For a long time, Joe Mauer has been one of the best - if not the best - hitter in the Twins lineup. I'm sure you'd probably disagree with that, but he routinely hit over .300 with an on-base percentage over .400 out of the catcher's spot. I hate to say it, but his MVP season in 2009 might have been the worst thing he could have ever done. That season led to his contract extension, followed by unreasonable expectations from the fan base that he should continue hitting 20 home runs per season, then the "bilateral leg weakness" (which I still swear was just a complication from knee surgery), a two-year rebound back to his career norms, and then the concussion that caused Mauer to regress back to his output from 2011.
Among an already-lost season that now has the Twins sitting at 8-24, the team has been looking for a spark. Whether it's because he's finally shaken off the concussion symptoms or his strobe goggles have been working wonders, Mauer has been one of the few bright spots on this team. Yes, in spite of that $23 million per year contract. He's walking far more than he ever has in his career, his batting average was back around his career average, it sure appeared that we were witnessing Mauer's return to his old self.
His high OBP numbers have always made Mauer seem like the perfect candidate to hit leadoff, but there's always been a few arguments against that strategy. First, his high batting average suggested he could drive in baserunners and rack up the RBI. Second, because he didn't have that prototypical speed that many look for in a leadoff hitter. Therefore, he's been slotted in the 3-hole for seemingly forever, with a few temporary shifts up to batting second for the Twins over the years.
On Monday, even though the Twins were rained out, Paul Molitor was about to make history as he had Mauer penciled in to lead off for the first time in his career. This has been a move that many fans have been clamoring for years so it was a welcome relief to see the idea finally put into practice. I get that Mauer is being paid $23 million and some feel that means he should be the one driving in the runs or hitting more home runs, but it's a fool's errand to complain that he's not the player you want him to be. Just like Gretchen from Mean Girls trying to make "fetch" happen, sorry, but it's never going to happen.
Some may also complain that a basestealer isn't atop the lineup anymore, but that also is a little ridiculous in my opinion. For one, this wouldn't be that novel an idea anyway. The Indians have used slugging 1B/DH Carlos Santana in the leadoff spot multiple times this season, plus the Pirates have used John Jaso, their first baseman as their first hitter this season. It's purely coincidence that all three of these players are former catchers and they're fairly slow-footed, but it's no coincidence that they're all good at the same thing: drawing walks and getting on base.
Though Mauer was 0-for-3 with a walk in his first appearance batting first on Tuesday, he should be able to get on base two out of every five times. That's far more often than any other hitter in the Twins lineup which should start leading to an uptick in runs scored. Plus, it sounds like this isn't just a one or two-game experiment, as Molitor pointed out that the Twins face eight consecutive righthanded starters starting with Kevin Gausman on Tuesday.
However, if we read between the lines, it appears that Molitor is hinting that Mauer might not be batting leadoff against lefties. Prior to Tuesday's game, Mauer was hitting 150 OPS points worse against LHP than RHP in his career. Even if your pessimistic self still doesn't think Mauer is back to the hitter he used to be, he's probably still a better hitter against LHP than most of the players in the lineup on a regular basis. Nevertheless, it wouldn't surprise me if Mauer gets dropped back down to #2 or #3 and Brian Dozier or Eduardo Nunez get slotted up to the leadoff position. In either case, there really isn't much of anything for the Twins to lose because, well, they're 8-24 and when your organization slips into "total system failure," you have to try just about anything to right the ship.
I'm crossing my fingers that Mauer stays atop the lineup for more than just the eight games Molitor mentioned because it's a thought experiment that's worth trying in a season that already appears lost. Only time will tell if it's ultimately worthwhile.