As the Twins play out the string, looking to end an eight-game losing streak and avoid the ignominy of a 100-loss season, the M&M boys watch helplessly from the dugout.
Justin Morneau has endured a nightmare year in which he continued to feel the effects of a concussion suffered in 2010 while also having surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck. He continued his game of human Operation today by having procedures to remove a cyst from his left knee and a bone spur from his right foot. Joe Mauer, meanwhile, missed time with leg weakness and a stiff neck and was recently shut down due to pneumonia. Altogether, Morneau (-0.3 WAR) and Mauer (1.7 WAR) made $37 million while combining for 1.4 Wins Above Replacement. Last year, they teamed up for 10.7 WAR.
Morneau never looked healthy or comfortable at the plate in 2011, batting .227/.285/.333 and hitting just four home runs in 288 plate appearances. His strike-zone judgment took a tumble, with his chase rate climbing from 30 percent to 34 percent, and the fly balls that he hit were downright tame. Morneau's average fly ball distance fell from 315 feet in 2010 to just 292 feet in 2011. For comparison, Alexi Casilla's average fly ball distance this season is 296 feet.
With an ailing Morneau unable to drive the ball, his slugging sweet spot low and inside all but disappeared:
Mauer's offensive malaise wasn't nearly as severe -- his .287/.360/.368 slash in 333 PA was basically league-average production in a year in which run-scoring dipped yet again. But even so, his power declined markedly for the second straight season. Mauer mashed 28 homers and slugged .587 in 2009, and followed that up with a campaign that more closely resembled his previous work (nine HR, .469 slugging percentage). This year, he went deep only three times. Not surprisingly, his average fly ball distance is down, too:
2009: 330 feet
2010: 315 feet
2011: 306 feet
Mauer's biggest problem this season came against breaking stuff. He chased more curveballs and sliders in 2011, and managed just two extra-base knocks:
Mauer Vs. Curveballs and Sliders
2009: 20.1 Chase Pct., .330 Slugging Pct.
2010: 23.8 Chase Pct., .377 Slugging Pct.
2011: 27.7 Chase Pct., .247 Slugging Pct.
2009-2011 MLB Avg for non-pitchers: 30.2 Chase Pct., .361 Slugging Pct.
Mauer hit a ground ball 71 percent of the time that he put a curveball or slider in play, the fifth-highest rate among MLB batters. That goes a long way toward explaining why his overall ground ball rate spiked from under 50 percent in 2009-2010 to over 56 percent. If he's a catcher who dabbles at DH and first base, his bat is still quite valuable. If he's mostly or entirely a 1B/DH, then the Twins are in trouble.
With Morneau owed $28 million combined in 2012-13 and Mauer making $23 million annually through 2018, the hopes of the franchise rest upon their achy backs. The M&M boys need to get healthy. Otherwise, the next decade of Twins baseball could melt right in Bill Smith's hands.