MINNEAPOLIS -- The problem with delivering a season like Joe Mauer did in 2009, when he batted .365 with a career-high 28 home runs while leading the Majors in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, is that expectations are raised. So much so that as the Twins catcher entered Friday batting .300 with only three home runs through his first 69 games of this season, there are many questions being asked about what might be wrong with the reigning American League MVP. According to his manager Ron Gardenhire, the answer is nothing.
"He's on the ball as well as anybody on this team, hitting line drives and rockets everywhere," Gardenhire said recently. "The home runs will come. Just like we said a few years ago, we don't worry about Joe Mauer. There are a lot of other people you worry about, not Joe." When Mauer returned from a back injury that kept him out for all of April last season, he got off to a very hot start. It's the kind of start that certainly would seem difficult to replicate, and that's been the case so far this year for Mauer. Through his first 69 games of the '09 season, Mauer was batting .362 with 15 home runs, 49 RBIs and a .592 slugging percentage. This season, he's batting .300 with three homers, 34 RBIs and a .431 slugging percentage. For most hitters a .300 average would certainly be considered far from a disappointment. But for the three-time AL batting champion, who signed an eight-year, $184 million contract extension with the Twins during Spring Training, those types of results aren't what he expects of himself -- even if it's perhaps unfair to compare everything to his standout '09 season. "I really haven't felt good," Mauer said as he got ready by his locker before the Twins' contest against the Rays on Thursday afternoon. "Everybody wants to compare to what happened last year and stuff like that. Obviously, I think I'm my worst critic and harder on myself than anybody can be out there. "I've had moments where I've felt good here and haven't had anything to show for it. But I'm really not going to change what I do. I've been doing pretty well so far [in my career], and I'm just trying to get back to the feeling that I've had and trying to sustain that for a longer time." So what has been the reason that Mauer's numbers so far this season have gone down so drastically? Mauer's lack of power so far this season seems to be the most glaring difference from a year ago, as witnessed by his decrease in slugging percentage. Perhaps a reason for that is the change in Mauer's home ballpark. With the Twins' move into Target Field, all of the club's players have needed to adapt to the new dimensions and particularly the fact that the ball isn't traveling as well to the gaps like it did at the Metrodome. Hitting home runs at Target Field hasn't been easy, particularly for the Twins. The majority of the balls that have traveled out have been hit down the lines, which does not bode well for the Twins, who have primarily been a gap-to-gap hitting team in the past. And perhaps that's most true for Mauer, who has hit all three of his homers on the road. "He's still getting used to the ballpark," Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra said of Mauer. "The Metrodome was very comfortable for him. He trusted the backdrop and all that stuff. He needs to learn to trust the new ballpark and what he can do with it. It's going to take a little while, maybe a little longer than he thought, to figure it out." Vavra and Mauer's teammates agreed that Mauer has perhaps been affected more than any Twins hitter by the balls not carrying out at home. But it's the lack of hits into the gaps, not homers, for Mauer that they feel could be wearing on the catcher.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say it was a little frustrating, but there are a lot of things that go on over the course of a season, even half a season," Mauer said. "What can you do? You can whine about it or you can keep working and trying to change it."
Vavra said that it doesn't appear opposing teams are pitching to the catcher any differently. But there have been some new defensive alignments, which could be part of the reason why Mauer has grounded into a team-high 14 double plays and has seen fewer balls drop in the outfield.
"I've seen him hit the ball harder and more consistently this year than I think I had -- other than the home runs -- last year," said Twins first baseman Justin Morneau. "As far as line drives, it seems like he's a few balls dropping in from getting really hot and finishing the year at .350 or .360, like he can. It's funny how the expectations are so high for him and he's still the best-hitting catcher in the league and having an off year hitting .300."
The numbers certainly appear to back up the sentiment. According to fangraphs.com, a total of 25.9 percent of the balls Mauer has put into play have been line drives. It's the highest number of his career -- that number had been at 22.6 percent the previous two seasons.
Mauer also has seen his average on ground balls up the middle decrease from .417 last year to .208 this season, according billjamesonline.net. And while the catcher put up a ridiculous .909 average on line drives to right field last year, that number has decreased to .600 this year, which indicates the shifts deployed to slow him down have done just that.
"His ball seems to stay up there, and he's getting a little frustrated," Vavra said. "So when you get a little frustrated you kind of expand the strike zone a bit."
The numbers back that up. Mauer has swung at 23.6 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone this season, according to fangraphs.com. That number is the highest in Mauer's career, and up from 20.4 percent last year.
One of the things that perhaps has made Mauer's numbers over the past few seasons so impressive is that he has produced at an exceedingly high level despite the wear and tear he takes being a catcher. Mauer was sidelined for seven games in early May due to a deep bone bruise on his left heel. He's still feeling some of the effects of that injury, and overall the foul tips and such from being behind the plate this season have left Mauer with a few more aches and pains than usual.
"I've been pretty banged up this year, but if I'm in the lineup, I'm not going to say this is the reason why it's happening," Mauer said. "I've had some good at-bats and hit the ball hard -- just haven't had anything to show for it."
While Mauer stressed he's trying not to change his approach, Vavra said that Mauer did work on trying to pull some balls for a stretch earlier this month since pitchers were starting to throw inside more frequently to the catcher. But overall, Vavra doesn't expect Mauer to change too much when it comes to how he approaches things at the plate, no matter if his power numbers continue to stay down.
"His approach is the same, his plan is the same," Vavra said. "He's pretty unflappable. I don't think he's going to try to approach it differently. In the past when they've pitched him in, he's adjusted in. When they pitched him away, he's adjusted away. He's always got the same game plan and it's worked for him."
|"The Metrodome was very comfortable for him. He trusted the backdrop and all that stuff. He needs to learn to trust the new ballpark and what he can do with it."|
|-- Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra, on Joe Mauer|
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.