Hope for the 2013 season has faded, but Joe Mauer's dominance in the batter's box continues. Among many changes to the lineup, batting him second - not third - has been one move that Gardenhire has stuck to. But while it has led to an increase in plate appearances, the switch, among other factors, has led to a decrease in runs batted in. Several influences contribute, but the basics are obvious: an RBI requires a runner to be on-base. A look at the averages of those batting in front of Mauer reveals the hard evidence.
The opportunities to bat second or third in an inning provide the best data. If Mauer bats fourth in an inning or later, he has a chance to do damage. If he bats first, an RBI is impossible. He can be driven in, of course, and help the offense, but he won't be able to produce others' runs, and he'd face the situation often, regardless of his position in the lineup. In 2013, Mauer has batted .386/.442/.514 (AVG/OBP/SLG) when leading off the inning. He's clearly doing his job there.
Of course, Mauer bats second in the inning at the start of most games, and frequently thereafter. This season, he's had few opportunities to advance runners. The Twins' leadoff spot has been a Frankenstein's monster of ineffective plate appearances by ten different players, with the majority coming from Dozier, Carroll, Thomas, and Hicks. With a line of .199/.262/.300, this is by far the uggliest monster of all that has batted first in the Gardenhire era. The .562 OPS also makes up the third-weakest batter at any position since 2002, trailing only the 8th and 9th batters from 2011. While no one player has been quite this awful alone, a combination of poor timing and bad luck has led to exceptionally low averages at the top of the order. Batting second in the inning, Mauer comes to the plate with a runner-on just 26% of the time.
Batting third in an inning, Joe's chance of driving in runs improves considerably. Mutually inclusive probability demonstrates that the ninth or first batter (or perhaps both) will regularly be on base when Mauer comes up. But at just 46% in 2013, the combination has the lowest rate in the Gardenhire era, thanks to the .268 OBP at the bottom of the lineup.
For the purposes of comparison, look back at 2009. Then, the second spot could expect the ninth or first batter to be manning the bases in 59% of his appearances. That spot's modest .700 OPS drove in an impressive 94 runs, the most from that position since 2002. Mauer batted there just 32 times in 2009; the majority of the RBIs came from the motley crew of Orlando Cabrera, Brendan Harris, and Alexi Casilla.
But in 2013, the bottom and top of the order are in shambles, and it's hurt Mauer's normally impressive stats. He could expect a bit more personal production if he followed two men in the first inning, but after that, little would change. Simply put, batters owe their RBI's to the players hitting in front of them.
The immediate correlation is obvious. Runs come to those who get on base. But how do the on-base abilities at the top and bottom of the order set up the offense in general? Here is a graph of the yearly likelihood that the ninth or first batter was on-base for the second batter, along with a comparison with the overall runs per game.
Of course, correlation does not grant causation; many factors contribute to overall offense. But again, runners need to be on base for others to drive them in. The exceptionally stagnant performances at the top and bottom of the lineup have hurt the team immensely.
Mauer is a great fit for the second spot. In a better offense, his ability to consistently reach first would advance runners and set up the heart of the order perfectly. But as the best bat on the team, his switch has sacrificed RBI potential for more plate appearances, with no one to follow his lead. As we've seen in the past, he can be dangerous hitting third as well, but there's little available to fill the hole he'd leave. Unfortunately, Joe Mauer can't bat after Joe Mauer. If only we had two.