Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Mauer Power Up Front For Twins

When I tried to set the Twins lineup for 2017 back in December, I made the contention that Joe Mauer belonged in the leadoff spot. If he wasn't going to hit first, he should bat somewhere around sixth, but I believe he should absolutely hit first. The question is whether or not Paul Molitor has come around far enough on the idea.

A season ago, Molitor used over 130 different lineup combinations. On a daily basis, he seemed confused as to why he was batting players where he was, and his reasoning rarely would stand up against statistical agreement. Over the course of the season, Mauer was campaigned for as a leadoff hitter by a select few. Unfortunately, Molitor gave him an opportunity in just eight games. Those games came after a stretch in which he had played 31 straight without a day off, and the experiment was abandoned after the May 18th tilt against the Detroit Tigers.

While it's an incredibly small sample size, in the eight instances in which Joe Mauer lead off a game, he owned a very solid .375 on base percentage. Always a high on base guy, Mauer threatened to walk more often (79) than he struck out (93) a year ago. It was his lowest strikeout total since 2013, and his plate approach looked extremely impressive.

Generating contact 86.2% of the time, Mauer saw his best contact percentage since his 2012 year, and his 4.9% swinging strike rate was also the best it's been since that season. He chased pitches out of the zone just 23.2% of the time (another best since 2012), and his plan at the dish looked to be something cut of the cloth from the player we once knew. Given his approach and eye, he turned in a .363 OBP on the year, and that number rose to .383 when looking at production solely off of right handed pitchers. Although not quite the .400+ OBP mark Mauer used to patent, his numbers last season when it came to getting on base were better than any year since his 2013 All Star campaign.

If there's an argument against making Joe Mauer the Minnesota Twins leadoff hitter, it's the dated thought that the top guy in the lineup has to be fast. While there's no denying that Mauer doesn't have earth shattering speed, there is plenty of room to question how much speed should factor in.

Looking at the entirety of Major League Baseball lineups on Opening Day in 2016, only seven players stole 20 bases (just 23% of all leadoff hitters). Of those seven players, only two stole 20 or more bases while also having a higher on base percentage than Mauer's .363. Their names were Jose Altuve and Jean Segura.

If somehow the Twins were able to turn Byron Buxton into a Jose Altuve clone, I think we'd have a pretty clear idea who would bat leadoff. Given that doesn't seem incredibly likely, the speed and on base combination doesn't appear to be in the organization at present. Jean Segura checked in ahead of Mauer as well, but his .368 OBP was easily a career best, and well over his .319 career average. So if speed isn't something that's a commodity available to everyone, we once again find ourselves looking for a guy who gets on base.

Speaking of trying to get on base with a leadoff hitter, the Twins also stand to significantly benefit when it comes to run production. In 2016, Brian Dozier batted leadoff in 73 games. He lead off the game with a homer six different times, and of his 42 longballs, 30 of them came with no runners on base. Generating 99 RBI on the season, if just half of the 30 solo shots included a base runner, Dozier would've plated 114 RBI in 2016. Over the course of the year, Minnesota scored 722 runs, three under league average. Adding 15 to their total would've taken them from 16th to 13th in big league run total.

Being able to quantify the ability Joe Mauer possesses when it comes to getting on base is something that has been at the Twins disposal for years. It's now down to whether or not Paul Molitor wants to utilize it. Interestingly enough, his new boss is not foreign to the idea that using a strong on base guy at the top of the lineup makes a lot of sense. While the Indians batted Rajai Davis leadoff to start the season, Carlos Santana took that baton for 85 G in 2016. His .366 OBP was nearly a mirror image of Mauer's .363.

At the end of the day, the reality of the situation is that the Twins don't have a world beating speedster that totes a strong bat along the lines of Altuve or Mookie Betts. What they do have is one of the best players on the planet when it comes to getting on base, and it's even better if he's given extra rest or platooned to see mostly righties. Although some in the local scene such as 1500 ESPN's Patrick Reusse wanted to scoff at and write off the idea after an eight game sample size, Minnesota remains best positioned with Joe kicking things off.

I'm not sure what pull the front office has when it comes to setting lineups, but Molitor proved he could use some guidance a season ago. If Derek Falvey is going to give it to him, the card should start with Mauer.

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