In this season of unexpected twists and turns, one has quietly flown under the radar and that’s Joe Mauer. Especially since his concussion and subsequent move to 1st base, it’s become in vogue to rip on him and his $23 million per year contract, though that really started happening the moment we all realized he wasn’t hitting more than a dozen home runs in a season again. After all, prior to his concussion, Mauer was a career .323/.405/.468 hitter, a perennial threat to win the batting title, and a top-notch defender behind the plate. However, his past three seasons showed a shell of himself as he hit just .267/.353/.380, which was certainly less than acceptable now that he was playing 1st base.
Just out of curiosity, what do you think Mauer is hitting now? He’s not as good as he was pre-concussion, but he’s also not as bad as his 2014-2016 seasons. I’m still amazed to note that he’s currently at .302/.383/.415 in 2017. While the power is still poor for a 1st baseman, he has a 115 wRC+ on the season. Hey, major league 1st basemen are averaging a 115 wRC+ themselves! Plus, I’m sure we’ve all noticed that Joe has made quite a few highlight reel plays in the field along with taking away multiple errors from his teammates by scooping their poor throws out of the dirt. He actually rated as an above-average defender in 2014 and 2016 (average in 2015) according to both UZR and DRS, but this year has seen a noticeable uptick in production. This has caused Dick and whomever joins him in the booth that day to argue that Mauer is deserving of a Gold Glove.
How has Mauer done it? Well, he cut his strikeouts back down to 13.5%. Vintage Mauer was able to avoid the strikeouts (11% pre-concussion) but saw that number jump to 17.1% over the past three years. Fewer strikeouts means more balls in play and that leads to an uptick in batting average. Speaking of those balls in play, his hard hit percentage has jumped back up to 35.5%, the highest it’s been since his concussion. It’s not even from pulling the ball, as he’s dropped that down to 22.8% of his batted balls, a number he only reached one other season (2014, or the first season after his concussion). Interestingly, while he made a jump all the way from being tied for 119th in exit velocity last year to a tie for 35th this year, he only added 4/10 of a MPH (89.7 to 90.1).
What do all those numbers mean? Well, it sounds like Mauer is hitting the ball harder yet pulling the ball less. The types of batted balls hasn’t really changed much, so it feels like Mauer has returned back to his strength of slapping the ball to the opposite field, even when opposing defense shifts have become more extreme. This might be a result of him finally shaking off the aftereffects of his concussion, or maybe he’s consciously made a change in approach in the batter’s box.
Regardless, it has been a welcome sight to see Mauer return to being one of the top hitters on the roster and hopefully he’ll be able to carry this into next season as well.