Joe Mauer: Return of the Mack
Joe Mauer has returned. Gone is the 2007, injury-plagued Mauer that lost 54 points following his '06 batting title, and had his swing tinkered with more than Carlos Gomez' fingernails. Back is the Mauer we embrace: healthy, hitting .324, driving singles and doubles up the middle and through the left side with the best swing in baseball. And while Joe got off the shnide with his first home run earlier this week, critics of his power (or lack thereof) should finally come to the realization that Mauer, at his best, eschews frame for frame-of-mind. Yeah he's 6-foot-5, with evident brawn. But it's his mental muscles that express his strongest hitting tenets: being patient, being studious, and coupling a great eye with lightning-quick hands.
Combined with this mindset and overt talent, here are five additional reasons why we'll watch Mauer win his second batting title in 2008:
(And for further potential enjoyment of this post, feel free to click below for a little mood and atmosphere)*
1. Red Dog Panting:
Mike Redmond has been a great Twin, and while his playing time has been readily reduced in '08, his attitude and personality continue to be incalculable assets to the Minnesota dugout. When Mauer won his batting title in '06, Redmond started 44 games, and hit a career-high .341. This year, Redmond's playing time has been limited to a mere 9 starts through 58 games. He's now 37, and hitting just .235, which would stand as a career-low should he finish the year at said mark. For my money, this improves Mauer's chances of success. He's such an intelligent and professional hitter, that I think added playing time will only improve his numbers. He's pacing to start 16 more games at catcher than he did in '06. At age 25, the knees will last.
2. Left Handed Pitching:
Two seasons ago, Mauer hit an excellent .331 versus left-handers. This season? A whopping .368. Those numbers will fuel his title run in a division that presents left-handed starters C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Aaron Laffey, Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Nate Robertson, Dontrelle Willis and Kenny Rogers.
Of the five N.L. opponents that the Twins faced in '06, three of those clubs had team ERAs that finished in the top half of the MLB's 30 clubs at year's end. For 2008, just one of the Twins' five interleague opponents (Milwaukee, Washington, Arizona and San Diego remain) ranks among the MLB's top half in said category thus far into the season. Furthermore, Mauer holds a career average of .313 or better against two of the clubs we've yet to face.
Michael Cuddyer had a fine season hitting in the clean-up slot behind Mauer in '06, however there is just no comparison between Cuddy and Morneau protecting Joe in the lineup, and forcing pitchers to give Mauer something to hit. To look at the numbers: Morneau's present 2008 batting clip is nearly 20 points higher than what Cuddyer hit in '06, and his on base percentage in almost ten points above. In addition, when contrasting the two players over the two separate seasons, Morneau is presently hitting .353 with runners in scoring position, while Cuddyer hit a lower, albeit respectable .313 in said situations back in '06. Not surprisingly, Morneau is pacing to out-homer Cuddyer's 24 long balls from two years ago, and over the course of their respective careers, he out-numbers Cuddyer in virtually every offensive category despite playing 33 fewer games.
Of course it's early in the season to start predicting such accolades, but with nearly 60 games in the books, the level of competition is starting to show some small degree of lucidity. Mauer, as of this writing, is presently ranked third in the A.L. with his aforementioned .324 average. Among the A.L.'s top-ten players currently vying for a batting crown, Mauer and Detroit's Magglio Ordonez are the only ones who have claimed a title. In addition, Mauer, at .314, has the highest career average of any of the ten (Ordonez is next at .312), and only Mauer and Ordonez have ever concluded a season among the league's top six batters for a respective season.
Again, I know we've got 100 games to go, just as I wholly realize that the great Ichiro, himself at .287, is forever lurking.
*Return of the Mack, by M. Morrison