It’s still early in the season, there’s no doubt about that. Most teams have played fewer than 25 games and most hitters have yet to appear at the plate 100 times. At this point, the 2016 Major League Baseball season has sat up in bed to stretch and yawn, realizing that it has slept through its’ first three alarms (otherwise known as spring training) and can no longer do so. It’s this groggy, hazy phase where we are trying to figure out who is actually good and bad compared to someone who has actually been the positive recipient of the relatively small sample size of the opening month. Nevertheless, baseball is back, and we must attempt to make some sense of it.
This brings us to the curious case of veteran Joe Mauer. When the Twins announced that they would move their former number one overall pick out from behind the dish to first base there were plenty of questions, the foremost one being 'what kind of value could the Twins get from his offensive production at first base?'. Mauer’s offensive production was truly a commodity behind the plate, but many wondered how it would translate to a position where strong hitters are more abundant.
The Minnesota Twins might not have gotten off to the greatest of starts, but have you seen the first base leaderboards? With a 157 wRC+, Mauer’s offensive production is the third highest in all of Major League Baseball—and second in the American League to the Kansas City Royals’ Eric Hosmer. That is a huge shift from Mauer’s first two seasons at first base, where he posted a 106 wRC+ and 94 wRC+, respectively. It’s only natural for you to ask yourself how in the world the St. Paul native went from borderline average to 57 percent better than average. Well, the answer is quite simple: plate discipline.
As someone who doesn’t hit for a notable amount of power, the lefty has always seen success through his ability to command the zone and take the ball to all fields, which allowed him to hit for a high average. So when Mauer’s plate discipline profile started to decline, it is no surprise that his overall performance fell as well. Instead of a player who consistently challenged the .300 mark for batting average and .400 mark for on-base percentage, the 2015 version of Joe Mauer batted .265 and reached base at a .338 clip. His 2014 season was slightly better, but the general principle remained—Mauer’s struggles with the zone kept him off base more than usual, and led him to strike out more and walk less. Then came 2016.
If plate discipline can diminish his offensive production, might he be able to make an adjustment that gets him back on the right track? Well, check out how his plate discipline has looked thus far, in comparison to his past three seasons:
If you’re a Twins fan, or a fan of great ambassadors to the game of baseball in general, seeing this uptick plate discipline is always a great thing. Call it an uptick or a revival to levels when he was more than productive offensively, the fact that his eye at the plate has improved is such a good sign because of the reason they declined in the first place. If you can remember, one of the reasons that the Twins moved their well-paid cornerstone to a corner position was done, in large part, because of a season-ending concussion Mauer suffered from an Anthony Swarzak foul tip during a mid-August game against the New York Mets in 2013. Concussions' are serious issues, and there isn’t a blanket time table for a player to fully recover from one, even if they are able to play in a game. Problems like blurred vision and sensitivity to light can be coped with, but those type of symptoms might still linger and affect a players’ ability.
According to an interview done in February of this year with Brian Murphy of the Pioneer Press, this is exactly what Mauer has been dealing with for the past two seasons. Speaking candidly Mauer touched on some things he has been working through since suffering his concussion, and had some interesting quotes:
"There are times I’ve gone up to the plate and I just couldn’t pick up the ball. That’s part of the frustration because I’m trying to do everything I can to get back. It just takes time."
"There are so many different symptoms. For me it was lighting, I couldn’t really pick up the ball. It was blurry at times. Where I am here versus last year at this time, I can tell my workouts are better."
"If you’re just a little off, you’re fouling off pitches you should be driving into the gap," he said. "In the big leagues, you don’t get too many more opportunities to see good ones to hit."
One can surmise the symptoms from the concussion he suffered had been affecting his performance, but there was one theme Mauer kept throughout the whole interview: he had improved greatly, and the symptoms had begun to improve—if not subside. Not quite a "Best Shape Of My Life" scenario, but nevertheless it is a strong reason as to why his improvements have occurred. He has backed up the way he is feeling with results, and his ability to see the strike zone better has allowed the Joe Mauer of old to re-appear.
Re-appear in that, not only are his plate discipline numbers improved from the past two seasons, but his overall numbers have seen increases as a result. He is hitting line drives again and keeping the ball off of the ground, he has produced much harder contact (in terms of Hard%), nearly doubled his walk rate and cut his strikeout rate in half, and owned a .316/.459/.447 clip that speaks to a rejuvenated ability to reach base:
Look, Mauer is only 98 plate appearances into his 2016 campaign. There is just as much time to flourish as there is to flounder, and at his recently-turned age of 33-years old there likely isn’t a plethora of undiscovered power left for Mauer to tap into. Surely he will end this season with more than one home-run, but his success hinges upon his ability to continue to work the gaps and draw walks all season long.
For the Minnesota Twins, seeing him produce like this due to almost nothing more than an improved eye at the plate is a boon not only in terms of this season, but for how he will continue to play going forward throughout the life of his contract. Being selective at the plate has worked for him for the first month of this year—as he owns the third lowest Swing% and the fourth highest Contact%—and, over the course of his career, he has proven that he can have success with this approach. Concussions take time to get over, and it might have taken longer than some fans hoped, but we are in the midst of seeing the return of a healthy Joe Mauer—which might be one of the best things to come out of April for the Twins. Well played, Mauer.
. . .
Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.