I'm generally not one to panic in the early season. Rather than overreact to early outlier type trends, I always assume a player will regress to the mean, and although there can be improvements and skills can decay in general I believe I usually believe it's a matter of degrees and anything drastic is usually a fluke. It's why it took me so long to come around on Brian Dozier and why I haven't panicked about Aaron Hicks yet (though I'm getting there). But this Joe Mauer thing is.......troubling. The fact that his offensive dip is coming as he shits to first base - the most premium of premium of offensive positions - just magnifies the issues. Especially as Justin Morneau soars in Colorado (.312/.356/.556 with 10 dingers).
Despite Ron Gardenhire's assertion that Mauer's the victim of bad luck and "would be hitting .400 if he was playing in Boston" this looks like more than a fluke as there are some really troubling indicators here. But first let's review his performance. Mauer's slash line right now is .273/.349/.348. All of these numbers are career lows. His OPS of .697 is about .150 below his career mark and is, no joke, just slightly above Nick Punto's career mark. With just 9 extra base hits this year his ISO is a minuscule .073, which is dead last among first basemen and 11th worst in the majors, ranking above Jason Kubel, a bunch of slap hitters, and the completely dreadful this year Billy Butler. There's no way around it, this is a truly dreadful year for Mauer so far.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this is that there's no clear reason why this is happening. He's swinging at more pitches out of the zone than usual, but other than that you can't point to anything behind the scenes that's changed all that dramatically, but the results sure have. His walk rate is down for the second year in a row to a career low (outside his first 35 game season in 2004) while his K rate is up for the fifth straight year and is his career worst. His strikeout percentage was always in the low teens, but this year has spiked to nearly 20%. Put it this way - his BB/K ratio this year is 0.59. His career number is 1.06. Mauer's seasons usually ended with more walks than strikeouts, but for the second time he's trending ahead in Ks, and this year by a wide amount.
He's clearly having trouble making contact compared to his career norms, and when he does put the ball in play he's not hitting it as well. His line drive rate is about the same, but he's transferred a ton of fly balls to ground balls. Although grounders go for hits more often than flys, that's not happening for him and from what I've seen many of those ground balls are very weakly hit. That, and the removal of many fly balls, has led to the lack of power. You'd be tempted to call it bad luck, but Mauer's BABIP is still a robust .331 this year, which is down from his career number of .348, but not so down you can simply point to bad luck as why Mauer's struggling this season.
It's maddening because he doesn't seem to have changed his approach much but the results are very different. Perhaps most troubling is he's made a career out of absolutely punishing fastballs, but this year he's barely above average on them. He's striking out like crazy and not walking. When he does make contact it's weak and he's showing Ben Revere levels of power. I really wish you could point to some kind of change in his approach because then we could just assume he'd figure that out and get back to normal and everything would be cool, but that's not the case. Add it all up and with his move to 1B this year his WAR is 0.0, meaning you could plug any AAA slug into his spot (Chris Parmelee) and you wouldn't lose a thing. And all for $23 million.
Like I said way back at the beginning of this thing I'm not one to overreact. Mauer could self correct and hit .380 the rest of the way and it wouldn't surprise me one bit. There just isn't anything here really that makes that sound extremely likely. The one thing we can hold too is it's possible he's simply pressing too hard. The increased swinging at balls out of the zone, the increased strikeouts, and the decreased walks all point to a hitter increasing his aggressiveness, which a lot of the idiots in this town keep saying he needs to do despite the fact that that's not how he got good. Hopefully he can settle back, relax, and be the patient, reliable hitter he was born to be and has been for whatever like 10 years or something. But I'm kind of nervous that he's broken. And I blame you.