Mauer like 'old self' with resurgence at plate

Better mechanics, vision training helping first baseman look more like 6-time All-Star

May 12th, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS -- Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky has a simple explanation for Joe Mauer's resurgence offensively this year.

Mauer, in his 13th season, looks more like the six-time All-Star than the hitter who batted a combined .270/.348/.376 over the previous two years since his season-ending concussion in 2013. He is batting .301/.424/.398 with 24 walks compared to 17 strikeouts in 139 plate appearances this season. Brunansky says it all starts with improved mechanics and better vision.

"I think the old self is a pretty good analogy," Brunansky said. "I think what you've seen is a lack of head movement and a lack of hand movement. He's trusting his eyes and what he sees. We talk about movement a lot as a hitter, and Joe has been very minimal as far as movements historically, but the last year and a half, he had a tough time not only keeping his head still, but keeping his hands from moving because of the head movement."

While much was made of Mauer's decision to wear sunglasses at the plate during day games this year after experiencing vision-related issues the past two seasons since suffering the concussion, it's been the use of strobe glasses that's helped him even more. He uses them while hitting off a tee or during soft toss, and it forces him to keep his head still, or else the strobes don't allow him to see the ball.

"It's part of my routine," Mauer said. "It's been pretty good and a small part of what I've been doing this season. I usually do flips and tee work with them, and it makes it tougher visually for you. The idea is to keep your head still."

Brunansky was unaware Mauer was dealing with vision issues the past two seasons until Mauer disclosed that this offseason. So he believes the strobe glasses have helped not only with his head movement, but also with his eyes.

"That he was dealing with vision issues related to his concussion symptoms, that was news to us," Brunansky said. "But now he goes through his training with his vision just as much as he does with weights and eating and everything else he does. So I see a difference not just in that feels good but where his head's at because of the training."

The results have been apparent, as Mauer is first in the American League in on-base percentage and has reached safely in 30 of Minnesota's 33 games this year, including a streak of 28 straight games to open the season.

The big difference is that Mauer has seen his walk rate jump from 10.1 percent last year to 17.3 percent this year, while his strikeout rate has dropped from 16.8 percent to 12.2 percent. He is simply not swinging at pitches out of the zone, offering at 18.5 percent of pitches out of the zone, his lowest rate since 2008, per Mauer is also making contact on 89.2 percent of his swings, which is a jump from 84.6 percent last year.

Mauer is making better contact as well, as his line-drive rate of 32 percent is a career best and eight percentage points higher than his career average. He also currently has the third-lowest ground-ball rate of his career, and he has grounded into just one double play.

"Joe has been famous throughout his career for letting the ball get deep and seeing pitches," Brunansky said. "And you can tell that not only from the balls he's hitting, but by his walk-to-strikeout ratio."

With Mauer's bounceback year and with the offense's struggles, the Twins are experimenting with using him as leadoff hitter. It's something that's been internally discussed even dating back to when Ron Gardenhire was manager, but Mauer made his first start at leadoff on Tuesday, and he is expected to remain there for at least the next week.

"We all know Joe has been doing extremely well," Minnesota manager Paul Molitor said. "You can make the argument that Joe is our best one-hitter, two-hitter and three-hitter. We've tried two and three, and now we're trying one."