Through eight games in the 2018 Major League Baseball season the Minnesota Twins have played to a .500 record. Having had to deal with blistering cold, and even some snow, it's hardly felt like a true baseball season. If there's one thing that has felt warm and fuzzy however, it's been the look and output of first basemen Joe Mauer.
In 2017, Mauer returned to the land of .300 batting averages for the first time since 2013. He posted an .801 OPS bolstered by a .384 OBP all while looking the part of a guy that has a trio of batting titles under his belt. Having already transformed himself into a Gold Glove caliber first basemen, getting back to his old ways at the dish was a nice sigh to see. What's encouraging is that early returns in 2018 suggest that there may be more to come.
To understand where we are, we should probably take a look back at where we've been. The last time Mauer was considered "himself" in 2013, he was putting balls in play with a 37.4% hard hit rating. His chase rates (O-Swing %) and swinging strike percentages have really never gotten out of line, which indicates that his going well has always been a reflection of barreling the baseball. Fast forward to when things took a turn for the worst, and we find ourselves at the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Mauer's .732 and .718 OPS in those two seasons respectively are a career worst. It's no coincidence that those numbers were posted in conjunction with 28% and 29.8% hard hit rates.
Now let's jump back to the present. A year ago, Mauer looked like a revitalized and rejuvenated player. His 2.2 fWAR last year was a high water mark since the last time he was an All Star (2013), and it was backed by a 36.4% hard hit rate. What's great is that the early returns in 2018 don't make that look like an anomaly, and if anything, suggest that things may be trending even a bit better.
Sure it's early, so let's pump the breaks on another MVP type season, but Mauer's start is pretty eye-popping. Thus far the Twins first basemen has a career best 47.6% hard hit rate, and he's already put 11 balls in play with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher. A season ago his total was 204 and right now he's on pace to slightly eclipse that with a total of 223. Diving in even a bit further to those barreled balls, 10 of the 11 have been hit 100 mph or harder. In 2018 Mauer generated exit velocities of 100+ mph on 105 different occasions. With his current pace, he'd nearly double that in 2018 as he tracking towards 203 occurrences.
What we're seeing in the early going from Mauer is a batter that's not only locked in, but one that isn't being cheated either. His 13.4% chase rate is more than 3% better than at any other point in his career. Having always had a very good idea of where the strike zone is, Joe is currently dictating at bats, than walloping the baseball when it comes into his hitting zone. Last season, Mauer's 13.9 K% was 26th among qualified MLB hitters. At just 10% out of the gate in 2018, only 15 qualified hitters have posted better numbers.
There's no denying that there's a level of regression awaiting its turn to set in. After all, Mauer has a current seven game hitting streak and owns a .375/.500/.542 slash line out of the gate. The .429 BABIP is incredibly high, but also reflective of the quality contact he's continued to generate. Even with regression though, the process has yielded results that should display a level of sustainability with the assumption that the blueprint is stuck to over the course of the season.
At the end of the day, Minnesota isn't going to watch Joe Mauer win another batting title by the end of his career (Jose Altuve exists in the American League). What is becoming more clear however, is that there's some serious ability left in the tank for a guy trending towards a Hall of Fame career. On the final year of his deal with the Twins, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine would be well served to bring this guy back for another couple of years. If Joe wants to keep trotting out to the diamond, it doesn't seem like his skills have told him that's a bad idea.