The Twins hope moving their catcher from up in the batting order will provide an "ambush" effect.
By TYLER MASONFS North
At one point or another,
Twins catcher Joe Mauer has hit in every single spot in Minnesota's batting order during his career. For the majority of the more than 1,000 games he's been a part of since 2004, Mauer has been the Twins' No. 3 hitter.
That is, until this season. Manager Ron Gardenhire moved his All-Star catcher up one spot in the order to begin 2013, and Mauer has stayed there through eight games.
Despite the switch, Mauer insists not much changes at the plate when moving up one spot in the order.
"You've just got to get ready one batter earlier," he said. "It's not going to change my approach or anything like that. I still hit to what the situation calls for. Hopefully it translates into more runs."
When Mauer won his three batting titles and the 2009 American League MVP, he did so hitting third in Minnesota's order. In 918 games as the Twins' No. 3 batter, Mauer boasts a .325 batting average and a .408 on-base percentage. Tuesday in Kansas City marked his 85th game and 81st start as Minnesota's No. 2 hitter. After going 1-for-5 with a home run, Mauer is hitting .257 this season as the second batter in the lineup — well below his career average of .322.
Mauer had perhaps his biggest at-bat of the season in the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday in Kansas City. With the Twins trailing, 7-4, he came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. Though he struck out to end the game, the Twins would take Mauer in that spot every time. Moving him up to No. 2 in the lineup afforded Mauer the chance to come to the plate one more time in the ninth inning, a chance he might not have gotten one spot lower in the order.
Mauer hasn't batted second for more than eight games in a season since his MVP year in 2009, when he started 32 games as the No. 2 hitter. That year, he was a .398 hitter as the second batter in the order with an impressive .451 on-base percentage and nine home runs in 142 plate appearances.
In 2010, Mauer had just one place appearance as the No. 2 hitter in a pinch-hitting capacity. The following season, his injury-shortened 2011 campaign, Mauer started eight games as the No. 2 batter. Last season, his at-bats in the two spot were limited to just two games. At least early on, it appears he'll get plenty of at-bats as the No. 2 hitter this season.
The Twins hoped that batting Mauer second behind rookie Aaron Hicks would perhaps help Hicks' transition to the majors. The 23-year-old center fielder played all of last season at Double-A New Britain and made the leap to the big leagues after an impressive spring that allowed him to bypass Triple-A altogether. Though it's early, Hicks has struggled as Minnesota's leadoff hitter. He did not play Tuesday and has just two hits and two walks in 32 plate appearances.
Still, Hicks believes having Mauer bat second can be a benefit to him as a leadoff man.
"It's going to help me a lot," Hicks said last week. "Joe Mauer's a great guy to have behind me. He's definitely allowed me to get more fastballs and more pitches to hit because he's a dangerous hitter when he's up there."
In theory, moving Mauer up a spot helps to stretch out the Twins' lineup and should give Mauer more at-bats over the course of the season — something that should benefit Minnesota, given Mauer's penchant for getting on base. Hitting after Mauer in the lineup this season has been right-handed slugger Josh Willingham in Mauer's usual No. 3 spot, followed by the left-handed Justin Morneau batting cleanup. Ryan Doumit has hit fifth and Trevor Plouffe sixth.
From Mauer at No. 2 to Plouffe at No. 6, the heart of the Twins' lineup has the potential to be potent.
"It kind of lengthens our lineup out," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "You get Mauer up there a couple more times a month or whatever you want to do. … I hope it works out for everybody because that'd be a pretty nice-looking lineup."
It remains to be seen whether Mauer will bat second the entire season or if Gardenhire will eventually shake things up and move Mauer back down to No. 3 in the order. Last year, the Twins went with a combination of Jamey Carroll, Brian Dozier and Ben Revere in the No. 2 spot ahead of Mauer, with either Denard Span or Revere leading off. As of right now, Hicks is the only viable candidate on the 25-man roster to bat leadoff for Minnesota on an everyday basis, which leaves Mauer at No. 2 in the order.
"I want him to bat first, second and third. But I can only bat him in one place, so we chose second," Gardenhire said of Mauer. "As (hitting coach Tom Brunansky) and I talked, we talked about ‘ambush.' So we're going to ambush at the top with all these hitters and go from there. It's for today, and we can always adjust as we go along."