It seems I've got some positive mojo going right now. Last Thursday, I wrote an article about J.J. Hardy, noting that his disappointing numbers up to this point have largely been the result of a pesky wrist injury and that with the ailment behind him he should be primed for a much better second half. Since that point, Hardy has gone 10-for-26 (.385) with three doubles and four RBI in seven games. A day after my Hardy post, I wrote a blurb about Francisco Liriano, noting that a lack of good fortune and support from his teammates had led to his unspectacular W/L record and ERA leading up to the All-Star break and positing that "I fully expect Liriano to be one of the American League's best pitchers during the second half." Liriano has won both of his subsequent starts in dominant fashion, allowing only two runs over 14 2/3 innings.
Now, I'm wishing I could work some of that magic on Joe Mauer, who remains one of the team's biggest underachievers. Fresh off signing the largest contract in franchise history, Mauer is following up his MVP season in 2009 with a completely ordinary campaign, as he enters tonight's play with a .297/.367/.429 hitting line to go along with four home runs and 41 RBI. Those aren't exactly bad numbers for a catcher, but considering that Mauer is a historical talent right in the middle of his prime and set to start earning $23 million per season next year, his performance has been more than a slight let-down.
Beyond the underwhelming numbers listed above, there are several aspects of Mauer's game that have come under fire. Here are a few:
* One can hardly make the argument that Mauer hasn't played enough -- he's among the league leaders for innings caught and is on pace for the second-most plate appearances of his career -- but the timing of his days off have sometimes been bewildering. (Most notably when he sat out the last game of a crucial series against the Tigers in Detroit a couple weeks ago despite the All-Star break being on deck.)
* His defensive work has been noticeably worse than in the past; he's not moving around well to block pitches behind the plate and his throws don't have their usual zip or accuracy. It's gotten the point where some fans are actively calling for Drew Butera to catch games more frequently. Considering that Mauer has won two straight Gold Gloves and Butera is one of the worst hitters in the major leagues, that's not a good sign.
* We're nearing August and Mauer still hasn't hit a single ball out of his home park. Overall, he's managed just four home runs in 357 plate appearances, which is two less than he hit in 122 plate appearances as a 21-year-old rookie back in 2004. Many folks, like myself, expected the catcher's power output to pick up as we've moved deeper into the summer months, but it's not happening. Mauer has hit only one home run per month and at this rate is on pace to finish with just six on the year. That's an astonishing drop-off for a 27-year-old who went deep 28 times in his breakout campaign last year.
* Most disturbing of all for Mauer has got to be his increasingly clear lack of confidence. Never has it been on display more obviously than on Tuesday night, when Mauer stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the seventh of a tie game against the Indians, with runners on first and second, and attempted to bunt his way on base. The logic behind the move was technically sound -- there was a ton of room on the left side and had Mauer properly executed he'd have loaded the bases with one out for Jason Kubel -- but the implications here are grave. The team needed one run to take a lead that they could hand over to their bullpen, and rather than step up like a No. 3 hitter and reigning MVP should, Mauer elected to defer the responsibility to Kubel, who is having a thoroughly mediocre year and is miscast as clean-up hitter. Kubel has a .680 career OPS against lefties, so Mauer's move was essentially tantamount to passing the duty of driving in the go-ahead run on to Nick Punto (bit of an exaggeration, but not much).
Mauer, who last year led the league in slugging percentage, and was not long ago being mentioned alongside Albert Pujols in the "best hitter in the game" debate, laying down a bunt with the game on the line. It's about the most depressing thing I've seen all year.
When interviewed after the game, Mauer came up with a lengthy list of statements defending the decision, but this nugget strikes me as the most telling: "I'm not feeling the greatest at the plate right now, and that factors in."
You don't say, Joe?
Mauer started this season hitting at an all-world clip, just as he did throughout the '09 campaign. Against the Royals on April 24, Mauer went 5-for-6 with a double, a triple and two RBI. At that point he was hitting .381 with a 1.025 OPS and nine of his 24 hits had gone for extra bases. The early signs were there for another MVP run.
Since that point, however, Mauer has hit just .276/.344/.394 in 66 games, managing only three homers while grounding into 14 double plays. Those figures -- particularly the batting average and on-base percentage -- are staggering. Who would ever expect such an accomplished hitter to be posting such pedestrian numbers over an extended period of time, especially when he's 27 years old and surrounded by better hitters in the lineup than ever before?
No, I don't believe Mauer has forgotten how to hit. Nor do I believe he's resting on his laurels after signing a big contract.
I think Mauer has been hurt. In fact, I know he's been hurt. He was sidelined by a lingering heel injury back in May, and he's reportedly also been bothered by a sore shoulder, not to mention other various ailments that are likely unbeknownst to fans and the media. I think these injuries have taken a significant toll on Mauer's performance, and unfortunately it's tough to fully heal when you're regularly playing the most demanding position on the baseball field.
There's not much the Twins can do to solve this problem, either. Even at his reduced level of effectiveness, Mauer is still a far better option than the alternatives, with Butera sporting a .422 OPS and neither Wilson Ramos nor Jose Morales appearing ready in Triple-A. With the Twins in the midst of a tight three-team race in the AL Central, they can't afford to give Mauer a couple weeks off in the hopes that he can shake off these ailments and regain some of his strength.
I wish I could say that I expected the same type of surge from Mauer as we've seen from Hardy and Liriano recently, but I'm just not seeing the signs. He remains an intelligent and valuable player at the plate, but he's just not the dominating force with the bat that he was a year ago.
And if he himself doesn't believe that he can step up and lead this lineup, how can we?