We all knew Joe Mauer could hit, but hit for power?
That was supposed to be the one crack in his armor.
Until this year.
Mauer slugged his 11th homer on Memorial Day, his third in as many days, putting him within two of his career high set back in 2006. The difference, of course, is that back then, Mauer had 512 at-bats before getting there. This time, it’s taken only 81 at-bats to reach 11. At this pace, he’ll finish the season with 66 bombs (assuming he plays in every remaining every Twins game), even after sitting out the entire month of April nursing a back injury. And who says back problems sap a hitter’s power? I remember hearing a similar prediction about Russell Branyan’s back woes, right before he proceeded to do his best Roy Hobbs impersonation. But that’s another story for another day.
With the way things are going now, people have to be wondering: what has gotten into Mauer? Is this some momentary surge or can we expect to see him competing against teammate and reigning Home Run Derby champ, Justin Morneau? Neither outcome would be shocking.
One thing’s for sure, though: Mauer is no Barry Bonds: The chances of him tallying 66 homers in one season are about as likely as Jamie Moyer striking out 300 batters. In fact, I have a hard time buying 30 homers.
One glance at his hit chart tells an interesting story:
The vast majority of Mauer’s homers have been opposite-field shots.
Don’t get me wrong — going the other way never hurt anyone. The bottom line is this, though: Mauer has always shown the ability to spray the ball all over the diamond, meaning his recent outburst is merely a more prolific version of what he’s done in past years. That’s not to say it’s impossible for a player to improve over time, but to witness such a dramatic shift without any real change to his skill set or approach makes it difficult to believe Mauer’s surge will last. If, for example, Mauer was all of a sudden pulling the ball to right field with great frequency, it would be far easier to defend his long-ball binge as legitimate. Unfortunately, no visible change exists where the 26-year-old’s peripherals or trends are concerned, so we’re left without much choice but to believe that he’s simply very, very hot right now — not a permanently changed hitter.
Another habit Mauer can’t seem to shake is pounding the ball into the dirt. Granted, this month has been better than years past. He is getting more loft on his swing, putting the ball in the air 36.6 percent of the time, more than eight percentage points higher than last season’s mark of 28.3 percent. Keeping it up will almost certainly get him to 20-25 homer territory. Still, to truly take the next step, to really establish himself as one of the game’s top hitters — and not just one of the game’s top-hitting catchers — he’ll probably need to stop waking up so many worms with his 46.5 percent ground-ball rate.
Winning another batting crown? Sure.
Banging 30-plus dingers after having never hit more than 13? Let’s not get carried away.
— Alex Cushing, MLB.com