Average Joe: On Joe Mauer and nostalgia


Joe Mauer set a Minnesota Twins franchise record for consecutive games reaching base Thursday night: 43 games. Fittingly, it was on a walk. But there’s something not to like about this record. It personifies how cruel baseball can be at times: A once-great hitter, reduced to small daily contributions, while looking all-but dried up far too early.

How this record didn’t happen several seasons ago while Mauer was in his prime and one of game’s best hitters can only be explained as a matter of baseball being unpredictable. This is what’s so frustrating about the game. At any time it can pull the baseball-is-unpredictable card and rip out the heart and soul of its players and admirers.

From 2004-2013, Mauer established himself as a virtual wizard at the dish, and one of the keenest eyes for the strikezone. Consider this, during that stretch, he walked more than he struck out six times (eight if you count intentional walks), and during one of those seasons (2009) hit .365 with 28 home runs, an unearthly wRC+ (170), wOBA (.438), all while being an elite defensive catcher.

The sensible observer knew 2009 couldn’t last. Mauer was a opposite-field hitter that put everything together for one of the best seasons by a catcher. Ever. But what we didn’t know was how quickly the Twins’ franchise player would decline. His 2010-2013 seasons don’t look out of the ordinary from the back of a baseball card, aside from missing 80 games in 2011. But in 2013, something odd did happen: Mauer’s strikeout rate spiked to 17.5 percent. Nobody can be blamed for shrugging it off. After all, he still hit .324 and walked at a typical 12 percent rate. But he jumped his previous career high rate strikeout set in 2012 at 13.7 percent, a season where he still walked more often (14 percent).

It didn’t end there: Mauer entered the regression stage. He struck out at an 18.5 percent rate last year, with career lows in average (.277), wRC+ (105) and wOBA (.322), despite a .342 BABIP. But 2014 came with reason, right? He was coming off missing the end of 2013 with a concussion. It was his first full season at first base. The excuses were all there, weren’t they?

Apr 16, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins designated hitter Joe Mauer (7) hits an RBI single in the fourth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Now we digress into this season. There’s no playing around it anymore, Joe Mauer as we want to know him, is not coming back. In our heart of hearts, we must know the old Joe Mauer is gone. This year is the worst statistical season of Mauer’s career. He’s an average player, as supported by a 0.5 fWAR, a career-low 10.3 percent walk rate and a tanking average, among other measures. Defensively, he’s worse at first base. And worse yet, the active career leader in swinging at the fewest pitches, will reach a 40 percent swing rate for the first time in his career, per PITCHf/x data, and make contact at a career-low rate.

So, this is what we’re reduced to now: Celebrating nothing more than the franchise player making one positive contribution every day. Not to diminish the accomplishment, it’s an impressive streak, but Mauer has now reached that level of decline where big — yet ultimately small — achievements are reason to fawn over the shell of a franchise player eating up $20 million-plus in salary on a team that’s knocking on the door of taking the next step.

What to do from here is even harder.

Mauer is a rare player: Completely loyal to Minnesota. He could have went to Boston after 2010 and used his opposite-field approach to hit close to .400 bouncing singles off the Green Monster in the No. 2 hole behind Jacoby Ellsbury and ahead of David Ortiz.

But he didn’t.

Yet his contract — $23 million a year through 2018 — is a black hole. He’s not regressed enough to retire, nor old enough at 32. For many reasons he can’t be traded, and he’s not bad enough to be benched.

Maybe there’s more excuses to be made for him until that point. Can 2016 be a bounce-back? His second half splits give no indication of one. What about another year with Paul Molitor? He had a similar skill set at the plate for his 20-year career, but Molitor should even admit something is amiss.

Did the 2013 concussion ruin his vision and patience? Now we might be getting somewhere with valid excuses. If 2013, at age 30, was the start of Mauer’s decline as an elite hitter, there’s precedent to believe one big blow accelerated his regression and reduced his chances to fade slower into 2018. But there’s also research and precedent from FanGraphs suggesting hitters like Mauer regress quicker than power hitters, and right around age 30. So now we have history and precedent.

Courtesy of FanGraphs

Whatever the case, we are witnessing Mauer rise from a No. 1 overall pick, to one of the greatest tactical hitters ever, to a future hall of famer, to a fast-declining superstar with a legacy hanging in the balance. And all we have left is the appreciation of what used to be, the blind hope it can return and celebration of the little things — a little too early.