Thursday, July 9, 2015

Contemplating the first base situation

Joe Mauer rounds the bases Wednesday after
his home run off Baltimore's Bud Norris.
At the end of the game of June 16 (a loss at St. Louis ), Joe Mauer was hitting .253 with an on-base percentage of .318 and a slugging percentage of .346. An OPS of .664 isn't particularly impressive from a shortstop, much less a first baseman, and there was a growing murmur among the fan base about his decline,

Since then Mauer has hit .351 with four homers, including one Wednesday afternoon. His slash line for the season is still unimpressive for a first baseman, but it's no longer the worst season of his illustrious career.

I am occasionally asked about  moving Mauer to another position or about pulling him from a regular role altogether. I don't see the first happening at all, and the latter won't come this year, or probably next either.

Mauer is 32. He was never gifted with great speed, catching tends to make its practitioners heavy-legged, and everybody gets slower with age. Mauer's at an age when good hitters tend to get slid to less demanding defensive positions and bad hitters fade out of the league. First base is the least demanding defensive position. He's not going to shift to a tougher one.

Granted, as a first baseman, he's got to hit better than he has in the year-and-a-half since he took that role. But the Twins will keep him in the lineup, and high in the lineup, until it's clear that they have better options. They are a long way from deciding that.

Here's an indication of what opposing teams think about Mauer as a hitter: He has 10 intentional walks already. Nobody else has more than four (Kurt Suzuki and Oswaldo Arcia). Brian Dozier and Torii Hunter have one IBB apiece. Teams aren't walking those guys to get to Mauer; they will walk Mauer to get to the cleanup hitter. Mauer remains the hitter they worry about. (For his career, Mauer has 125 IBB with a season high of 21; Hunter just 52 in a much longer span.)

Mauer has three years left on his contract after this season. It's quite possible that by the 2018 season, his age-35 year, he won't be the regular first baseman. He might be a full-time DH by then; he might be a part-time player. But Mauer and the Twins aren't to that point yet.

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