I’ve seen a handful of “projected lineups” for the Twins lately, from fans and media both, and most of them seem to have one notable thing in common: Joe Mauer isn’t near the top anymore. Most appraisals expect Mauer to bat sixth or seventh, ceding the spots above him mostly to power hitters, usually Trevor Plouffe or Brian Dozier.
We’ll see what happens come spring training, but the actual decision-maker on this issue doesn’t sound nearly as eager to demote the three-time batting champion to the bottom. Paul Molitor talked about his lineup a couple of weeks ago at Torii Hunter’s press conference, and among other things, defended his inclination to bat Mauer second or third.
“I know everyone likes to speculate [about], am I going to have the courage to put him down there at some point in his career? I don’t look at it that way,” Molitor said. “Look at how he fit into our lineup last year. I was fairly candid about my desire to at least look at options with him, but right now, it’s still near the top.”
Mauer occupied the third spot in the Twins’ batting order in 133 games last season, and started 21 other games in the second spot, with either Plouffe, Hunter or Miguel Sano third. That’s been true of his entire career, of course; Mauer has been penciled in elsewhere in the starting lineup just 29 times in his career, and none since 2006.
A vocal segment of fans insist that Mauer is hurting the team in that spot, citing his subpar 2015 statistics: A .265 batting average that was the worst of his career by 22 points; a .718 OPS that ranked seventh among Twins regulars; 112 strikeouts, roughly twice as many as a normal year when he was younger; a home-run drought that reached 324 plate appearances, longest of his career.
But Molitor made it clear that he values a different statistic when filling out his lineup card: On-base percentage. And on a team that ranked 28th in the majors in reaching base — Minnesota’s AL-worst .305 OBP was ahead of only the putrid Phillies (.303) and Padres (.300) — he wants Mauer in the middle, even in a down year. Mauer may have lost more than 100 points of OBP from his peak, declining from .444 in 2009 to .338 last season, but it’s all Molitor has to work with.
“We just don’t have people who can put together an at-bat, or [build a high] on-base percentage. Even with his average, the only guy with a higher on-base percentage was Sano,” Molitor explained. “People say ‘but he hit .265, how can you still hit him second or third?’ Well, no one else hit .265. No one else got on base that much. What was our leading average for our regular players? Sano (at .385), but he was only here half a season.”
Molitor said he’s already given next year’s batting order some thought, but obviously there are too many variables to make any decisions before spring training. The development of Sano, the likely arrival and adjustment of Byung-ho Park, the offseason work Mauer intends to undertake — all will have an impact on where he’ll bat Mauer, who turns 33 in April and has three years remaining on his eight-year, $184 million contract.
And maybe, Molitor joked, the numbers aren’t as bad as they appear.
“The players keep telling me,” the manager deadpanned, “.260 is the new .290.”