Minnesota’s Prairie Home Baseball Companion is mostly everything you would want for $184 million over eight years, at $23 mil per season: On-base machine, world-class bat speed, face of the franchise, astute baseball mind, flexible enough to change positions, hometown hero, clubhouse icon.
He is everything you would want, except for one not-so-subtle thing: Joe Mauer does not put baseballs over the fences.
That is not such a secret, hasn’t been for the past couple of years, but it again is becoming the elephant in the on-deck circle. Because not only is he not putting baseballs over the fences this season, but so far he’s not even finding the gaps.
One of the most remarkable numbers in a game filled with them right now is this: Through 39 games and 177 plate appearances, Mauer has just six extra-base hits.
That is correct.
Of his 43 knocks, 37 have been singles.
Yes, it is eating at him. Now would not be the time to drop one of those "Well played, Mauer" lines on him.
"It’s frustrating," Mauer, who also has two homers and four doubles, told Bleacher Report this week. "Overall, I feel pretty good at the plate.
"But this year I haven’t had much to show for it."
The man with three American League batting titles on the back of his baseball card—2006 (.347), 2008 (.328), 2009 (.365)—is hitting just .283. He does have a .373 on-base percentage, though that is down from his career average of .404.
He has hit the ball hard more than it might appear, such as a couple of rocket at-ems Tuesday night in San Diego. Caught.
"That’s been the story of my year so far," Mauer says. "[Tuesday] night, I hit four balls right on the screws, and nothing to show for it."
Forget, for a moment, the restless Twins fanbase and assorted armchair general managers who are quick to say that Mauer’s contract one day will rank among the worst ever.
When the sunny and optimistic Mauer himself admits frustration, there isn’t much else that needs to be said.
He is healthy. That is in no small part attributable to his much-celebrated-and-analyzed move from behind the plate to first base this season after assorted aches and pains kept him to 113 games last summer and 82 in 2011.
So far, so good. But there is no question the learning will continue throughout much of the summer. Legendary former Twins manager Tom Kelly spent much of spring tutoring Mauer on the finer points of playing first base.
Hall of Famer Paul Molitor was schooling him the other night. One of Molitor’s recent points: That Mauer can take ground balls to the bag himself without having to toss to the pitcher every time.
"He’s getting better," manager Ron Gardenhire says. "Tell him something, it clicks. All he’s got to do is go about his business, and he’ll get it done."
"It’s becoming more comfortable," Mauer says. "I’m still seeing a lot of new things. But I’m not worried. You see new things in this game all the time."
Like what Mauer is going through at the plate right now.
This is a guy who cracked 43 doubles in 2010, the year Target Field opened. He had 35 last year in 113 games.
This year, four.
We’re talking about one of the best hitters of our time.
It’s also baseball, so you figure that, eventually, the dams will open and the flood of extra-base hits will begin. Maybe not home runs, because, really, that discussion ended a couple of years ago. Mauer’s 28 in 2009, the final season of the Metrodome, was an anomaly. He’s never had more than 13 in any other season of his career, in the cozy Metrodome or spacious Target Field.
Whether he was ever going to hit 28 homers again, it’s difficult to blame the Twins for handing him that megadeal the next March. The guy is from St. Paul. He had won three batting titles. The Red Sox, among other clubs, already were sending signals that they were prepared to offer a blank check were he to reach free agency after the 2010 season.
Can you imagine Mauer’s swing in Fenway Park? He would have spent the past three seasons playing handball with the Green Monster. And he’d probably be known as a power hitter by now.
Instead, he’s searching for holes in outfields that seem to be playing him perfectly every night in 2014.
Rob Antony, general manager Terry Ryan’s assistant, notes that there have been seasons in which Mauer has had just two homers at the end of May and still finished in double figures (2012, when he finished with 10).
He also makes a fair point circling back to Mauer’s move to first base: Not only should the move keep the former catcher healthy, it also should give him fresher legs in August and September.
"The main thing is we’re looking to get him in the lineup every day," Antony says. "And we’re getting that."
Mauer will be playing under the shadow of that contract through the end of his days. You cannot get away from that price tag, especially in a market like Minnesota.
"You know what?" Gardenhire says. "People worry about a lot of things in this game. I have a lot to worry about. Joe Mauer is not one of my worries.
"He hits more balls on the screws and on the nose than anybody. They’re just playing him different ways now, and pitching him, and he’s hitting rockets to left field that could be doubles. But they’re playing him that way. You know what? I don’t really think he needs to do too much different.
"He’s hitting the ball on the screws, he hasn’t changed his swing, he’s still a great hitter. I’ll worry about a lot of other things, but I’m not going to worry about him."
Throughout most of his career, Mauer has hit third in the Twins lineup. But beginning last season, he’s now spending the majority of his time hitting second. No matter where Gardenhire hits him, it’s the same, consistent approach.
"He’s not going to try to change," Gardenhire said. "Why should he? He’s a batting champion. He hits the ball on the screws more than anyone else.
"What you want on the top of the order more than anything is a guy who’s going to hit the ball, get base hits and also get on base, and that’s what he does better than anybody in the game. He’s right up there with the best of them, and always has been, so I’ll say it over and over and over again.
"I’ll worry about a lot of things. I’ll worry about this interview. But I don’t worry about him."
Yes, this three-time batting champion is acutely aware that he’s stacking up more singles than Kraft in a processed-cheese package. Yes, he knows folks are accustomed to seeing him drive the ball more. But his approach, now and forever, will remain the same.
"It’s more about having good at-bats," Minnesota’s favorite Prairie Home Baseball Companion says. "It is what it is. Good at-bats. Hit the ball hard.
"Hopefully, they will start dropping."
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
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