Joe Mauer has never been particularly exciting. A stereotypical Minnesotan, Joe has the Fargo accent and the calm demeanor to match what you'd expect. He looks like a guy who wakes up, drinks a glass of milk, calls his mom, kisses the wife and kids goodbye, and heads to the ballpark. Then he goes home, has another glass of milk and gets a good nine hours of sleep in, because that's what you're supposed to do. Among baseball's superstars, he was pretty boring until brain and leg injuries began to take their toll.
So it was a pleasant surprise that one of the few bright spots of the Twins' 2016 season had been boring old Joe Mauer. Through Sunday, the Hall of Fame catcher-turned-mediocre first baseman was hitting .372 with a .472 OBP and a .512 slugging percentage. As the rest of the offense has sputtered, Mauer has been on fire. It raises the question of whether, after two years wandering in the desert, Joe Mauer is finally back.
It's an important question, especially as the biggest bats the Twins were counting on in 2016 have struggled. Brian Dozier has a .271 OBP and is hitting .167. Miguel Sano has yet to homer and is hitting just .179/.304/.231. Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton have combined to hit .149 with just four extra base hits. The Twins' catchers have combined to tally just three hits in 12 games. It's been pretty bad, is what I'm trying to say.
But Mauer? Mauer has been fantastic. On point all season long. Now, it's worth noting that Mauer had a good start last year as well. He hit .318 in April, with a .392 OBP. The rest of the season, he hit .256/.329/.375 with a 17.2 percent strikeout rate.
That strikeout rate is key, actually. After the better part of a decade of striking out in just 10 percent of his plate appearances, Mauer's strikeout rate has risen precipitously in the last four years, reaching a high of 18.5 percent in 2014. It's unclear whether that change is due to aging or the concussion problems that forced him to give up catching in 2014, or some combination of the two. Either way, given that his strengths have typically included letting the ball get deep into the hitting zone before rifling into left and left-center field, the elevated strikeout rate could have indicated that he was no longer capable of his normal, patient approach. Indeed, over the last two years, there have been calls for Mauer to pull the ball more and to jump on first pitches in the strike zone.
This year, admittedly in a small sample, Mauer's struck out just four times in 53 plate appearances without compromising his walk rate. And every strikeout he converts into a ball in play, he raises the chance of him reaching base. He's still seeing 4.25 pitches per plate appearance, as well, good enough to rank in the top 25 in the Majors. The power still isn't there. But, really, the power never was. Mauer, even at his peak, was more of a 15 homer guy than a 25 homer guy, with the exception of one flukish season. Really, the guy we're seeing in 2016 looks like the vintage Joe Mauer.
It's unclear what's spurring the change. Again, it could be just that time has helped his brain to heal and for his recently-revealed double vision to correct itself. Perhaps the sunglasses he's started wearing at the plate on sunny days to reduce glare are helping. Or maybe this is just a random hot start. But Twins fans have waited for years to get this Joe Mauer back, and you can forgive them for hoping that he's gone from frustratingly unproductive back to being boringly excellent again. Based on how things have gone so far this year, they're going to need it.