As you probably know, the Twins star became the first catcher to win a batting title when he hit .347 in 2006 at the age of 23. In 2008 he won another when he hit .328. This season, he enters Sunday’s action hitting a league-best .371.
Three batting titles in four seasons? It’s a very real possibility, and the kind of thing only accomplished by the great hitters. Larry Walker did it (1998-99, ’01). Tony Gwynn won three straight (87-89), then four more in a row (94-97). Wade Boggs also won four straight (85-88), and Rod Carew captured six in seven seasons (72-75, 77-78). That is the kind of company Mauer is keeping.
The difference is that Mauer is doing it all while playing catcher, and playing it very well.
Put simply, what Joe Mauer is doing is unprecedented.
In Joe Mauer, we’re looking at someone who can just flat out hit. The consistency is so impressive, and he’s just getting better and better. After missing all of April due to surgery, but he’s been coming on strong ever since. And what used to be the knock on him — that he couldn’t hit for power — doesn’t apply anymore. His previous career high in home runs was 13 in 2006. This season he already has 25.
He’s always had great hand-eye coordination and he follows the ball right into the bat. Now he’s creating more power. That’s downright scary.
When I look at other catchers who could hit and field, I think of guys like Ted Simmons, who notched a career .285 average and hit 248 home runs in 21 seasons. I always thought he was overlooked in the Hall of Fame voting.
Johnny Bench was another great all-around player, although as a hitter he was known mainly for his power. (.267 career average, 389 home runs in 17 seasons).
Mauer was never considered a power threat before this season, but now he can beat you with the long ball.
But the thing is, when the at-bat is over, he can’t relax. He has to go put his gear on and call the game from behind the plate.
CALLING THE GAME
From a pitcher’s perspective, there is nobody more important than the catcher. As soon as he’s done hitting, his focus has to change. He has to start thinking about how his pitcher is doing and he’s thinking “how can I get my pitcher through the next inning? How can I make him better?”
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Joe Mauer is just as good behind the plate as he is hitting beside it.
Mauer takes a lot of pride in handling the Twins’ staff. It’s a demanding job, especially in today’s game. He’s seeing three or four pitchers a night, and has to handle all the signs.
If Jesse Crain comes in, Joe has to know how to use Jesse’s pitches against the hitter at the plate. And he has to figure out on the fly which pitches are working best for Jesse at the time. You warm him up for eight pitches, so you get some idea, but that’s not a lot to go off. So Joe has to ask himself, “how can we get this guy out with the stuff that this pitcher has?” There’s so much of the mental part that Joe has to pull out. He takes a lot of pride in that.
When I played, my catchers were my best friends. When I recently attended a reunion of the 1979 Pirates championship team, I spent most of my time hanging out with Manny Sanguillen and Ed Ott.
We were tight, and we had to find a way to be best friends on the ballclub. I never looked at my catcher as a guy to drive in runs. My concern was that he help me get guys out.
I had some catchers who were good hitters in my day. But when I say good hitters, I’m talking guys who could hit .260 or .270. Guys like George Mitterwald (my catcher when I came up) and Jim Sundberg. I also played with Phil Roof, who was more of a defensive catcher. Tim Laudner was another good defensive catcher I had here in Minnesota.
There are guys who stay in the big leagues for a long time and they can’t even hit, but they call a great game. Then you have guys who can hit, and have a strong throwing arm like, say, Ivan Rodriguez, but who aren’t known for calling a great game.
Mauer, though, is the complete package.
Every night you know he has a good chance of getting a hit. You know he’ll block balls and he’ll throw out runners. He shuts down the running game with one of the best arms in all of baseball. In his career, Mauer has thrown out 39 percent of base-stealers, including 53 percent in 2007. He truly can do it all.
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