Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Just How Good Will Joe Mauer Be?

Twins first baseman Joe Mauer works on his first base skills during the Minnesota Twins spring training at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers on Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)
For the second season, and the first time not having to learn from scratch, Joe Mauer will be the Minnesota Twins every day first basemen. Having no doubt dealt with lingering concussion effects compounded by the rigors of learning a new spot, Mauer failed to meet expectations in his first season out from behind the plate. As an athlete that has succeeded in every sport he has played, and nearly every position, it's fair to wonder just how good Mauer will be in 2015, and going forward.

Offensively, Mauer took significant strides backwards last season. A slash line of .277/.361/.371 was well below his career marks (.319/.401/.459), and playing in only 120 games was not the goal either. Mauer remarked this offseason that enlarged strikezones and harder throwing pitchers were some of the reason for the decline, but I've always argued a lesser thought of point comes into play. Having moved out from behind the plate, Mauer no longer had the benefit of seeing and understanding the zone prior to stepping in the box. Although minor, it's still an adjustment that no doubt takes some getting used to.

Now at 32 years old in April, Mauer returning to form will be one of his toughest challenges yet. However, there is some reason to believe he can make the rebound. First, in 2014, Mauer posted his lowest BABIP (batting average on balls in play since 2011. In 2011, Mauer's BABIP checked in at .319 and contributed to a .287 average. Last season, a .342 BABIP led Mauer to a .277 average. After posting his most recent sub .300 season in 2011, Mauer rebounded by hitting .319 the next year. Then there's his 2014 splits. Prior to the All Star game, Mauer slashed .271/.342/.353. After returning from his oblique injury, Mauer hit .289/.397/.408, numbers much more indicative of his typical level of play.

At the end of the day, there should be little concern about Mauer's offensive prowess returning in 2015. He may not hit for the .315 average that he has made a career out of, but expecting him to be north of the .300 plateau is a realistic bet. Hitting for power is not something Mauer is ever going to do, but he could expand the field if manager Paul Molitor bats him second requiring more pitches being taken to right field. It's defensively that Mauer has the most to gain however.

Last season, Mauer posted a 1.5 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating). In 851 innings at first base, Mauer was worth 1.5 runs better than average at first base. The mark was the first positive number he has posted at the position since 2011 (albeit only logging 70 innings in 2013 and 260.1 in 2012). In 2011, Mauer played 141 innings at first base and logged a 3.5 UZR. With the Twins committed to Mauer at first base, the second season focused on the role only should see improvement from an extremely talented player. Bucking the stereotype of the plodding, powerful, first basemen, Mauer brings more athleticism and quickness to the role. The expectation that he should post a UZR that ranks as a career best in 2015 is realistic.

As a whole, it's the defensive prowess that Mauer could end up bringing his stock up in the tail end of his career. A three time Gold Glove winner behind the plate, I'd argue there's reason to believe he can reach that level at first. For comparisons sake, the Dodgers Adrian Gonzalez had a 5.5 UZR last season. That mark was good enough for him to capture National League Gold Glove recognition. That mark is something that would seem to be within Mauer's grasp. If he can elevate his defensive game year over year, Mauer will prove to be an asset once again to the Twins.

A 1.7 WAR (wins above replacement) player a season ago, Mauer fell off from the 5.2 and 4.5 marks he had posted the two prior seasons. Offensive production hurt those numbers the most, but a 2015 could see a dramatic shift. Even returning to pedestrian Mauer numbers would have him back in the realm of a 4.0 WAR. Just for the sake of mentioning it, Fangraphs quantifies a 4.0 WAR player being worth right around $20 million (Mauer's AAV is $23 mil).

What 2015 sets up as is a big opportunity for the Twins former backstop. While not the prototypical player people want to position him as at first base, he still remains well above average, and has the opportunity to return to elite company. Mauer's biggest challenge will continue to be staying on the field, but if he's out there, expect him to perform in 2015.