After the first month of the 2016 Major League Baseball season, you'd have been hard pressed not to find articles throughout Twins Territory calling Joe Mauer back. He was coming off a great April, and now even further separated from his concussion, it appeared he had turned a corner. Then May happened and he cooled off. What's worth noting though, based on where things stand currently, Joe Mauer may be reinventing the wheel.
Unfortunately, due to his concussion, Joe Mauer was forced to remake his big league career. No longer a catcher, he was going to have to make the move to first base. In doing so, his defensive prowess was being somewhat sapped, and his production almost assuredly would not stand up to the boppers who play the corner spot throughout the big leagues. It has taken a while to get to this point, but we may finally be getting somewhere.
Back in April, I wrote one of those glowing pieces on Joe Mauer's production at the plate. His average was above the .300 mark, and he was once again an on-base machine. Some of that has changed, a lot of it hasn't, but the situation has been fluid in regards to Mauer all season long. What has remained consistent is that he's been one of the Twins lone bright spots.
What's worth diving into is exactly how he's done it.
Coming into the 2016 season, projection systems over at Fangraphs (ZiPS and Steamer) had Mauer being worth 1.3 fWAR at seasons end. Now, through just 58 games, Mauer has already been worth 1.4 fWAR for Minnesota. Sure, he could definitely take a nose dive and pull away production from that number, but expecting him to finish below a 1.3 fWAR mark seems like a bad bet. In fact, Mauer is on pace to be worth right around 4.0 fWAR at season's end, which would be his best total since 2013 (5.2 fWAR).
In trying to understand what Mauer has done to reinvent himself, we have to take a look at the approach through all facets of the game. At the plate, my initial piece back in April did a lot of the leg work. Good things for Joe include a 37.1% hard hit rate, which is his highest output since the 2013 season, and nearly a 10% improvement over the past two years. He's hitting line drives nearly one-third of the time, which is easily a new career high (never has he hit above 30% previously). When he's hitting fly balls, which is something Mauer has done just over 20% of the time, they are leaving the yard 18.9% of the time, his highest mark since 2009 in which he hit 28 homers at the Metrodome.
At the plate, Mauer is making great contact, and he's seeing solid results because of it. He's always been a patient hitter, but getting his swinging strike rate down to 5.1% has been huge. He ranks 11th in MLB among qualified hitters, and there's only nine players with rates lower than 5%. Mauer has also chased pitches out of the zone just 20.9% of the time, his best output since 2009 (20.3%). To summarize, not only is he seeing positive production, but it's backed by an approach that suggests its his own doing.
Then there's the other side of things, that's truly been part of the revolution. Joe Mauer is actually a very good first basemen. On the season, of which he's started 40 games at first base, Mauer has been wroth 4 defensive runs saved while posting a 3.6 ultimate zone rating. His career high DRS at first base came in 2014, and was a total of 4. It took him 99 starts to reach that number. When looking at UZR, he never has been better than the 3,5 number he posted in his 2011 debut at the spot. On pace for 11 DRS in 2016, Mauer is having his most productive defensive season ever, including his time behind the dish.
When looking at how he's played the game as a whole for the Twins in 2016, it's been pretty easy to see Mauer is an absolute asset. Things get taken up to the next notch when you look at the landscape of his competition. Only Miguel Cabrera owns a better fWAR thus far among American League first basemen (1.5 fWAR). Cabrera is the prototypical slugger. He's got 12 homers to his credit, he's hitting above .300, he has been what he has been his entire career.
Joe Mauer is not Miguel Cabrera, and that's ok. Despite the belief that playing first base makes him need to be something like that, he's found his niche and been just fine doing it. Mauer is one pace to hit 20 home runs. He probably won't do that, but he'll be above 10. He's shown a strong approach at the plate, and he's playing a very good first base for Minnesota. Despite what many once believed Joe needed to be at his new position, he's now showing us what he is, and it's something that the Twins are more than welcoming to.