Its been an ugly season so far in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, as the Twins are already out of contention, fighting with the lowly Cubs, losers of 12 straight, for the unceremonious title of worst team in baseball. There are plenty of reasons for the Twins terrible 15-32 record so far. Chief among them is the fact that the pitching staff has given up 264 runs this seasons. That’s 60 more runs than a league average staff and a whopping average of 5.62 runs allowed a game. But as I was perusing the interwebs, I stumbled upon this post by Nick Nelson, on good ‘ole ESPN.com, and was given another reason for Minnesota’s struggles: Joe Mauer.
His most important point in discussing Mauer comes near the bottom of the article, where Mr. Nelson writes “But it will take more than that to win back the disenchanted Target Field faithful. They don’t want a table-setter, they want a table-clearer–– especially if Mauer continues to transition away from catcher into more offense-heavy positions like first base and DH.” Mr. Nelson’s point concerning Mauer’s transition to other positions is important because 1st basemen and DHs are expected to hit for more power than a catcher, but that’s not necessarily the player that Mauer has been in his career.
Joe Mauer is having a solid-to-excellent season by most metrics available today. Mauer is hitting for a solid .300/.405/.418 with 2 homers, 12 doubles, and 21 RBI. His OPS+ of 131 is 35 points higher than league average, and the Twins’ catcher is getting on-base at the 4th best clip in the American League. His excellent batting eye has led to a 29 walks which is good for 5th in the American League. He has hit into 11 double plays, most in baseball so far, but the rest of the numbers are excellent. He has been Minnesota’s 2nd best hitter, behind Josh Wilingham, providing borderline All-Star value.
The problem, hitting wise, is that, as Mr. Nelson writes “the power is nowhere to be found. He has homered twice all season, and is hitting the ball into the ground at a career-high rate — nearly 60 percent.” Mauer has never really been a power hitter, despite the 28 homers he hit in 2009. Only 1 other time in his 9 year career has Mauer hit double digit homers, and that was back in 2006, when he hit 13. His isolated power has also never been great, only posting above .200 once in his career as well. Mauer has always been a high average, high on-base, low power hitter. None of this is new, except for his batting average dropping down from .330 to .300.
Mauer has also proven durable this season, playing in 46 of the Twins’ 47 games this season. He has been the teams catcher in 23 games so far, putting him on pace to catch about 80, playing 40 games apiece at 1st base and DH. However, the former Gold Glover isn’t quite the brickwall, laser-armed, bastion of defense behind the plate that he used to be.
Base runners are stealing more often and at a higher percentage off Mauer than at any point in his career. They have run 23 times in the 23 games Mauer has caught, and he’s only thrown out 3 runners, catching a terrible 13%. Part of that is probably attributable to the Twins terrible pitching staff, which allows more runners than anyone, and is soft-tossing compared to the rest of the league, but Mauer needs to do a better job throwing runners out. His knee issues have made him a little slower in getting out of his stance which is probably the problem. After knee surgery, Mauer catching base stealers at an elite rate was probably going to be a thing of the past, but he needs to find a way to improve to help his team.
Blaming Minnesota’s struggles on Mauer is to blame the team’s problems on the highest paid player and misses the real issue, which is a complete lack of Major League caliber pitching throughout the franchise. If you take a look at any of the various prospect lists its plain to see that the Twins don’t have a single impact pitcher that will be Major League ready within the next 2 seasons. The Twins most valuable and best pitcher this season has been Scott Diamond, a 2010 Rule-5 draft pick taken from the overloaded Atlanta Braves. Diamond has been excellent, posting 4 quality starts in 4 chances, picking up 3 of the Twins 15 total wins with a 1.78 ERA and an elite K/BB rate of 5.67.
Francisco Liriano, the team’s expected and former ace, has been downright awful this season garnering a demotion to the bullpen, where Minnesota hopes he can regain command of his pitches. The lefty had been mostly solid in relief, until being beaten like a drum against the Tigers on the 25th. Liriano’s command still hasn’t been very good, walking nearly a batter per inning, but at least he has been somewhat usable for Ron Gardenhire again.
Other moves to fortify the rotation, like signing Jason Marquis and the on-going relationship with Carl Pavano, just haven’t worked, as both pitchers have ERAs above 5. Youngster Liam Hendricks, one of the few Twins prospects near the Major Leagues was called up and has been throwing batting practice, allowing 5 homers and 30 hits in 18 innings pitched. And there won’t be any more help coming either, because the Twins have called up half of their Triple-A rotation already (the aforementioned Hendricks, Diamond, and the surprisingly good P.J. Walters).
This franchise needs to turn their attention to acquiring as many young, high-ceiling pitching as they possibly can. Minnesota should be looking to shop players like Josh Willingham and Denard Span in hopes of acquiring a high-impact arm from a playoff contender, because until they get a couple of legitimate top of the rotation starters, the Twins won’t be leaving the AL Central basement any time soon.