Joe Mauer is a hitting machine. We should know that by now, but every season he does something fresh to impress. Going into July 4 play the Minnesota Twins star was batting .332 after cracking three hits Tuesday night in an 8-6 win over the Detroit Tigers and he had a league-leading .420 on-base percentage.
By any measure, wherever he plays in the field, or if he serves as a designated hitter, Mauer is a special player. He is just 29 years old and has been in the majors for nine seasons. He has won three batting titles and that’s despite being a catcher for all but brief appearances elsewhere his career.
Catchers take such a bruising, absorb so much wear-and-tear on their bodies, that they are almost never the leading batsman in their league. It is really astounding how rarely a catcher has led a major league in hitting and that only adds to Mauer’s luster.
First, let us note that Mauer is a three-time AL batting champ. He won the crown with a .347 average in 2006. He won again in 2008 by hitting .328. And he was the league-leader once more in 2009 with a .365 average. When Mauer claimed his first title he became the first catcher in American League history (105 years) to capture one.
Mauer is a five-time All-Star (counting just being selected for 2012 the other day) and owns a lifetime .324 average. This year could be his sixth year hitting over .300. Also, his career on-base percentage is a superb .404. Oh yeah, Mauer is also a Most Valuable Player award winner and lest anyone think the fielding of the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Mauer has suffered, he also has won three Gold Gloves.
At this young age Mauer is the only catcher to win three batting titles. In fact, hardly any other catchers in baseball history have won batting titles. Ernie Lombardi, a Hall of Fame catcher for the Cincinnati Reds won two. Lombardi hit .342 in 1938 and he hit .330 in 1942, both good enough to claim batting crowns.
Lombardi’s dimensions were listed as 6-3 and 230 pounds, but as he aged he kept gaining weight and some speculate he weighed 50 or more pounds beyond that by the end of his career. Lombardi had thighs like redwoods and was about as deeply rooted as one of those trees. The leaves rippling in a breeze probably moved at a faster speed than he did. The odds against Lombardi beating out an infield hit were about the same as him taking flight between Cincinnati and Cleveland by flapping his arms. He was so slow that on hard-hit balls to right-field he was sometimes thrown out at first base. Never mind bunting.
All of which makes his achievement of Lombardi’s winning two batting crowns even more noteworthy. No cheap hits for Ernie.
Besides Mauer and Lombardi, the only other catcher in Major League history to win a batting title was Bubbles Hargrave in 1926 when he hit .353, also for the Cincinnati Reds. Although not well remembered, Hargrave played in the majors for a mix of teams between 1913 and 1930 and compiled a .310 lifetime average.
Sooner or later the Twins and Mauer will agree that his body can no longer take the pummeling serving a lifetime behind the plate. But until that happens Mauer is likely to add to a resume that will put him among the pantheon of greatest catchers of all time.