Maybe some day Joe Mauer will wear out and throw away his catcher’s mask and shinguards, morphing into a full-time designated hitter-first baseman. But for the moment he is still primarily a catcher and he is one of the best-hitting catchers of all time.
Now that he is 30, the Minnesota Twins want to do their best to preserve Mauer’s skills at their top level and not put him through quite as much abuse at home-plate where runner collisions, foul tips, and such dangers lurk. So it won’t be terribly long before Mauer gives up catching altogether (a few years, say).
It seems amazing that Mauer is in his 10th season already, but he broke in as a 21-year-old. During the decade he has established Hall of Fame credentials. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds Mauer is sturdy enough to withstand most anything that occurs in the traffic jams at home plate. And one of the greatest of blessings for the Twin Cities franchise is that he is a local, born in St. Paul and attending high school in that city.
Throughout the course of Major League history one of the givens has been that catchers can’t hit and they have not been counted on to do much of it, either. Their value has always been calculated by the way they field, take charge on the field, handle pitchers, and call games. If they could also hit, gravy.
There have been several Hall of Fame catchers who could do more than their share at the plate, and were relied on as sluggers and run producers. Yogi Berra with the Yankees, Johnny Bench with the Reds, and Roy Campanella with the Dodgers, are three that fit that description. They were not easy outs.
Mauer is a five-time American League All-Star–and with a .351 batting average going into Sunday he is a likely choice for the 2013 team, too. What sets Mauer apart from nearly all of his predecessors behind the plate has been his sustained excellence hitting for average. The common wisdom is that catchers work harder than anyone else on the field and that their bodies wear down quicker because of all the stress they put on them in a squat, and that all costs them in concentration and reflexes at the plate.
So it has evolved over time that managers don’t expect .300 seasons out of their backstops. Mauer is one the grandest exceptions to the rule. His lifetime batting average is .324 and his career on-base percentage is .406. The 2009 AL Most Valuable Player, Mauer also owns three batting titles. He won crowns in 2006, 2008, and 2009, with respective averages of .347, .328, and .365.
There are 13 catchers in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Only four of them have .300 lifetime averages: Mickey Cochrane, .320; Bill Dickey, .313; Lombardi; and Buck Ewing, .303. Only Cochrane, at .419, has a higher on-base percentage. Mauer is in elite company.
Mauer’s most distinguishing characteristic is his three batting titles. Catchers do not lead the league in hitting, not the American League, not the National League. A lifetime .306 hitter, Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi won NL batting titles in 1938 and 1942 for the Reds. The San Francisco Giants’ Buster Posey in 2012 joined Mauer and Lombardi as the only catchers ever to win batting crowns. That goes back to 1876.
Mauer seems to be in the hunt for another shot this year, but he may never win another batting title again, either. He has already proved that he can do things that almost no one else has ever done and whatever happens from here on he has proved to be one of the greats at his position.