Mackey: Paging Joe Mauer... Where has your bat gone?
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Ever since fans started to turn on Joe Mauer during the bilateral leg weakness season of 2011, I've admittedly been a huge apologist. Probably the biggest apologist among the Twin Cities media.
Of course, if being an apologist for a (mostly) catcher with a .323/.405/.468 career batting line is a sin, then I'll enjoy roasting Target Field hot dogs in hell.
But there is no defending Mauer in 2014. He's been flat out awful - even worse than during the aforementioned bilateral leg weakness season. On one hand, a guy with a 10-year track record of being one of the best pure hitters of this generation probably deserves a 10-week pass. Many great hitters have gone through multi-month slumps, most recently Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Derek Jeter a few years back and David Ortiz. It happens. Hitters bounce back.
On the other hand, things seem especially off for Mauer in a season where he was supposed to be fresh and rejuvenated after moving out from behind the plate. Instead he looks lost, weak and exasperated. It's very odd.
OK, one more quick apologist moment... If you're a Mauer basher using 2014 as a "See? I told you he's terrible!" soapbox, you're an idiot. Mauer is hovering nearly 70 points below his career average and on-base percentage, and he just recently eclipsed double digits in extra base hits - in mid-June. This season is nothing like his previous 10 years, when Mauer had the highest batting average of any player since 2004 while reaching base 40% of the time. Those are Hall of Fame trajectory numbers at any position, let alone catcher.
How bad has it been for Mauer in 2014? The eyeball test is a big enough indictment on its own, but below are some incredible un-Mauer-like numbers that will make you want to grab a garbage bag.
• Mauer entered Tuesday's game against the Red Sox hitting just .137 with runners in scoring position, which is incredible for a guy who entered the season hitting over .330 in such situations.
• In "high leverage" situations (usually close and late situations) Mauer is hitting .175/.327/.175 with zero extra base hits. ZERO, as in none.
• It appears Mauer has successfully hit a ball over an outfielder's head only five times all season, including his two home runs.
In 2013, Mauer hit 11 home runs and another 12 or so doubles near the warning track area.
• Even though Mauer's line drive rate (27%) is among the best in baseball - something that would suggest he's been a victim of bad luck - it appears many of those line drives aren't as well-struck as they have been in previous seasons. ESPN's stat guru Mark Simon tweeted out a list of the top "hard hit" percentage leaders on Monday, and Mauer didn't crack the top 60. No. 60, Yoenis Cespedes, has a hard-hit rate of 18%.
• When perception and reality merge: Heading into Tuesday night, 43% of Mauer's plate appearances have ended in a strikeout, a groundout to second base or a fly out to left field. That's up from 38% last year.
• Mauer is on pace to strike out 100-plus times for the first time in his career. His previous career high is 89.
• When batting third this season, Mauer is hitting .147/.227/.162.
• Have you been yelling at your TV for Mauer to change his approach? Well, he has. Mauer has swung at the first pitch more often this season (14%) than in any other year. Maybe he should do it more often. Mauer hits .430 in his career when he makes contact on the first pitch.
Is something physically wrong and Mauer refuses to talk about it? Is the concussion still a lingering issue in some way? Did 10 years of catching bring Mauer closer to the age cliff than people anticipated? Or is it just a bad stretch that will turn on its own?
Right now, we don't know. But if Mauer's bat ever decides to join the party, the Twins could hang around in what looks like a mediocre American League Central.