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Big League Stew

Slumpbot .200: Joe Mauer going through plenty of changes

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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Using the best technology available to us today, SlumpBot .200 identifies a few players who are currently having a bit of trouble and then offers solutions for performance recovery.

Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins

Data: .242/.296/.283, 0 HR, 9 RBIs, 0 SB, 0 CS, 7 BB/17 K

Malfunction: Boy, the bloom came off this rose awfully quick. Just 15 months after signing a $184 million contract, Mauer had a power outage last year, and this year he missed 54 games of the season with "bilateral leg weakness." He hasn't found his batting stroke all season, has demonstrated no power whatsoever, and he's taken shots from media and fans who complained that he resisted a move to first base to protect his legs. But on Thursday night, he finally played first base for the first time in his major league career, and acquitted himself well in the field, with a couple of nice scoops.

It remains to be seen, though, how much longer he'll shuttle back and forth between the dish and first base before becoming a full-time first baseman or designated hitter, but that's the next logical step, sooner or later. The Twins must have known the risks they were taking in giving an eight-year contract to a 6-foot-5 catcher who had knee surgery in 2004 and again in Dec. 2010 (as well as hernia surgery in 2002 and kidney surgery in 2009). It's hard to know whether this latest problem is temporary or chronic, but it would be a lot easier to believe the former if he were hitting the ball with any authority at all.

Diagnosis: As leo3375 at Twinkie Town explains: {YSP:MORE}

Bilateral leg weakness is muscle weakness in both legs. Symptoms can include weakness, fatigue, muscle aches, fever, muscle pain, leg pain, and tingling or numbness in the legs. The condition is neurological, not musculoskeletal. That is, it has nothing to do with Mauer's recent arthroscopic knee surgery.

So he's got that going for him, which is nice. But nothing else. "Mauer is less popular in the clubhouse than the IRS," wrote the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Jim Souhan two weeks ago. Souhan excoriated Mauer for being unwilling to try to learn a new position. But quite frankly, the problem isn't where Mauer plays defensively. It's more worrisome that he hasn't been able to control the strike zone while he's at the plate, rather than behind it.

Before this year, his career walk rate was an elite 12.1 percent, and he actually walked more often than he struck out — his strikeout-to-walk ratio was a sensational 0.81. This year, it's 2.43. Previously, Mauer was one of the best contact hitters in the majors, hitting for high average and rarely swinging and missing, and while he still has an above-average contact rate, it's lower than usual as he's whiffing more often and seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance. The absolute disappearance of his power — his isolated power is a pitcher-like 0.40, down from a career average of .150 — may indicate that his lower body, weakened by injury and this strange neural condition, just isn't giving him the leverage to drive the ball.

He's only played 28 games and had 108 plate appearances this season, so the sample is simply too small to be able to engage in the kind of granular analysis that I prefer. All we know is: His numbers are massively worse than usual, and he's been really far from healthy this year. It's hard not to connect the dots.

Reboot Directions: Long before he signed his gargantuan contract, most analysts predicted Mauer would have to move out from behind the plate before too long — catching is hell on the knees, especially when you're tall, and Mauer also has two knee surgeries behind him. It's very likely that Mauer will become a full-time first baseman long before the end of his contract, which runs till 2018. But if his health is preventing him from being mechanically right, then he really doesn't have any business being on a baseball field. The Twins don't need a catcher or a first baseman with a .550 OPS, especially not when they have $161 million invested in the next seven years of his future.

Which other players are struggling?

Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves .233/.323/.416, 9 HR, 22 RBIs, 5 SB, 2 CS, 28 BB/50 K
Jason appears to be in the throes of a sophomore slump. For the second straight year, his season was interrupted by injury and he missed games in June, but his stats since his return have been pretty uninspired: .266/.333/.430 with eight walks and 16 strikeouts in 19 games. He isn't hitting for much power and isn't drawing as many walks as he usually does. On the season, his walk rate is well above average, a healthy 11.3 percent, but it's also well below the spectacular 14.6 percent walk rate he posted last year. His walks are his single-most elite skill, and his success is closely tied to them. If he isn't walking as much, then it could indicate that he isn't comfortable at the plate yet, or that his swing is partly hampered by the lingering effects of his early season back pain or his recent DL stint for his shoulder injury.

Or it could just be second-year jitters. On Wednesday, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez gave him the night off, then brought him in as a pinch hitter with the bases loaded and nobody out — and Heyward promptly tapped into a double play. Then on Thursday, he went 3 for 4, and his only out was a ground ball on the infield that replays showed should have been an infield single. He's only 21, and the Braves are very invested in his long-term success, so they need to take every precaution to make sure that he isn't injured. As long as they're sure he's healthy, he just needs to play through it.

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Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee Brewers .275/.345/.476, 16 HR, 37 RBIs, 7 SB, 2 CS, 35 BB/83 K
This is Rickie Weeks' eighth major league season. In the first six, he demonstrated power, speed, and an inability to remain healthy; last year, the seventh, he played 160 games (the first time he'd played more than 130) and the Brewers made him rich, giving him a four-year, $38.5 million extension. So far this year, he's stayed healthy and reasonably productive. But he's having a summer swoon. In his last 17 games, he's hitting just .197/.280/.303, and since the beginning of June he's at .254/.316/.457. This year, Weeks is actually striking out less than usual, but he's also walking less than usual, and his overall strikeout-to-walk ratio is marginally worse than last year and appreciably worse than his career average. He's always been a swing-and-miss guy -- in his 730-game career, he has 731 strikeouts -- but the key for him is maintaining a strong walk rate.

Still and all, even though he was doing a lot better just a couple of weeks ago, he's had extraordinarily similar numbers to last year. The overall numbers are probably more indicative of his true talent than his performance over the last month or his performance during the previous two.

Rick Porcello, Detroit Tigers 7-6, 4.96 ERA, 90 2/3 IP, 4.29 FIP, 1.46 WHIP, 1.89 K/BB
Porcello had a 4.92 ERA last year, and he has a 4.96 ERA this year. So what's the problem? In four of his last eight starts, he has given up at least five runs; since the end of May, he has an ERA of 7.24, giving up six homers with just 21 strikeouts against 14 walks in 41 innings. In his last start on July 3, he gave up just three runs in seven innings, but he plunked three batters, so it's not clear that he's quite mastered his problems just yet. Porcello has never been much of a strikeout pitcher -- his career strikeouts per nine innings in 4.8, and it's 5.1 this year, while the league average is 6.7 -- and his control generally isn't good enough to sustain that, as his career strikeout-to-walk ratio is 1.91, almost identical to this year.

It's almost impossible to thrive as a starting pitcher with a K/BB ratio under 2.0, and despite the fact that he's a sinkerballer and makes his living at the bottom of the strike zone, Porcello averages one homer per nine innings. Porcello's just 22, and he may be getting unlucky, suffering an elevated BABIP over the last month and a half of suffering. But his skills limit his ceiling. Until he can get his homer rate below 1.0, and his K/BB below 2.0, he'll struggle to repeat his slightly fluky rookie success.

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