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April 23, 2013

Painting the Black

Extraordinary Joe

by R.J. Anderson

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Joe Mauer turned 30 last week. He celebrated early with back-to-back four-hit games before his birthday. Ho hum. So it is with Mauer, who is one of the best hitters of his generation, and perhaps one not fully appreciated. Let's be clear: Mauer is not a superstar doing dogsbody tasks. The former no. 1 pick front-manned advertisement campaigns for video games, anti-dandruff shampoo, and Pepsi products in the past—practically the holy trinity for teenage males. People know who Mauer is. He's made All-Star Games, won Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers, and took him the 2009 MVP trophy.

You remember Mauer's MVP credentials. He batted .365 and homered 28 times while catching in 109 games. In retrospect, that season set the bar too high. Mauer has hit .318 with 24 home runs since. Diminished numbers when compared to his best; dominant numbers when compared to most every other catcher's best. Mauer remains a top-notch offensive backstop—and yes, he remains a catcher. His approach at the plate is easy and impressive. So easy and natural it can go overlooked. 

Mauer lets someone else revolutionize the game at the plate. All he does is stay within himself and make the most out of his best attributes. Characterizing Mauer's philosophy as patience is oversimplifying things, but it is a somewhat accurate portrayal. Mauer does not swing at the first pitch often, about 8 percent of the time dating back through 2009. It takes confidence to concede a pitch 92 percent of the time. It takes talent to succeed while doing it against the world's best pitchers. 

There's something to be said about the best hitters having the best two-strike approaches. Unmoved by deep counts, Mauer willingly works into tough spots because he knows his strengths. His skill set includes excellent hand-eye coordination and bat control. Hitting screaming liners requires more than getting the edge or the handle of the bat on the ball, however. So give Mauer credit for his barrel awareness. Mauer marries his physical gifts with a fitting opposite-field mindset. 

It's been said the quickest swing a batter can take is on a pitch away from him. Combine Mauer's readiness to go the other way with his short swing and the result is an extra time allowance. Mauer can let the ball get deeper on him before swinging and still make solid contact and record a hit. As a byproduct Mauer is able to get a longer look at the pitch's location and trajectory before committing. Is it any wonder how Mauer has hit .409/.435/.523 in two-strike situations this season? That results in a higher OPS than Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols' overall numbers. 

Take it a step further: Is it any wonder that Mauer had 24 hits entering Monday and 18 came with two strikes? Or that only two of Mauer's hits were true pull jobs—the rest went to left, left-center, center, or right-center? Obviously, even as good as Mauer is, a lot of those numbers will drift toward normalcy as the season rolls on. Still, chew on this last statistical nugget for a second: in 2012 big-league catchers hit .248/.318/.400 overall; Mauer's career line with two strikes is .258/.312/.359.

Despite the perceived step back, Mauer is still a fantastic hitter. Ichiro Suzuki becomes an easy comparison since both had their greatness overshadowed at times by contemplations about how things would be if they swung from the heels more often. Phooey. Mauer is a tremendous player as is. Here's a better comparison to prove it, as supplied by a friend: Todd Helton. You have to dig around the differences in park, position, and era to find the case but once you do it opens easy. Mauer and Helton were contact-obsessive hitters in their primes who deposited home-run king quality checks. Segments of their fan bases invariably disliked them because of it. 

It's widely assumed Helton will be hurt by those aforementioned differences when he gets on the Hall of Fame ballot. It stands to reason then that Mauer will be helped. The Minnesota native may not need the help when his case is viewed through the prism of advanced stats:

Joe Mauer's Current HOF Résumé, as Told by JAWS





Johnny Bench




Gary Carter




Ivan Rodriguez




Carlton Fisk




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Avg - Mauer




The letter of the advanced stats law suggests Mauer is a few good seasons away from locking up a spot in Cooperstown. With five years remaining on his contract following this one, it's fair to wonder where Mauer will end up. Justin Morneau's potential departure could pave a path to first base for Mauer. But here's another question worth considering: Could Mauer, who will be 35 years old when his term expires, possibly play for a few more seasons afterward? 

Compared to the long-term prospects, the short-term future for Mauer feels like concrete. The Twins will not make the postseason this year barring some tomfoolery and hijinks. They could sneak into the conversation next season as their talented youngsters arrive on the scene, though hoping for an idyllic season where multiple rookies hit the ground running is foolhardy. That means the 2015 postseason seems like the target. 

Mauer, then 32, should remain a decent player. But don't wait another two seasons before getting a good look at what makes Mauer special. In a time when Joey Votto's opposite-field approach earns praise, let's not forget to sprinkle sunshine on the Minnesotan who does it as well as anyone.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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