Chairman Mauer: The First 100 PAs

I’ve crossed a line, or the Twins have, or Joe Mauer has.

Someone or something has crossed a line. And now I don’t even care all that much that the Twins lost yesterday, because Joe hit another one:

Quite a one, too. He didn’t start the game (which was ridiculous to begin with; if you’ve got the best left-handed hitter in the game, and the other guys have a straight-fastball-throwing righty on the mound and a lefty throwing tomorrow, don’t you want to give him a day off tomorrow?), but pinch hit for Mike Redmond against Jonathan Papelbon in the bottom of the 9th with two outs and a runner on. His 11th home run of both the season and the month of May, making this his third consecutive game with a homer and fourth in the last five games, clanked high off the collapsed seating in right-center field, and made it a one-run game.

An even-more-lost-than-usual (understandably, it should be noted, with the recent passing of his mother) Delmon Young was due up next, which made it a foregone conclusion that that was as close as they were going to get. But, I kid you not: at least at the time, the result of the game didn’t matter at all, because Joe hit one. It must be just a little like what Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak was like.

Conveniently, Mauer’s pinch-hit homer came on his 100th plate appearance of his season, which (also conveniently) began on May 1. His season line now looks like this:

100 81 25 36 11 31 .444 .530 .914

He’s still about 43 plate appearances shy of qualifying for percentage leader boards, but even if you give him 43 hitless at-bats (as BBREF does on its leaderboard). he’s still in the top ten in on-base, slugging and OPS. He moved into the top ten in homers, and is only a few out of the top ten in RBI. Essentially, the league needed him to take that month off just so everyone else would have a chance to do something worth noticing before he took things over.

Here’s all he’s done since May 21 (four games plus the one at-bat): 9-13, .692 BA, .684 OBP (that’s right, his two sac flies outbalance his three walks and an HBP), 1.211 SLG, 4 HR, 13 RBI.

Dave Cameron wrote a few days ago that Mauer’s power surge probably wouldn’t last, because he was hitting everything to center or left and not turning on pitches like power hitters usually do. That seems problematic to me to begin with–you might not think much of one or two wall-scrapers down the left field line, but a guy that can hit them out consistently to the opposite field and two or three in a month to the deepest part of the ballpark probably has some real power–but as though he read of Mr. Cameron’s concerns, Mauer’s home runs in the last two games have been no-doubters to right. Here, via Hit Tracker Online, is the distribution of his HR so far (minus the one from yesterday; add another one about where that furthest-right one is):

At least one among the cluster in left was actually much more toward center, and the one currently in right was further down the line than that. But you get the idea. He can hit ’em anywhere, apparently.

Obviously, no one is a true .444/.530/.916 hitter, and I doubt Mauer is going to hit 50 or even 40 home runs, this year or any year. But in 100 plate appearances, he’s come two short of his career high (13 over 608 PA in 2006). With apologies to Mr. Cameron, it’s pretty clear that he’s a changed (and, unbelievably, improved) hitter: what remains to be seen is by how much he’s improved.

Here’s the storm cloud, though: generally, the concern with Mauer has been how long he’ll last. He’s a catcher, and is huge for a catcher, so he’s liable to either switch to a different (and much less valuable) position or to suddenly burn out in, say, his early thirties. Now, though, the concern for me is this: does he even get that far as a Twin? Or does he keep playing like the perfect blend of Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina and completely price himself out of their league when his contract is up after next season (2010)? My gut tells me that he’s the one guy they can’t afford to lose (especially after just one season in their new stadium), and that they’ll have to do anything to lock him down before he hits the market, even to the detriment to the rest of the team. But then, if this is the exaggerated version of a real, new and improved Joe Mauer, how much would the Yankees or Red Sox pay for something like that, as their own catching stalwarts just happen to be hitting (or well past) retirement age? I shudder to think…

[Psst. If you haven’t been around for a couple days, I hope you had a great weekend, and you should check out Saturday’s big sabermetricians vs. RBI guys post, its aftermath posted Sunday, and the associated links to posts from Way Back and Gone and Baseball Over Here. Also, Happy Memorial Day.]

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