The Return of Joe Mauer

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The first baseman's return has gotten off to a stellar start. Will it last? Is Joe back?

Six games over the course of a single week isn't enough time to make anything close to a definitive judgment, but in the interest of indulging the optimist inside me that I struggle to keep buried under layers of cynicism, hey welcome back Joe Mauer. What we've seen from the Twins first baseman has been a revelation. In 26 plate apearances, he is hitting .333/.462/.714. He has seven hits, four of them for extra bases. Two homers, five walks and, perhaps best of all, only one strikeout.

When Mauer has struggled, it's been in part because he was unable to control the strike zone as he did during his prime, taking too many strikes, swinging through fastballs, and winding up behind in counts. Since coming off of the disabled list, Mauer has been ahead in 14 of the 24 plate appearances in which he wasn't intentionally walked. And he has seen an average of 4.2 pitches per plate appearance.

As for his approach, he's still refusing to swing at the first pitch, letting it go by in 22 of his 24 plate appearances in which he wasn't intentionally walked. On the two at bats where he did swing on the first pitch, surprisingly, he has homered both times, on that first pitch by Jeremy Guthrie on Sunday and on the fifth pitch against Brett Oberholtzer. There's nothing really to glean from this data yet. Mauer's only seen 105 pitches thrown in anger, so this is basically just a neat curiosity while we wait and hope that the already borderline hall of famer has finally gotten healthy again and that this isn't a random blip in his performance.

That caution aside, however, I think that we're seeing the real Joe Mauer come back after half a season of waiting. More than anything, it's his defense around first base that's convinced me. He has looked incredibly smooth making picks in the dirt and diving plays. He's moved gracefully around the bag and has finally looked comfortable. We were hopeful that moving off of catcher would keep him healthier. Obviously, between his back and his oblique, that hasn't been the case so far. But perhaps all the damage done to Mauer's body by catching takes longer than an offseason to heal. Perhaps there's a hangover effect for catchers that switch positions.

Unfortunately, we simply don't have a lot of data to back that up one way or another. Johnny Bench got hurt the year he moved off of catcher, but that was a broken ankle. Yogi stayed relatively healthy as he transitioned to left field to make way for Elston Howard, but the Yankees rested him regularly. Ted Simmons fell off a cliff when he was moved. BJ Surhoff had a bad shoulder and a strained oblique that kept him out for a bunch of 1994 before the strike came along. Victor Martinez was fine until he destroyed his knee in 2012, but was able to bounce back. Joe Torre made the switch with no problems. The point is, we don't know how long it takes to actually bounce back from catching. We don't know what's typical for a catcher as young as Joe, with an injury history like Joe's, who gets moved. It's not unreasonable to hope that Mauer is back for good.

Not that it will help with the #BooMauer crowd even if he is, of course. They are so heavily invested in the notion that Joe is killing the Twins that they will continue to whine loudly about Mauer's lack of power relative to other first basemen, make jokes about bi-lateral leg weakness, and complain about the salary he earned by being one of the best hitters in baseball throughout his indentured servitude. At least a Mauer resurgence will make the Twins better, even if it doesn't improve the quality of the jokes on Twitter.

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