make him better without much of a drastic change? Sound radical? Perhaps. But is it something that sounds worth exploring? Of course.
When the Minnesota Twins returned from the All-Star break, one of the first things manager Paul Molitor said was that he wasn’t going to run Mauer into the ground. Molitor said he spent his entire break working through scenarios where he could improve the team’s play but at the same time do what was right for his players. Part of that was pulling back from Mauer’s playing time, and it appeared to show some benefits.
Let’s take a look, shall we? In the first half, Mauer hit .271/.372/.381 while playing in 84 games (79 starts) out of a total of 88. That comes out to playing in 95.5 percent of the team’s games and starting 89.7 percent. That slash line isn’t terrible, but it also lacks the sort of power you might like to see from someone hitting lower than first or second in the order.
Basically, Joe was like a powerless Dexter Fowler.
For about the next month after the All-Star break, Molitor was fairly true to his promise. Mauer appeared in 28 games and started 26 of a possible 31 games. That’s down to appearing in 90.3 percent of games and starting 83.9 percent. Now, whether subtracting roughly 6.0 percent of games is enough to make a substantive difference could be up for debate, it does correlate with Mauer’s finest stretch of the season.
From July 15 to Aug. 16, Mauer hit .324/.420/.529 with as many walks as strikeouts (17) in 119 plate appearances. That’s basically vintage Joe.
So why the wonky, strangely specific time frame?
On the first-inning double from Trevor Plouffe above, Mauer reportedly strained his quad, and it was an injury that dogged him the rest of the year. At the end of that day, Mauer was hitting .284/.384/.417 — his first day with an OPS over .800 in over two months — and had been rolling on the aforementioned streak. Now even if Mauer’s ceiling at this point is .284/.384/.417 — or in other words, basically an .800 OPS — that’s not going to make anyone forget about the Joe of old times, but it’s enough to make him a useful player, considering he’s become a fairly adept defensive first baseman. The names of first basemen types around that mark were the likes of Wil Myers (.797), Chris Davis (.792), Brad Miller (.786), Adrian Gonzalez (.784) and Eric Hosmer (.761).
In short, that’s not terrible company to be in.
Mauer hit the skids hard the rest of the way, batting just .146/.255/.244 (.499 OPS) while playing in just 22 games (20 starts) over the final six weeks (a total of 43 games). Now this wasn’t exactly an avoidable injury, but it sure does seem that Mauer was much better when given ample time off between starts. Is that crazy to say?
Again, playing Mauer in a way to avoid that injury — or any other coming up — moving forward is a fool’s errand. But finding ways to keep Mauer fresh shouldn’t be difficult. Mauer struggled against lefties last season (.610 OPS) while hitting righties rather well (.793). Could the platoon of Mauer and Kennys Vargas (1.262 OPS v. LHP in very limited MLB sample last year) be the right move? That would free up DH time against lefties for Robbie Grossman (.994 OPS v. LHP in 2016) while also letting Eddie Rosario play more frequently to find out what his future role is on this team.
Is it too simple to say less is more with Joe Mauer?