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.

February 27, 2012

Twins Notes: Zumaya, Morneau, Span, three catchers, and old friends

• It took 13 batting practice throws for Joel Zumaya to show why he was available to the Twins for a non-guaranteed, incentive-laden deal and why they were foolish not to add another setup man in a buyer's market flooded with veterans willing to sign cheaply. Zumaya felt elbow pain during Saturday's mound session, walked off with a trainer, headed to his too-familiar place in an MRI machine, and was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament.

He'll miss the entire season, his Twins career is over before it even started, and Zumaya may call it quits at age 27 following what would be his seventh surgery in five years. And it's a shame, because throughout all the injuries Zumaya never lost the ability to throw gas--he reportedly showed mid-90s velocity in the abbreviated session Saturday--and signing him to a one-year deal worth just $400,000 in guaranteed money was a smart gamble by the Twins.

Not so smart was their decision to view Zumaya as something more than a lottery ticket, but by passing on cheap, decent bullpen options like Todd Coffey, Brad Lidge, Dan Wheeler, Chad Qualls, and Takashi Saito in favor of overpaying Matt Capps and counting on Zumaya they're left with a right-handed setup man void and only in-house arms like Anthony Swarzak, Alex Burnett, Kyle Waldrop, Jeff Gray, Lester Oliveros, and Carlos Gutierrez to fill it.

Justin Morneau created a big stir last week when he showed up to spring training and gave a less than encouraging update on his now two-year-long concussion comeback. Morneau noted that he hasn't had concussion symptoms "since January." He meant that in a positive way, but that only dates back a month, and five weeks ago Morneau told Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he hadn't experienced symptoms "since December."

Asked what he'll do if the symptoms return this spring, Morneau said:

I don't think there will be a career if it's something I'm dealing with. That's the reality of the whole thing. I've kind of come to grips with that. I'm obviously not going to continue to mess around with this if it continues to be a problem. There comes a point when you can only torture yourself so long. It's something I love to do, but you keep preparing and keep being let down, that's something that nobody wants to go through, obviously.

In other words, his baseball career may very well be determined by the next six weeks.

Denard Span's own comeback from a season-ruining concussion has flown under the radar a bit compared to Morneau, but Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com reports that "he still is bothered by an occasional bad day" nine months after the initial brain injury. This offseason Span changed his diet, took up yoga, and started seeing a chiropractor, but much like with Morneau there isn't a lot he can do now besides wait and see how his brain responds to increased activities.

• As much as injuries wrecked the Twins last season, it could have been worse. Well, sort of. Jeff Zimmerman of Fan Graphs crunched the numbers and the Twins were close to the middle of the pack when it comes to total days spent on the disabled list in 2011, ranking 13th. They did, however, lead baseball in disabled list stints with 28. By comparison, no other team had more than 24 disabled list stints and the Royals only used the disabled list nine times.

• Because they didn't make any changes to the training and medical staff it's unclear how the Twins plan to achieve their oft-stated goal of keeping players on the field and off the DL more this year, but what we do know is that injury information will be disseminated differently. Last season Ron Gardenhire was often tasked with giving medical updates to reporters, which was no fun for the manager and frequently led to confusing or misleading details.

This time around general manager Terry Ryan and assistant general manager Rob Antony will take responsibility for giving those day-to-day injury updates. Ryan explained that the change is in part to "streamline the process" and in part to let Gardenhire focusing on managing. Asked if he was in favor of the change, Gardenhire said: "When he announced that, I wanted to give him a man hug. I'm happy. Yeah, that's the last thing I want to talk about is injuries."

• Bollinger reports that "the Twins are widely expected to carry three catchers to start the season." While perhaps not ideal, particularly when one of those three catchers will almost surely be Drew Butera, no one should be surprised. In fact, in projecting the Opening Day roster back in mid-December my assumption was that they'd carry Butera along with Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit. At this point I'd be surprised if they didn't.

Mauer's durability plays a big factor, as does Doumit being counted on to be the starting designated hitter. Toss in Gardenhire's longstanding fear of having to forfeit the DH role in the middle of a game if the DH is needed behind the plate and Butera's spot seems fairly safe despite his ghastly .178/.220/.261 career line in 142 games. Elias Sports Bureau found that the Twins have lost the DH spot mid-game just eight times in 10 years under Gardenhire.

• Old friend Cristian Guzman, who sat out last season, will attempt to get back into the AL Central after agreeing to a minor-league contract with the Indians. Cleveland manager Manny Acta managed Guzman in Washington and apparently talked the 33-year-old into making a comeback as a potential utility man. Guzman has hit .279/.314/.384 in 565 games since leaving the Twins as a free agent following the 2005 season, including .266/.311/.337 in 2010.

• Another old friend, Juan Rincon, signed a minor-league deal with the Angels. Rincon's four-year run as a dominant setup man tends to be overlooked--he posted a 2.93 ERA with 318 strikeouts in 319 innings from 2003-2006--but he was pretty much washed up at age 29 when the Twins released him in mid-2008 and since then has logged a total of just 66 innings with a 6.27 ERA for three different teams.

• Just a reminder: John Bonnes and I are hosting a get-together/meet-up/viewing party next Monday night, March 5 at Wild Boar in Hopkins, where we'll watch the Twins-Red Sox spring training game on television, record a "Gleeman and The Geek" podcast episode, drink beer, and talk baseball. It should be fun and if the turnout is decent we'll probably do a lot more events during the season, so come hang out.

June 13, 2011

Twins Notes: Hotness, to and from contact, dizziness, and tough decisions

• They still have the worst record in the league at 26-39, still are on pace to go 65-97, and still would need to go 59-38 from here on out to finish with even 85 wins, but by going 9-3 to start June the Twins have at the very least put off a potential fire sale for a while and made their games fun to watch again. Baby steps, sure, but 26-39 looks a whole lot prettier than 17-37 and as usual the thoroughly mediocre AL Central makes much bigger steps seem possible.

Francisco Liriano had a panic-inducing April, posting a 9.13 ERA with as many walks (18) as strikeouts (18) as the Twins tried to convince him to "pitch to contact" with terrible results. His first May start was a no-hitter versus the White Sox and Liriano flirted with a second no-hitter yesterday against the Rangers, giving him a 1.89 ERA in six starts since May 1. And as Liriano explained after racking up nine strikeouts, his success has come from not following advice:

I've always been the power pitcher, trying to strike out people. I feel more comfortable pitching like that. I'm trying to be me, [the way] I used to pitch last year and the year before. I'm not thinking about contact at all.

Good. It never made much sense that the Twins would try to force Liriano into the same strike-throwing, contact-inducing mold they use for pitchers with inferior raw stuff and less ability to overpower hitters, so thankfully he stayed with the approach that led to so much success last season.  Liriano has allowed two runs or fewer in five of six starts, with the lone outlier coming after throwing 123 pitches in the no-hitter, so hopefully they'll stop trying to fix him for a while.

Carl Pavano has also put together a strong six-start stretch since beginning the season 2-4 with a 6.64 ERA, logging 43 innings with a 2.49 ERA and just two homers allowed. However, his lack of missed bats continues to be worrisome from a 35-year-old pitcher set to earn $8.5 million in 2012. Pavano has just 16 strikeouts in those 43 innings, which is a minuscule rate of 3.3 per nine innings and even lower than his 3.6 per nine innings through seven bad starts.

Pavano can still be effective by limiting walks and homers, but it'll be tough for the Twins to get their money's worth over the next season-and-a-half if he can't get back to at least 5-6 whiffs per nine innings like 2009 and 2010. Not only are his 3.5 strikeouts per nine innings this year the lowest rate in baseball, no other pitcher is below 4.0 and the last pitcher to qualify for the ERA title with a lower strikeout rate was Livan Hernandez at 3.4 in 2008 ... for the Twins.

Denard Span's collision with Royals catcher Brayan Pena didn't look like much at the time. In fact, I was watching on television alongside a handful of other Twins bloggers and a few beat reporters, and no one seemed to think much of it beyond Span not turning Pena into Buster Posey with a bigger collision. Span stayed in the game and even played a few days later, but then complained of dizziness and was put on the new seven-day disabled list for concussions.

Span told reporters that he's "definitely scared" about the situation and it's easy to see why. One reason is that Justin Morneau missed the final three-plus months of last season and was sidelined for a total of nine months following a concussion last July and still hasn't gotten back on track 11 months later. Beyond that, Span described what he's currently going through as "a familiar feeling" to when he missed time with vertigo in 2009:

I feel a little like somebody's kind of pushing me from the back a little bit. I'm not going to fall over, but it's the same exact feeling. I want to get this checked out. I'm frustrated, all those things. There's something wrong. I don't know what it is, so I want to get it taken care of.

Span, who'd bounced back from a disappointing 2010 to be the Twins' best all-around player through 60 games, also revealed that he still experiences symptoms related to the vertigo two years later, saying: "It's calmed down a lot and it's manageable, but it's been something I've dealt with since then." That's news to me and is a glimpse into the type of health information players and teams tend to keep to themselves whenever possible.

Alexi Casilla continues to play very well since escaping from the doghouse thanks to Trevor Plouffe's mistake-filled attempt to replace him and is now batting .337/.401/.421 in 27 games since mid-May. His defense is also improved and Casilla is finally using his elite speed. Despite great stolen base percentages Casilla attempted just 21.5 steals per 600 plate appearances prior to this year. This season Casilla has already tried 12 steals in 198 plate appearances.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka is finally on the verge of returning 10 weeks after an injury expected to last 4-6 weeks and once that happens Casilla seems destined for second base despite starting 10 straight games at shortstop. Nishioka looked shaky at second base before fracturing his fibula thanks in part to incorrect double play positioning, so the Twins presumably wouldn't have him playing shortstop while rehabbing if they planned to bring him back as a second baseman.

Ron Gardenhire has dropped some strong hints recently about being unhappy with Danny Valencia and Nishioka returning provides an opportunity for the Twins to keep Matt Tolbert as the utility man and Luke Hughes as the starting third baseman while demoting Valencia back to Triple-A. Hughes has hit well in a part-time role of late, but hasn't been impressive overall with a .270/.311/.360 mark and 23-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33 games.

What's funny about Valencia's situation is that his power and plate discipline have been fine, but whereas an unsustainably high .345 batting average on balls in play fueled his better than expected rookie season an unsustainably low .239 batting average on balls in play has him fighting for his job now. Ultimately the "real" Valencia is somewhere in between and his career line of .270/.321/.397 is close to both his minor-league track record and Hughes' likely upside.

• Barring a setback it looks like Joe Mauer will come off the disabled list Thursday, returning to the lineup after missing 57 games with complications following offseason knee surgery. In his absence the Twins have gotten the worst production in baseball from their catchers, as Drew Butera and Rene Rivera (and Steve Holm, briefly) have combined to hit .178 with a .497 OPS. To put that in some context, Al Newman has the lowest OPS in Twins history at .581.

They've both done a good job defensively, particularly when it comes to controlling the running game, but Butera has hit .174/.207/.261 in 40 games and Rivera has hit .196/.262/.304 in 20 games. So naturally in discussing Mauer's impending return yesterday Gardenhire talked about what a "tough decision" it will be choosing which replacement-level catcher gets to avoid a trip back to Triple-A and stick around as the backup:

Oh, absolutely. You want tough decisions though. I don't like it when it's carved out, "this is going to happen." You want tough decisions. That means both of them are doing OK, and when Joe comes back, sure, we're going to have to make a tough decision. And both of them have done their parts and they continue to. But it's not going to be easy no matter which way we go.

"Both of them are doing OK" and "both of them have done their parts" is an interesting way to describe two players who've literally combined for the worst production in baseball. How much worse than a .497 OPS could they get before it no longer qualified as "doing OK"? In reality it's only a "tough decision" because neither Butera nor Rivera have played well enough to warrant sticking around, in which case "stub your toe or get a paper cut?" is also a "tough decision."

• Speaking of Rivera, last night he tweeted this charming picture of Ben Revere at Morneau's annual casino night charity fundraiser:

Is that a better or worse look for Revere than this little number from his rookie hazing?

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