Justin Morneau is having a decent season so far, batting nearly .300, tied for 10th in the American League in RBI. He’s batting .321 with runners in scoring position, a huge improvement on his frustrating .196 futility in those situations a year ago.
He knows he should be pleased. And he is, to a point. But there’s something nagging at him, too.
“It’s hard to change your identity as a hitter. And I still believe I’m a power threat,” the Twins’ cleanup hitter said Wednesday. “But for some reason, I’m going through a stretch [without a home run], and it’s hard to figure out why.”
He’s going through the worst stretch of his career, actually. It’s been 28 games, or 112 at-bats, since a Morneau blast left the yard, a two-run shot off Texas righthander Alexi Ogando on April 28. He has two more days to avert his first homerless month since his concussion-marred 2011 season.
Morneau has two home runs, on pace for seven for the year. For a player who has hit 30 or more three different times, it’s a shock, but he remains confident.
“I just have to keep believing that if I keep making solid contact, the home runs will come,” Morneau said. “I’ve hit a few balls [in Target Field] that probably would have been homers in other places. Obviously, that’s what I’m here for — to drive the ball out of the ballpark. But as long as I’m still driving in runs, helping us win games, it’s all right.”
Morneau’s power decline isn’t entirely unexpected; he only turned 32 two weeks ago, and Fangraphs.com, a statistical analysis website, projected him to hit only nine homers this year. He’s also on pace for 111 RBI, and it’s largely a product of his improvement in RBI situations, an emphasis of his after “my numbers were so terrible last year,” Morneau said. “It’s easier to drive in runs by hitting three-run homers, but as long as I’m having good at-bats, that’s going to help the team, too.”
Still, he admits it bothers him, and fears the consequences if pitchers no longer believe he can hit a mistake 400 feet.
“I’ve missed a lot of pitches I should be driving. But if you told me I’d be driving in runs, it’s not as bad,” he said. “Power’s important in this game. You need to present the possibility of hitting a three-run homer. But I still believe I’m going to hit home runs. Sometimes you go through these stretches, and sometimes you hit four in a week.”
High-tech head gear
Joe Mauer had a present waiting for him when he arrived home for Wednesday’s game: a new helmet.
Not for batting. For catching. More specifically, for taking a 100-mph foul tip right off your skull, something that’s happening with annoying regularity this year.
“I can’t remember any year when I’ve had so many foul tips, especially taking them off the head,” Mauer said. “That ball’s moving at a high speed, and a catcher is a sitting duck back there.”
To combat it, he has been working with Rawlings as the equipment manufacturer develops new helmets for catchers, much as they did for hitters over the past couple of years. The attention to catchers is overdue, Mauer said.
“I’ve taken probably 12-15 balls off the head this year. … You really don’t see that many [batters] get hit in the head,” he said. “So it’s good that they’re taking steps toward protecting catchers a little more. You don’t want to mess around with [your head], especially with [greater concern] about concussions.”
Mauer received a prototype in the mail this week, and intends to start testing it right away.
“If it softens things up a little bit, protects me a little more, I’m all for it,” he said.