Hindsight is 20-20: Joe Mauer

Since Twins catcher Joe Mauer landed on the 7-day disabled list for concussion victims after taking several shots to the mask and helmet recently, there has been a great deal of renewed social media chatter about the Twins star’s future behind the plate.

In a rare moment of idleness Wednesday, I took note of a Tweet by Pioneer-Press Twins beat reporter Mike Berardino and it reminded me of a question I’ve been gnawing on from time to time for at least a couple of years now.

Here’s Berardino’s Tweet:

Twitter contest: Most insightful comment re: Mauer situation/future will be immortalized on next Twinsights blog at http://twincities.com

It took some doing to get my thoughts on the subject reduced to under 140 characters (right now, somewhere, CapitalBabs is laughing at the suggestion I could even get my thoughts trimmed to the 1,400 words my typical blog posts seem to run, much less 140 characters – someone punch her in the arm for me, will ya?). Anyway, my response:

@MikeBerardino Wonder if Mauer is an anomaly ‘cuz most catchers can’t hit or ‘cuz most orgs won’t let their best hitters stay at catcher.

Of course, I knew full well that I never have the most insightful thought or comment concerning any subject, so my chances of winning Berardino’s “contest” and attaining the immortality of being featured in his Twinsights blog were practically nil.

Then I remembered – I have my own blog!

I know I haven’t written much about the Twins the past couple of months, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t, right?

There’s no doubt that much of the value the Twins placed on Joe Mauer when they agreed to pay him $23 million per year for eight years back in March of 2010 was because he was not only pretty decent with a piece of lumber in his hands, but also played a “premium” position. Frankly, baseball hadn’t seen a catcher as proficient as Mauer at hitting a baseball in almost forever.

Joe Mauer

Sure, he’d be a pretty good hitter if he played any other position, too, but as a catcher, he gave the Twins an edge over every other team in baseball at that position. That’s what made him worth, in the team’s view, such a large pile of money over so many years. (That and the sideburns, of course.)

Speculation about whether Mauer would or should eventually move out from behind the plate began long before he started getting the big bucks. Guys his size simply are not catchers. They’re first basemen, designated hitters and corner outfielders (usually poor fielding ones, at that).

From various reports, Mauer has always prided himself on his defensive abilities behind the dish and perhaps even resisted any attempts from within the organization to suggest he consider a move. That’s admirable. Whether it’s wise is another question, though.

Last season, Mauer began playing a few games at first base. With Justin Morneau’s future in the Twins organization clearly in doubt, there’s plenty of speculation that Mauer will be the Twins’ primary first baseman perhaps as early as 2014.

While I try not to be overly critical of the people running the Twins’ front office, I’m also not so naïve as to think they can do no wrong. In that vein, and with the admission that I’m being guilty of Monday morning quarterbacking to an enormous degree, I have to pose this question:

Should the Twins have pulled Mauer out from behind the plate years ago, probably during the brief time he spent in the lower minor leagues, and taught him to play a position that was… well… safer?

That essentially brings us back to the question I posed in my reply to Mike Berardino.

Does Mauer’s offensive proficiency stand out among the game’s other catchers because he’s so good at hitting a baseball or is it because most other organizations won’t allow their top hitting prospects to catch, regardless of whether that’s what the did in high school or college or wherever they spent their time before arriving at the Twins’ complex in Fort Myers for the first time?

Even the Twins have been known to move a top bat out from behind the plate. After all, wasn’t Justin Morneau a catcher, too?

Catching is dangerous. I figured that out by the time I was nine years old. That’s about the first time I heard my baseball coaching dad refer to catchers’ gear as, “the tools of ignorance.” Sure it’s a cliché, but here’s the thing about clichés: they usually get to be clichés by being true.

In youth leagues and even high school, catchers were often among the best overall athletes on whatever team I happened to play on. Come to think of it, most of the catchers I threw to in those days were also either football players or wrestlers. Tough guys, all of them, and most of them hit pretty well, too. I suppose that’s because good athletes that age who figure out they can’t hit usually stop playing baseball.

MauerST11kBut I have to tell you, if I ran a professional baseball organization and it turned out that a guy I signed really had a knack for putting the sweet spot of a bat on to a baseball on a consistent basis, I’d burn his catcher’s mitt and tell him to shag fly balls or take some infield because his catching days are over.

I’d do that when he was 19 or 21, not when he was 30.

I kind of shake my head a bit when I read fans suggesting Mauer should simply convert to third base, “next year.”

I just don’t think people have any concept of what it takes to be a proficient… or even an adequate… third baseman at the Major League level.

Go to spring training and watch the time players and their coaches put in over on the minor league infields in the back of the Twins complex working on the nuances of fielding. Sneak in to a minor league ballpark three or four hours before game time and watch as managers and coaches teach infielders how to shave a critical split second off the process of fielding a ball, getting it out of the glove and delivering it to first base.

Could Joe Mauer learn to do all that? I’ve seen enough of him to know better than to bet against him in any endeavor involving a ball made of leather, but it’s not a given that he could make a seamless conversion. Yes, I say that fully aware that guys like Johnny Bench pulled off that switch.

My point is simply that I think the time to make that move is years earlier, when the growing pains can take place in places like Elizabethton and Cedar Rapids, not in front of 38,000 people at Target Field.

More importantly, adopting the philosophy of protecting your best hitting prospects would mean you don’t subject them to a decade of unnecessary jarring foul balls off the noggin and you can focus on developing defense-first catchers throughout your organization.

I wouldn’t wish that kind of physical punishment on anyone, but so long as the game is going to need a catcher, I’d rather the guy I’m risking back there hit like Drew Butera than Joe Mauer, especially when the alternative seems to always be seeing a couple of Butera-like hitters elsewhere on the field, anyway.

I think it’s quite possible that catchers may become the running backs of Major League Baseball, in that they’ll be among the best pure athletes in the game, but will have, on average, the shortest careers. Just as there’s almost no way to fully protect the health of running backs in a game where it’s the job of huge men to hit them as hard as possible and take their legs out from under them, it’s also unlikely that there’s any way to make catching safe from blows to the head.

Seeing Morneau and Denard Span, not to mention Corey Koskie before them, go through some difficult times with concussions, it’s clear that there’s no way to completely protect your best ballplayers from the risk of concussion. But it’s pretty evident to me that the risk is far greater for catchers.

I hope Joe Mauer’s days as a catcher are nearing an end.

And I hope the next time the Twins sign a catching prospect who can hit like Mauer, I’m watching him play another position by the time he comes through Cedar Rapids on his way to the Show.

2 Replies to “Hindsight is 20-20: Joe Mauer”

  1. Morneau was moved from catcher, reportedly, because his arm wasn’t strong enough to be a good defensive catcher, not to save him from concussions/save his body from the rigors of catching.

    There was–and in my opinion still is–no reason to move Mauer until his defense starts to dip, or if he decides he’s done. I don’t like taking away from him something he enjoys, that he can still do well, and outfield that he’s worked his entire life to attain. We wouldn’t want great-hitting outfielders to stop crashing into walls and diving for line drives because it’s a concussion risk.

  2. Fair enough, beth, but personally I would rather have Joe around to enjoy a few extra years, even if it means taking away from “something he enjoys” and, frankly, yes… I WOULD want great hitting outfielders to stop crashing in to walls.