Joe Mauer does not put up numbers that his $23 million salary suggest he should, but make no mistake, the three time American League batting champion is still the most valuable player on the Minnesota Twins, who find themselves playing meaningful September baseball for the first time since 2010.
The 2014 season was a disaster as Mauer made the switch to first base full time. He slashed a miserable (for him) .277/.361/.371 and missed 42 games due to various injuries. Mauer hit just four home runs over the entire season and he always seemed to disappear when the Twins needed him the most, hitting just .255 in medium and high leverage situations while batting a respectable .302 in low leverage situations. To add insult to injury, his poor play was a black mark on Minnesota’s fourth consecutive season with 90 or more losses
But now things are different. Mauer’s slash line of .271/.343/.380 doesn’t suggest improvement, but he’s been a monster in clutch situations and the Twins seem to be better off because of it, just a game and a half out of the second wild card spot in the American League. His .363 average with runners in scoring position is the second best mark in the league among qualified hitters and he’s batting .533 with the bases loaded. Mauer’s .343 on-base percentage leads all qualified Twins and it’s second behind only Miguel Sano when you include players who have appeared in at least ten games. Mauer has set the table well for Sano, the team’s star rookie, and he has scored due to a Sano hit ten times since his call-up in early July, twice as many runs as any other player.
Mauer seems to be saving his best baseball for the playoff hunt. He has now reached base safely in 36 straight games, matching a career high, and he’s hitting .345 since September 7th when Minnesota started an important stretch of nine consecutive games against AL Central opponents. Even though his total of eight home runs is not impressive, it’s still doubled up on the four he hit a year ago and only two of his homers in 2015 have come in low leverage situations.
But his most important contribution to the Twins success might be the fact that he’s stayed on the field. It’s now rare to see the former injury prone catcher get a day off. Mauer has played in 141 of Minnesota’s 144 games this season which is a big reason why he’s leading the team in both hits and walks, let alone batting average and on-base percentage.
When he plays well, the team plays well. That’s the sign of a player with value. The Twins exploded in the month of May, posting a league best 20-7 record with Mauer’s 17 runs batted in that month behind only third baseman Trevor Plouffe‘s 21. Minnesota has currently won six of their last eight series with Mauer getting on-base at a .394 clip over that stretch and setting players like Sano and Plouffe up consistently for RBI opportunities.
The days of Joe Mauer being one of the most feared hitters in baseball are long gone and will probably never come again and you might never see him playing in another All-Star Game during his career, but Mauer means more to the success of the 2015 Minnesota Twins than any other player on the roster.
That wasn’t the case last year when he was often on the disabled list or hitting weak groundouts in clutch situations and it might not be the case in the future when Miguel Sano is on the team for a full season and fellow top prospect Byron Buxton gets accustomed to life in the Majors; it still doesn’t change the fact that Mauer has been their go to guy in the current season.