The past two season would lead you to believe that Joe Mauer is no longer "Joe Mauer". The phrase "is a shell of himself" was uttered probably a hundred times by radio announcers and TV broadcasters as they waxed poetic about his career.
It is true, though. Back in 2013, Mauer posted a 143 wRC+ (100 is average) with a .324 / .404 / .476 batting line. While that wRC+ was in line with what he had done previously, he struck out more than ever before (17.5%). He had a corresponding increase in power, hitting 11 home runs in less playing time than the previous year, in which he had hit 10 home runs.
However, that increasing strikeout rate continued a trend starting the year before, and his strikeout rate rose again the year after. Mauer was still drawing walks, but he started whiffing more in 2013. Pitchers took notice, as Mauer's rate of pitches seen within the zone rose according to FanGraphs' BIS data. He got a bunch more first-pitch strikes in 2014 and 2015.
Mauer's decline resulted in relatively poor performance in 2014 and 2015. He was merely average, posting wRC+ values of 106 in 2014 and 94 in 2015. His rate of hard-hit contact steeply decreased from its 2012-2013 levels. Mauer just couldn't hit the ball so hard anymore.
Of course, Mauer's decline is at least partially related to a concussion suffered during the 2013 season. It feels like Mauer's career has been meandering ever since. He moved to first base full time, away from the position where he made his name. He experienced occasional blurred vision. In an interesting twist to the "best shape of his life" narrative, here are Mauer's words prior to this season regarding his concussion recovery:
If there is a message today, I want to tell people how good I feel and how far I’ve come. I’m just trying to move forward and there are a lot of things to be excited about. For me, personally, I’m real excited about my year and moving forward.
From his manager, Paul Molitor:
But what he has given me is that he feels really good. Last year, he told me felt really good and last year was an improvement on the year before. And he says this year coming in it’s better than last year.
I think a "best shape of his life" tag is appropriate here with the understanding that concussions are friggin' scary things and shouldn't be joked about. The damage caused by concussions remains even after "recovery", as the NFL "knows".
That brings me to the series against the Twins last weekend. Mauer walked four times in the series, three times in one game. He collected three hits in Sunday's game. He has struck out only four times this season, which means that he has walked more than he has struck out. He was one of the few who did some contributing to the cause of the T---s becoming the Twins.
In the face of a "beset shape of his life" narrative and a torrid spring, the Royals decided to pitch around Mauer. Here are Mauer's spring training stats, which we normally take to mean nothing:
The comparison between 2016 and other years may still mean nothing. Let's not jump the gun on that just yet - it is still early in the season. However, I am looking for any kind of explanation behind this freaking zone chart, the pitches Mauer saw against the Royals:
Of course they went low and away, but there were only four pitches in the zone outside that corner. Everything else was outside the zone. I think it is pretty clear the Royals pitched around Mauer despite poor 2014 and 2015 seasons, and the "best shape of his life" narrative plus spring training are the only things I can think of.
Except for this - the Twins are pretty bad. Surrounding Joe Mauer this year are professional-ish hitters Brian Dozier (career 100 wRC+) and Trevor Plouffe (career 99 wRC+). Elsewhere in the lineup you'll find Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, highly-touted prospects who have each struck out more than 40 percent of the time. There's Byung-Ho Park, a Korean slugger who has struck out 50 percent of the time. There are Kurt Suzuki, Eddie Rosario, and Eduardo Escobar. Rosario and Escobar are also kind of average-ish (so far in their careers), and Suzuki is not a good hitter.
The point is that a maybe-resurgent Joe Mauer is the only hitter in that lineup to fear. The Royals were not necessarily "avoiding" Joe Mauer as much as ignoring him and forcing the rest of the Twins lineup to string together enough hits to score runs. They didn't. They, uh, still haven't. They've scored only 14 runs this season, which is bad. Its really bad. That's 1.4 runs scored per game. That is good enough for last place - by a lot. That' is just not going to get the job done.
Joe Mauer can't do it all by himself, even a healthy, effective one. Whether or not he's healthy and effective, the Royals decided to challenge the rest of the lineup. I don't believe in lineup protection in the aggregate, but I'll be damned if that doesn't seem like a reasonable explanation here.
*All stats as of April 14th, except the runs scored by the Twins.