Joey Da Gun.
Whatever you want to call him, it's going to be great to see Joe Mauer back in the Twins lineup tonight. The 2008 All-Star missed all of spring training and the first several weeks of the season due to an inflamed joint in his lower back, but after going 6-for-15 in a rehab stint at Ft. Myers, he's ready to return to action and will be the starting catcher when the Twins open their series against the Royals at the Metrodome this evening.
Since Mauer made the jump to the majors in 2004, the Twins have been a significantly better team when he's been in the lineup. In games where Mauer has started during that span, the Twins have gone 293-241 -- 53 more wins than losses and good for a .549 winning percentage. In games Mauer has not started, the Twins have gone 156-143 -- 13 more wins than losses and good for a .522 winning percentage. With that being the case, perhaps we can be a little less concerned about the team's 11-11 record over the first month with Mauer out of the lineup, and a little more optimistic about what they'll be able to do now that he's back (particularly considering that a number of slumping players are due for an upswing in production).
So, just how does Mauer's return figure to positively impact the Twins? Let us count the ways...
The Twins have gotten a solid .301/.363/.356 hitting line from the catcher position over the first month of the season thanks to the surprising productivity of Jose Morales, but once Morales' .405 batting average on balls in play takes an inevitable dip, the average from the catching position will drop and the OPS will come crashing down with it due to a lack of patience or power from either Morales or Mike Redmond.
Even if the current catching duo were somehow able to maintain their current rate of production, it would still pale in comparison to Mauer's .317/.399/.457 career hitting line and to his .328/.413/.451 line from a year ago.
Building on the last point, Mauer brings a discerning eye to a lineup sorely lacks them. The Twins currently rank 11th in the American League in walks with 68. Mauer, of course, is one of baseball's most disciplined hitters, having ranked seventh in the American League in walks last year while finishing with an incredible 50-to-84 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
In 135 games at catcher last year, Mauer committed three errors and was charged with four passed balls. In 22 games so far this year, Morales and Redmond have combined for two errors and five passed balls. Of course, the mishandled balls behind the plate haven't been nearly as frustrating as the current duo's deficiency in the next department...
Controlling the Running Game
Mauer has one of the best throwing arms among major-league catchers, having thwarted steal attempts 41 percent of the time over the course of his career (36 percent last year and 53 percent in 2007). This year, Redmond has gone 1-for-10 throwing out baserunners while Morales has gone 6-for-19, and so the two have combined for a CS% of 24.1. That's not very good, but it's a lot worse when you consider that plays in which the pitcher picks off a runner count toward these totals. I could be wrong, but to my knowledge the Redmond/Morales duo has only actually been responsible for throwing out a stealing baserunner on one occasion this season (Mark DeRosa last weekend in Cleveland).
In 22 games, opposing teams have successfully moved a runner up one base on a steal 22 times. That generally means a player moves from first base into scoring position without any negative consequence, and it puts a lot of strain on the pitching staff. Opposing teams have shown no restraint when it comes to running on the current regime, as their 29 attempted steals in 22 games would put them on pace for 214 attempts over a 162 game season, with a very high success rate. Last year, opposing teams attempted 80 steals in 135 games against Mauer, which would equate to 96 steal attempts in a full season (with anywhere between one-third to one-half of those being unsuccessful).
The Twins pitching staff finished the 2008 season with a 4.18 ERA with Mauer working as the regular catcher. This year, the staff has finished the month of April with a 5.26 ERA while being caught by Redmond and Morales. Now, clearly it would be silly to attribute all of the team's pitching troubles to the catchers -- the struggles of guys like Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano have been their own doing for the most part -- but almost every single pitcher on this team has a lengthy history of working with Mauer. They're comfortable with him and he knows their individual styles. Mauer has a reputation around the league as being a quality game-caller, which is part of the reason he was awarded with his first Gold Glove last year.
The first of May is widely known as May Day, but Twins fans will refer to this high holiday by another name: Mauer Day. Time to celebrate.