Saturday, February 13, 2016

Some clarity to Joe Mauer's decline

So ... what to make of Joe Mauer's public admission to the Pioneer Press' Brian Murphy that symptoms from his 2013 continued to plague him even last season?

First, we need to understand exactly what Mauer said and what he didn't. If you haven't read Murphy's story, do so. The link's above. The aggregation sites (and this very post) distill and, even without intending to, distort the story ever so slightly. Go to the original source; if nothing else, Murphy deserves the clicks.

The blurred vision is described as occasional and was, Mauer believes, triggered by bright light. (He will try playing with sunglasses during spring training next month; that obvious change in his routine is probably what prompted this revelation.) And he implies that he didn't let team management know of the vision problems.

For what it's worth, Mauer's slash stats in the daytime last season were markedly lower than his numbers in night games. But even his nighttime numbers weren't up to his career standards. His strikeout rate was also markedly higher in day games. (Data from Baseball Reference.) Checking 2013's splits -- that being his last season behind the dish, a season that ended with his concussion and that saw him post his third-best OPS+ -- he hit better in day games than at night, but so slightly that it may well be just statistical noise.

Let's ask ourselves some questions:

Was Mauer hurting the team by playing? My answer is no. He wasn't Joe Mauer, chronic batting title contender, but he still had the best on-base percentage on the roster other than Miguel Sano, who was only there for half the season. He was roughly a league-average hitter last year; that is also true of Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe.

Should Paul Molitor, Tom Brunansky and the rest of the brain trust have known? The culture of athletics, especially at this rarefied level, is: Play through it. Mauer's taken a great deal of public criticism (even if he never acknowledges it) as a brittle "China doll," and that may have led him to hide his recurring symptoms. It seems inevitable that the manager, coaches and front office could tell that it wasn't the same Mauer as before the 2013 concussion, but that there were specific concussion symptoms recurring, that might not have been obvious even to people close to him.

Is it going to get better? Mauer sounds optimistic. He says he hasn't had any symptoms recur during his workouts the last three months, and that that hasn't been the case for a couple of years. But without digging through the archives, I think he's said the same thing the last couple of spring trainings.

Here's the deal: Mauer turns 33 in April. He spent a decade behind the plate. Even if his brain is fully healed from the 2013 trauma, age and other physical decline takes their toll. It is simply unrealistic to expect him to return to hitting .330 as he did in his mid-20s.

I'd love to see Mauer rebound to that level, but I don't expect it. I have more hope now than I did before reading Murphy's piece that he will have a better year in 2016 than in 2015.

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