The decision seems logical now. Rest Joe Mauer regularly? Why wouldn’t you?
To appreciate the plan that helped Mauer produce his best season since 2013, a season that helped his team return to the playoffs for the first time in seven years, you have to remember how counterintuitive that seemed at the time.
The Twins manager, Paul Molitor, was entering the last year of his contract. He needed to win to have any chance of continuing to manage his hometown team in the town he long ago made his long-term home.
The Twins’ most expensive player, Mauer, hadn’t hit better than .277 in four seasons. The three-time batting champion had been failing in the one category that had previously defined him.
His lack of power was being compounded by an inability to even find holes in opposing defenses. He had become the opposite of Wee Willie Keeler: He hit ’em where they were.
So here was Molitor, trying to prove himself to a new front office, deciding that his most expensive player should play less often, and here was Mauer, probably aware that fans would bash him for resting while making $23 million.
“I’m glad we laid the groundwork for it in spring training,” Molitor said. “Some really good, constructive conversations about how to keep Joe as fresh as we could for 162 games. He’s up there in games played and at-bats. It got more difficult in September.”
Molitor believed that Mauer needed fresh legs to produce, so he stuck with his plan even when the Twins played what felt like must-win games. Had the Twins failed to make the playoffs, Molitor and Mauer would have faced criticism, but what Mauer proved over the previous three seasons was that he is not the same hitter when he is fatigued.
Many baseball people use the phrase, “He has his legs under him.” That might sound silly, but Mauer has had two breakthrough seasons during which his legs were “under” him, meaning energetically supporting his swing.
In 2009, he missed the first month of the season because of a back injury. With his legs feeling fresh, he hit .365 with 28 home runs and won the MVP award. He has never hit half that many home runs in another season.
In 2017, under Molitor’s new plan, Mauer produced his best average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage since 2013, when he was an All-Star and Silver Slugger.
“It’s true for any baseball player,” Mauer said. “If you don’t have your legs, you don’t have much. The guy in the other clubhouse is battling a lot of injuries and you could see he didn’t really have much of his lower half. In general, not having your legs is not good for a baseball player.”
The guy in the other clubhouse this weekend at Target Field is named Miguel Cabrera. The Twins thought they had signed Cabrera as a Venezuelan teenager before the Pohlads decided not to spend money on him. Had the Twins landed Cabrera, they would have been blessed with two hitting geniuses on the same roster.
Had Mauer been able to remain a catcher, his offensive statistics would probably still have him headed to the Hall of Fame. Even after three subpar years, his career batting average is .308.
The move to first base damaged his candidacy but might have saved his body. This season, he fielded his newish position beautifully. He is no longer an All-Star but for this team, this year, he proved indispensable.
What is strange is that a player who had won an MVP and three batting titles has called this the most fun season of his career.
“Just seeing progress from everybody,” he said. “It’s been a different guy every night. A lot of things. The atmosphere every day. Since the first day of spring training it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a heck of a ride. We set out a lot of goals and we were able to achieve one of them. It’s time to keep going.”
In October, there is no rest even for the admittedly weary.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org