Doug Wolter: It's time to appreciate Joe Mauer
By the time his career is over, Joe Mauer might very possibly be regarded as the greatest Minnesota Twin of all time. Isn't it time we learned to appreciate him?
Mauer is no Kirby Puckett. Twins fans don't love him that way. It seems, in fact, that although the All-Star Twins catcher has already been in the major leagues for 10 years --winning three batting titles and one MVP award -- Twins fans are still deciding whether he's deserving of his place as the team's lone superstar.
I believe the problem can be traced to three main issues:
1. Mauer isn't a power hitter. He hit 28 home runs in 2009 and other than that hasn't hit more than 13 in any single season. Twins fans continue to complain that when Mauer drives in a run (which is never often enough for them), he'll do it with a ground ball between first and second base. Not very dramatic.
2. His mega-contract. In 2010, Mauer agreed to an 8-year contract extension worth $184 million -- the richest contract in the history of major league baseball for a catcher. Initially, fans were thrilled. But then a sizable portion of them wondered whether any player can be worth that much money who can't be counted on to reach double figures in fence-clearing long balls. Mauer has never amassed 100 RBI in a single year. And why are we now paying him that much money to bat second in the batting order?
3. His personality. Mauer is not outgoing. He isn't a quote machine. He isn't a "fun" guy. Oh, he's friendly enough. He's certainly not a prima-donna, which nobody likes. But he's very basic. He just goes about his business in a professional way, minds his manners, keeps his personal life mostly to himself, and what's wrong with that?
Mauer's personality perception may be tied somewhat to what occurred after the 2010 season, when he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and missed most of spring training. Later, he lost more time to an undisclosed illness that later was termed "bilateral leg weakness." Most of us not being doctors, and many of us skeptical about high-priced athletes who miss playing time for reasons difficult to understand, we suspected there was more than meets the eye. When weeks went by and both the Twins and Mauer appeared unforthcoming with explanations, a few fans became even more uneasy.
Of course, when Mauer finally returned on June 17 of 2011, he received a standing ovation. Those who didn't stand, and countless others who were sitting in their easy chairs, said to themselves, "'Bout time!"
Now it's June 2013 and Mauer continues to be Mauer. He's hit a few more home runs recently, but don't count on him becoming a power hitter. Count on him, instead, to work over pitchers like a surgeon, look at a lot of strikes, and maintain his reputation as possibly the best two-strike hitter in baseball. He'll hit a lot of line drives, break up a few more no-hit bids with that picture-perfect swing of his, and continue being named to All-Star teams.
The Twins can win with Joe Mauer, and they most likely will again. But one solitary superstar cannot be expected to lift his team, alone, to a World Series berth. For that, he'll need more help --help from a front office that supplies him with better teammates.
I suspect that when Mauer finally retires eight or so years from now, his lifetime batting average will remain above .300 (it's .324 now) and he will have added another batting title or two. He is not yet the greatest Twin of all time. That distinction belongs to Harmon Killebrew. Puckett may be No. 2. Or Rod Carew. It's a fair argument to make either way.
Mauer may in fact become recognized as one of the all-time great catchers. Surely he'll be measured behind such greats as Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Mickey Cochrane and Johnny Bench, but my guess is he'll be considered favorably in comparison with the more recent catching stars.
Many baseball historians regard former New York Met Mike Piazza (he played from 1992 to 2007) as the best-hitting catcher of the modern era. Piazza finished with a lifetime batting average of .308 and he slugged 427 homers. If you ask me, I'd rather have Mauer. He's money with the bat, and he's a better defensive backstop than Piazza ever was.
I think it's time we stopped trying to mold Mauer into what we might want him to be, and learn to admire him for who he is. He's not Mr. Personality like Kirby was. He doesn't bust fences like Harmon did. But when you look at the overall package, he's the best catcher of his generation.