June 12, 2015

What happened to Joe Mauer?

Joe Mauer Twins

Joe Mauer's accomplishments as a catcher through age 30 are nearly unmatched in the history of baseball. As a 23-year-old he became the first AL catcher to win a batting title, the first catcher in either league to win a batting title in six decades, and the first catcher in MLB history to lead all of baseball in batting average. As a 25-year-old he won another batting title and as a 26-year-old he became the first catcher in baseball history to win three batting titles.

In that age-26 season he hit .365 with a .444 on-base percentage and .587 slugging percentage on the way to being named MVP. He was the first catcher in baseball history to lead the league in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage--the sabermetric triple crown--and his .365 batting average was the highest by any catcher since 1901. Mauer also made three other strong runs at batting titles, finishing third at age 27, fourth at age 29, and second at age 30.

Overall from debuting as a 21-year-old in 2004 through his age-30 season in 2013 he totaled one MVP award, three batting titles, three Gold Glove awards, five Silver Slugger awards, and six trips to the All-Star game while hitting .323 with a .405 OBP and .468 SLG, logging 8,000 innings at catcher, and throwing out 33 percent of stolen base attempts. Add it all up and Mauer produced the fifth-most Wins Above Replacement by any catcher in MLB history through age 30:

CATCHER             WAR
Johnny Bench       63.9
Gary Carter        55.5
Ivan Rodriguez     50.4
Ted Simmons        44.8
JOE MAUER          44.2
Mike Piazza        41.5
Mickey Cochrane    40.7

Unfortunately he's no longer a catcher, being forced to move out from behind the plate following an August 19, 2013 concussion that ended his 2013 season and left him with symptoms months into the offseason. Mauer was given a clean bill of health for 2014 and switched positions, going from one end of the defensive spectrum to the other, but now he's a 32-year-old first baseman who looks like a shell of his former self.

Mauer got off to a slow start last season, which is never unexpected for a player returning from a season-ending brain injury. When he started doing his usual .300-hitting, walk-drawing thing in June--and for the most part kept that up through the rest of the season despite being interrupted by a strained oblique muscle--it looked like Mauer was fully recovered from the concussion and ready to resume being an on-base machine in 2015.

Optimism was further fueled by reports of Mauer working with hitting coach Tom Brunansky to be more aggressive at the plate and pull more pitches in an effort to unearth more power. There were some signs of progress early on this season, as Mauer turned on pitches and lined balls into right field and right-center field more often than he did previously, but his overall production has fallen even further from his underwhelming 2014 production.

Mauer was having a typical Mauer season at the time of the concussion, hitting .324 with a .404 OBP and .476 SLG compared to his nearly identical .323/.405/.468 career mark from 2004-2012. He has not been the same hitter since, whether due to the lingering effects of a brain injury or to the normal effects of aging, the latter of which are often more rapid for longtime catchers. Mauer has hit .272 with a .348 OBP and .366 SLG in 178 games since the concussion.

                  AVG    OBP    SLG    SO%    BB%    ISO
Pre-concussion   .323   .405   .468   11.2   12.2   .146
Post-concussion  .272   .348   .366   17.6   10.5   .095

For a player whose hitting revolved so much around eyesight, handeye coordination, and reflexes rather than brute strength the possibility that the concussion still hurts Mauer by robbing even a fraction of those skills seems plausible. Whatever the case, the Twins now have a 32-year-old first baseman with more than $80 million remaining on his contract who has just narrowly managed to be an average all-around hitter for the past 178 games.

Mauer has always lacked power, or at least power relative to his 6-foot-5 frame and unrealistic expectations for how he might develop into a perfect, flawless player, but even his modest power has vanished. Once good for a ton of doubles and 10-15 homers per season--including 28 homers in his MVP-winning 2009 campaign--Mauer has just six homers in 178 games since the beginning of 2014.

Isolated power is a statistic that subtracts batting average from slugging percentage to show how much raw power is present. Mauer's isolated power since the concussion is .095. By comparison, his isolated power from 2004-2013 was .146 and dipped below .115 just once. He has essentially lost half of his power since the concussion and the result is the type of player--a punchless singles hitter--that Mauer's critics often unfairly labeled him as throughout his career.

In the past two seasons MLB hitters as a whole have an isolated power of .140 and first basemen have a collective isolated power of .185, which means Mauer has produced 31 percent less power than the average hitter and 48 percent less power than the average first baseman. To get a sense for just how rare it is for a first baseman to have such little power here's a list of the lowest career isolated power totals by regular first basemen in the past 20 years:

FIRST BASEMAN        ISO
Daric Barton        .118
Casey Kotchman      .125
James Loney         .129
Doug Mientkiewicz   .134
Conor Jackson       .136
Scott Hatteberg     .137
Sean Casey          .145

Mauer's pre-concussion isolated power of .146 would have been among the worst by regular first basemen since 1995, but his post-concussion isolated power of .095 is basically unheard of at the position. There's a subset of left-handed-hitting, slick-fielding first basemen like James Loney, Casey Kotchman, and Doug Mientkiewicz that always seems to have a couple starters across MLB each season, but even those guys typically manage an isolated power in the .130 range.

Mauer going from mediocre power to non-existent power would be somewhat easier to live with if he were still hitting .325 with tons of walks, but even that has changed. Mauer's strikeout rate was on the rise even before the concussion and since returning from the brain injury he's whiffed in 18 percent of his plate appearances compared to 11 percent from 2004-2013 and less than 10 percent in some of his best seasons.

Whereas most players sacrifice strikeouts in the name of making harder contact Mauer's batting average on balls in play this season is a career-low .302 and his .328 batting average on balls in play since returning from the concussion is 20 points below his career mark. He's putting fewer balls in play and fewer of the balls he does put in play are dropping for hits, which is a very bad combination.

After constant complaints that he's too passive at the plate--which, to be clear, always struck me as absurd for a player hitting .325 and winning multiple batting titles--Mauer has indeed become more aggressive. He's swung at 44 percent of pitches this season after never cracking 40 percent in a season previously, which includes career-highs in swings on pitches both inside and outside of the strike zone.

Mauer has pulled 31 percent of the balls he's put in play this season, compared 27 percent for his career. However, his rate of "hard hit" balls is 27 percent, which is the second-lowest mark of his career. His rate of "soft hit" balls is 16 percent, which is the second-highest mark of his career. He's tried to change his approach, both in terms of being more aggressive and pulling more balls in the air, but it's not clear that the net result to those changes in a positive one.

Joe Mauer Twins

Basically everything about Mauer's hitting has gotten worse since he suffered the concussion. He's striking out more and walking less. He's swinging through more pitches and hitting pitches softer when he does make contact. Pitchers are also throwing him more strikes, in general, which is to be expected at some point when the league starts to grasp that the .325 hitter has now been a .275 hitter for 18 months.

The only saving grace, at least so far this season, is that Mauer has been incredible with runners in scoring position and in high-leverage situations. That's actually nothing new, but the difference now is that Mauer has thrived in those spots while not being good in other spots. He's hitting .432 in high-leverage situations and .397 with runners in scoring position, which is how he's on pace for nearly 100 RBIs and leads the Twins in Win Probability Added despite just two homers.

It seems clear that the combination of a normal aging curve plus logging 8,000 innings behind the plate through age 30 and multiple significant injuries, chief among them a concussion in August of 2013, has led to Mauer being a shell of his former self at age 32. Because he's a great athlete with amazing hand-eye coordination who ranked as one of the best all-around players in baseball for a decade he's still able to be a reasonably productive player in his diminished state.

However, the shift from catcher to first base was going to take a big chunk of his value away even if his offensive performance stayed constant and instead it has deteriorated rapidly. Perhaps he'll have a resurgence like former Twins teammate Justin Morneau and other prominent hitters have had several years after being derailed by a concussion, but in the meantime he ranks as a below-average player at his position after a decade of ranking as the best player at his position.

The hope with Mauer's move to first base was that getting out from behind the plate would help him stay healthier and more durable, enabling him to up his production enough to be one of MLB's better-hitting first basemen in the Joey Votto mold. Short of that, a reasonable expectation was that Mauer's hitting would remain unchanged from his catching days, turning him into a very good but not spectacular offensive first baseman in the John Olerud mold.

Instead it's been a worst-case scenario. He's hitting worse than ever at a position with the highest bar offensively, derailing Mauer so far off course from a Hall of Fame path at catcher that he fits into the Mientkiewicz/Loney mold at first base. It's a sad change and one that's been difficult for everyone to wrap their heads around, but based on the information we have about Mauer since his concussion the odds of him returning to the 2004-2013 version seem slimmer by the day.

It's important to remember that Mauer struggling after age 30 doesn't take away from what he accomplished through age 30. He was a truly elite catcher, a .325-hitting on-base machine with a strong arm who ranked as one of the best handful of players at his position in baseball history. At the same time, Mauer being a Hall of Fame-caliber player through age 30 doesn't change the fact that he now needs significant improvement simply to be an above-average player at age 32.

  • A heartbreaking but necessary assessment. Thanks for writing this. Concussions are the scariest injury in sports. Who knows how many Joe had taking foul tips to the face for decades?

  • KGB

    It’s time to stop blaming the fall off on concussions. According to Mauer, he has said he has not had any concussion symptom since late October 2013.
    His increase in strike outs started in 2011 and if his BABIP wasn’t 40 point higher than his career average in 2013 he would have batted below .300 that year. If we want something to blame for the career decline starting in his 30’s, if probably more related to the short sited decision to have him catch instead of moving him early in his career. Time to admit Dan Barreiro was right.

    • Steve Johnson

      ” Time to admit Dan Barreiro was right.”

      Except we don’t know that he was.

      As primarily a catcher, Mauer tallied about, what, 43 wins? You can’t assert Barreiro’s back-of-the-napkin claim without trying to quantify what he would have done at another position. Do you believe he would have assembled a comparable value at first base or an outfield corner?

      We had arguably the best catcher in baseball for a decade. I doubt he would have even been in the discussion for best First Baseman or Left Fielder….

      He may have been very good, or even great at some other place on the field. But at catcher, he was *special*

    • by_jiminy

      I’m so sick of seeing Mauer criticized for not making excuses. Of course he doesn’t blame the concussion. He should be lauded for that, not pilloried.

      Personally, I suspect the opposite: he’s not only still debilitated from this latest devastating concussion, but from the cumulative effects of several more we don’t even know about.

  • Nota Hater

    If you take out “the concussion” and replace with “that giant contract” the same article could be written.

    • BEEFCAKE!!!

      Only if the person writing that column wanted to be factually wrong.

  • Rambling Al

    His decline does not coincide with the contract at all; as he had two outstanding seasons, historical superb seasons, in 2012 and 2013, for a catcher, at 29 and 30.

    One would expect a slight fall off in his early 30’s, especially from a guy who caught 900 games, but an 873 OPS before the concussion and a 700ish after seems to be far more than coincidence.

    Examining his stats a bit more in depth, while his singles and doubles are down, by far the biggest hit is his lack of homers. That, of course, is by far the most noticeable to the casual fan too.

  • by_jiminy

    “Who knows how many Joe had taking foul tips to the face for decades?”

    This is what I always wonder with Mauer. In the case of Koskie and Morneau, the other two Twins famously hobbled by concussions, everyone repeatedly said the effects are cumulative. Since both are Canadian, it was assumed their brains had taken plenty of blows already from playing hockey. Well, playing catcher does the same thing. Who knows how many blows to the head he endured without complaint. Each one becomes harder to recover from, and takes longer. I strongly suspect the 2014 concussion was just the last in a long string of milder brain injuries.

    The case of Morneau is both encouraging and discouraging. It took years and years, but he finally made it back far enough to win a batting title (albeit aided by playing in Colorado, and with diminished power). But his brain is now so fragile that a simple thing like diving for a ground ball seems to have completely derailed his career again.

    I’m still hopeful that Mauer can improve significantly from where he is now. Maybe it’s a transition to a new batting style. Who knows. But I don’t know if I’d let him dive for any ground balls.

  • danyo

    This just happens to most hitters. It has nothing to do with concussions. Part of it is getting older, and part of it is confidence. Once your confidence slips, you lose your edge as a hitter.
    It’s hard to explain to people who have never played. If you’ve played and you’ve experienced it, you know what I’m talking about.
    Something that can delay the decline of an aging athlete is good weight training.
    Twins have a reputation for being focused a little too much on the aerobic side of fitness. Joe needs to focus on getting stronger.
    Maybe he can recapture some of what he had, but not without changing his fitness routine.

  • GameND

    “The only saving grace, at least so far this season, is that Mauer has been incredible with runners in scoring position”

    The funny part about that is for years, many Mauer haters said that he should sacrifice BA and OBP for more RBI’s. It was sill talk at the time, however, those same Mauer haters seem giddy about the fact that his production has dropped dispite the fact that he is still producing runs.

    Here is what I wonder about. Mauer has played in 58 of 59 games so far. I wonder if a night off a week may help him to maintain better?

  • James_Mathewson

    Perhaps Bruno messing with his approach has also contributed. Most of his power is the other way. When he pulls the ball, he’s more likely to ground to second than reach the seats. I think the concussion is a key factor, especially in the strikeouts. But when he puts the ball in play the other way, he has a decent chance at a double. When he pulls it, he’s more likely to hit a topspin single if he avoids an out.

  • Tom

    It seems to me that Mauer’s decline also coincides with the increasing use of defensive shifts against him
    . It would be interesting to see the how the use of shifts has affected his BABIP – which is what the shift is intended to do. Often, with runners on base, Manager’s won’t use a defensive shift – which may be why he is so successful with runners on base. Are there any stats that would answer these questions to see if that may be one of the reasons for the decline?

    • Antileftist

      good thinking…

    • Brucew56

      He has been making outs by ground balls to second for 4 years, long before shifts were employed?

  • Dave Handeland

    Good article, the numbers speak for themselves.

    Maybe it was just a coincidence but looking at Mauer’s HR numbers in that contract year will always raise some sort of question in my opinion. While trying to position himself for a new contract, his HR #’s massively spiked for someone who had never hit for that amount of power in his career.

    In the 4 seasons after signing the contract in March 2010, he hit just 31 HR’s in 1796 AB’s despite being relatively healthy except for 2011 when he still managed 296 AB’s.

    2007: 406 AB’s & 7 HR
    2008: 536 AB’s & 9 HR
    2009: 523 AB’s & 28 HR
    Signed Contract in March 2010 (8yrs & 184 million)
    2010: 510 AB’s & 9 HR
    Contract kicked in for 2011 season
    2011/2012/2013: 1286 AB’s & 22 HR

    Hopefully Mauer gets some of the power/gap hitting back but the Twins basically have a #8 hitter in the 2nd/3rd spot in the batting order who is paid like a superstar by his hometown team that will make for an awkward situation once all of the kids get up to the majors.

    • Deebers

      I dunno. 2009 was just a flukey season. He was hitting a lot of opposite-field fly balls that barely cleared the fence in the Metrodome. If he struck all of those balls exactly the same at Target Field, it’s possible most or all would have been fly ball outs.

      He certainly wasn’t changing his approach to hit more HRs in a contract year. He was still going the other way on almost everything. It just happened that lots of them barely make it out of the park.

      • Dave Handeland

        Agree, the dimensions of the dome had to factor in on all of it. I went back and looked at his May of 2009.

        Mauer had kidney surgery and missed all of April 2009 recovering. He returned in May and hit a HR in his 1st appearance. For the whole month of May 2009, he hit 11 HR, had 32 RBI and his average was .414. Not bad for a player returning from injury.

        Those 11 HR in May 2009 if separated out would be his 3rd highest yearly total in his career.

        • James_Mathewson

          And 9 of them were just over the wall in left in the Dome. Fresh hands, healthy back and sacroiliac, and more offseason weights gave him maybe 10 more feet on those 9 fly balls. Take that month out as an outlier, and his power numbers don’t look awful by comparison, though they are below his norm.

  • Taylor

    It’s sad, but it was also a nice reminder of just how good this guy was, and while current results don’t match the current pay, it doesn’t and shouldn’t, take away from the fact that one of the best players ever to wear catcher’s gear played for the Twins.

    There’s many reasons for Mauer’s demise, but it was going to happen sooner or later, as there is one thing no player can combat which is time. When that time comes is unique to every player and is the result of a variety of influences. Concussions, declining physical skills, new park suppressing numbers, savvier defensive shifts, etc are several of those, and boiling it down to one talking head point seems shortsighted.

    As for all the people who always whine about Mauer being overpaid, well no one is debating his production doesn’t match his salary. But it rarely ever has. It didn’t once he signed the big extension, and it most certainly didn’t before the extension either. The difference was while he is overpaid now, he was grossly underpaid when he was a HOF caliber catcher winning multiple batting titles and playing above average defense at a premium position. Harping on him now for his salary seems a very micro approach to a macro viewpoint. If you buy into Fangraphs value, the Twins have actually saved at least 50 million on his whole career, but obviously that’s not a easy comparison as that implies a free market where value is only tied to production, and not team control, arbitration and the litany of other factors that determine MLB pay. But looking at it this way in its totality, that’s much easier to stomach then if the Twins had signed Mauer to join the team from another team at the age he signed the extension, ala the Angels and Pujols. If that was the situation, the vitriol would be much more deserved, but its not when you look at the totality of his career, which is something you can start to do when a player is 32 and when the player severely outperformed his pay grade for the first half decade plus of his career.

  • Jesse Haraldson

    This article felt very much like a conclusion had been arrived to prior to the writing (Concussion caused Mauer’s decline) but I would say that is a bit simple. I agree with many of the items Gleeman listed:

    – Age

    – Injury history (including concussion)

    – Time at catcher

    What I disagree with is I think this article does not delve enough into the pre-concussion issues that should have been causing concern. Let’s take the example of strikeouts. It is mentioned briefly above that strikeouts were rising before the concussion but Gleeman only presented numbers comparing 2004-2013 and 2014-2015 and it shows a dramatic increase after the concussion (11.2% vs 17.6%). Let’s go a bit deeper:

    2004-2010 – 9.8%

    2011 – 11.4%

    2012 – 13.7%

    2013 – 17.5%

    2014 – 18.5%

    2015 – 15.6%

    It is obvious by looking at the data a little more in depth that the vast majority of his increase in K% took place prior to the concussion. One might wonder why these increased strikeouts in 2012 and 2013 didn’t seem to impact his OPS and the reason is that in 2012 and 2013 he had unsustainably high BABIP numbers of .383 and .364, well above his career average.

    I also disagree with the fact he did not even mention defensive shifts even though we get clear evidence night in and night out that teams have changed the way they position their OF and play him tight the LF line taking away many of the doubles he used to get prior to this. Gardenhire got so mad at this last year he even talked about a rule to outlaw those types of shifts.

    I would also say that many of the great players adjust their games as they get older to compensate for the issues above and so far Joe has been unable to figure out how to do that. His current attempt with Brunansky is failing and I have seen nothing that gives me hope that he might find another way.

    I would very much be interested in this as an extended topic on the Gleeman and the Geek podcast.

    • Kale

      “This article felt very much like a conclusion had been arrived to prior to the writing (Concussion caused Mauer’s decline) but I would say that is a bit simple”

      Good comment. One thing is certain. Right now, Joe Mauer should not be hitting 3rd.

  • Darrin

    Hated to read the article from you, Aaron, but it was necessary. Hopefully you can be writing a ‘resurgence’ article soon. I wonder what a hockey style mask (or other safety innovation) would have done to help Mauer deal with the beating catchers take.

    In other news, I maintain that we won’t have another championship until our catcher wears red catchers equipment (ala Brian Harper). Hopefully Pinto can take note.

    Also, where would you bat Mauer Aaron?

  • jimbo92107

    I really hate to say it, but the best thing for Joe Mauer right now would be to “retire” from baseball for at least a year, then hopefully his brain would heal up enough for him to try to make a comeback. The wiring in your brain does not heal the same way other injuries do. It takes a lot longer and is far less certain to recover fully. During his down time, Mauer could work on changing his swing to something more like what he and Bruno were trying to create for the last couple years.

    Meanwhile, from a team standpoint, the Twins need more power from first base. Kennys Vargas, Miguel Sano or even Max Kepler would fit that role better than Mauer is doing today. Maybe even Dalton Hicks from AA would do it better, if you’re looking for a regular first baseman.

  • Dave_Thompson

    A hard article to read. I’m sure it was harder to write. Thanks Aaron.

  • dave

    Catchers don’t age well, and concussions have probably been a large part of the reason. The last good offensive season from the list of catchers in his class is as follows:
    Bench – 33 years old
    Carter – 32
    IRod – 32
    Simmons – 33, although age 31 and 32 were not good.
    Piazza is the exception that had a very good season at age 37, although it was well off the peak of his younger years.

    I really hope Mauer returns to form, but based on his age his decline is expected right about now.

  • Torse

    Its like reading a obituary. Realitive to his salary and position Mauer has been brutal going on three seasons. Aaron has been in denial citing ob% which has been sinking like a rock. Im betting he rebounds and will resemble the hitter we know.

  • PR

    Not sure I buy the big-innings-at-catcher argument. He has pretty low mileage on him at that position (just 900+), and since 2010 has started fewer than 200 games at that position.

  • K. McCarty

    What are Mauer’s number since leaving the friendly confines of Metrodome and its hitter friendly artificial turf?

  • k.mccarty

    Collapse of Mauer has everything to do with the guys hitting behind in the batting order. When did Justin Morneau vacate the clean up spot in the order to…Trevor Plouffe? Mauer’s best years were spent seeing great pitches in front of Justin Morneau. Why would a team pitch to Mauer with Trevor and his .418 lifetime slugging % on deck? Compare to Morneau’s .483 SLG %. Mauer’s production has suffered greatly since the other half of the M & M boys left town.

  • matt

    One other factor: the twins as in his fatherhood. Two babies could also affect anyones performance.

  • jennyzeroo

    Quite clear things started at the contract NOT the injury. But, hey, whatever makes you feel better about it.

    It’s getting close to time to retire. At SOME point, you have to consider what’s good for the team. You can’t carry deadweight in pro baseball and we are getting close, plus, how long do you hold the spot vs. some young up and comer?

    I sympathize for him, but I sympathize much MUCH more for people who suffer from things like this who are NOT wealthy and get to keep their job even if they can’t do it anymore.

  • Michael

    Not only is his hitting nose diving, he is making poor plays in the field. In the last few games he has twice fielded easy grounders and taken the easy out instead of throwing the runner out at second when replays showed he had plenty of time. In each case the runner at second ended up becoming the winning run.
    His contract is killing the Twins from getting better players with the money they have left

  • Brucew56

    He acts like his legs are made of concrete. He can’t hit any pitches except those from his knees to his belt. His days are numbered in a Twins uniform.