Things so rarely live up to the hype, and yet when they do credit is so rarely given. Try a much-hyped restaurant for the first time and have a bad experience? You’ll tell everyone. Or, worse, post a Yelp review. But have a good experience? That’s not really much of a story, although odds are you’ll go back and enjoy the food again. Similarly, ask any fan of any team and they’ll have no trouble reciting a list of top prospects who failed to deliver on the hype. Busts. You’re probably thinking of one right now. (Delmon Young‘s Yelp reviews are terrible.) Much less interesting are the top prospects who delivered on the hype. After all, that’s just what they were supposed to do. Joe Mauer lived up to the hype. Boring, that.
Mauer was drafted first overall in 2001—a decision that caused many people to criticize the Twins for passing on a “sure thing” with even more hype—and later became the consensus no. 1 prospect in baseball. He debuted as a 20-year-old and played what’s assumed to be his final game Sunday as a 35-year-old, all for the Twins. If he retires, it’ll be as Minnesota’s all-time leader in times on base, surpassing Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, and trailing only Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett on the team’s all-time hits list. Among the 52 different no. 1 overall draft picks in MLB history, Mauer ranks first in career batting average and fourth in Wins Above Replacement, behind only Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Chipper Jones.
“I’d heard a lot about how great he was supposed to be and he was great” the Yelp review of Mauer would read, with five stars given and no photos attached.
Mauer and I were both born in St. Paul, in early 1983. We both grew up there and went to St. Paul City Conference high schools. I went to Highland Park, which is mostly a mess of a public school. He went to Cretin-Derham Hall, which is a well-regarded private school with all kinds of notable alumni like Paul Molitor, Matt Birk, Chris Weinke, and Josh Hartnett. I bring this up not to suggest that we were friends or even acquaintances—I played sports with some of his friends, but Mauer was too good to play in regular Little League, and I can only remember running into him a few times over the years—but rather to note that “Joe Mauer, Famous Amazing Athlete” has been part of my life for 20 years.
Mauer’s family was well known here even before he became a household name. Seemingly every male member of his family going back multiple generations played professional baseball, including his older brothers Jake and Billy. His cousin, Ken, is a longtime NBA referee. Joe was on another level, though, because he was on another level from everyone. He was the best high school quarterback in the country, winning two state titles, being named national player of the year, and accepting a scholarship to play for Bobby Bowden at Florida State, who had just won a national title. He was also a damn good basketball player, averaging 20 points per game, and definitely could have played in college. And of course he was one of the greatest high school baseball prospects of all time.
Mauer was ridiculously good in high school. Like, silly good. He hit above .540 every year, including .605 with homers in seven straight games as a senior. He struck out only once, total, and the guy who struck him out has spent the two decades since then giving interviews about it. One of my friends who pitched against him bragged for an entire school year about holding Mauer to a double, even though it happened on a field with no outfield fence. (Cretin was probably on the way to a mercy rule win and maybe Mauer was just tired of running.) Mauer was a legend in Minnesota by the time he was 16.
What’s remarkable about Mauer’s story is that his ending up with the Twins simultaneously required them to make a very bold decision and was totally out of their hands. Minnesota was a very bad team in 2000, going 69-93, but that was only the fifth-worst record in baseball. However, because the top pick in the draft used to alternate between leagues and the four worst records belonged to National League teams, the Twins found themselves with the no. 1 pick in a draft featuring the greatest prep athlete in Minnesota history. Funny how that works.
Even then, there was a complicating factor: Mark Prior. Considered one of the best pitching prospects of all time, and called the best college pitcher ever by some, Prior was viewed by most as the best prospect in the draft. When the Twins picked Mauer over Prior, they were widely criticized for doing so and for passing on the “sure thing” college pitcher for a local high school catcher in order to save money. It wasn’t about money, they insisted. Mauer was the real deal. Terry Ryan, the general manager who made the pick, said: “I don’t know if you could write a better script.” Mauer, sporting glasses and Bama bangs but no sideburns yet, called it “just like a fairy tale.” (I was 18, and still sort of mad about how badly Cretin had beaten us in football the year before.)
Mauer was a Hall of Fame catcher for 10 seasons and a mediocre first baseman for five seasons, with a concussion suffered in August of 2013 marking the point at which the shift from one to the other occurred. Mauer sat out the final six weeks of the 2013 season with dizziness, nausea, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, and other common post-concussion symptoms, and returned the next spring as a first baseman.
At the time of the concussion, Mauer was hitting .324/.404/.476 in 113 games during his age-30 season, nearly identical to his .323/.405/.468 career mark to that point. He’d started the All-Star game a month earlier and went on to win the Silver Slugger award despite sitting out the final 39 games. He was never the same. Mauer hit .277/.361/.371 in his first season as a first baseman and .278/.359/.388 in five seasons there overall, admitting several years after the switch that he continued to experience post-concussion symptoms on a semi-regular basis and eventually wearing custom sunglasses during day games in an attempt to combat sensitivity to sunlight.
It’s impossible to accurately assess Mauer’s career without recognizing that everything changed the moment he suffered the concussion. During his 10 seasons as a catcher, he hit .323 and won three batting titles—matching the combined total of every catcher in MLB history to that point—along with one MVP award, three Gold Gloves, five Silver Sluggers, and six All-Star selections. He has the third-highest OPS of all time in games played at catcher, trailing only Hall of Famers Mike Piazza and Mickey Cochrane. He was having a typical Mauer season—All-Star, Silver Slugger, second-best batting average and third-best on-base percentage in the league—when the brain injury made that player cease to exist.
If anything, it’s a credit to Mauer’s immense natural talent that he was able to hit .278 with a .359 on-base percentage for five seasons while dealing with symptoms from a brain injury (along with the natural, post-30 aging process) that clearly robbed him of considerable skills. And it’s a credit to Mauer’s work ethic that he turned himself into a fantastic defender at a second position after initially looking a little shaky at first base. But no amount of credit in any direction changes the fact that the player who remained following the concussion was no longer great, and was at times merely decent.
Among all catchers in MLB history through age 30, he ranks sixth in Wins Above Replacement. (Note: Because the BP version of WAR only goes back to 1950, I’m using the Baseball-Reference version to include Cochrane, an all-time great who was very similar to Mauer.)
However, among all first basemen in MLB history from age 31 to 35, he ranks just 60th in Wins Above Replacement. There are plenty of really good players and even some Hall of Famers surrounding him on that list—he’s tied with Andres Galarraga, and directly ahead of Joe Torre and Fred McGriff—but the jaw-dropping, superstars-at-their-peak company kept in the first list is gone and he wouldn’t be adding to his WAR total in retirement. He was a Hall of Fame catcher and then he was an average-ish first baseman, with only the concussion in between.
Jay Jaffe’s excellent JAWS method for evaluating Hall of Fame cases views Mauer’s career as solidly above the threshold for Cooperstown, ranking him as the seventh-best catcher of all time and putting him roughly on par with Hall of Famers Cochrane and Bill Dickey. Every other catcher in JAWS’ top nine is in the Hall of Fame. Beyond that, every player who ranks as high as Mauer at any other position is either in the Hall of Fame or will be once they retire (or, in a few instances like Pete Rose or Barry Bonds, is being kept out for obvious reasons).
Among the 192 players in MLB history with at least 800 games at catcher, Mauer ranks third in on-base percentage, fifth in batting average, sixth in times on base, eighth in Runs Created, ninth in hits, ninth in WAR, and 10th in OPS. Mauer had a Hall of Fame-caliber career, but my sense is that the voters will not be as enthusiastic about his case as JAWS and other numbers-based looks suggest. I’d love to be proven wrong, of course, but Mauer’s induction would require viewing him as a catcher, or at least mostly as a catcher, and by the time he’s actually on the ballot it will have been 10 years since anyone saw him behind the plate. It’s only natural for some of those memories to fade, although Mauer putting on the gear for one last appearance behind the plate is something I’ll never forget.
Baseball fans and media members outside of Minnesota are consistently shocked and confused to discover how much criticism Mauer receives locally. (Sports Illustrated is the most recent of several prominent outlets to cover the topic.) It’s so prevalent, and trying to reason with Mauer critics who aren’t necessarily interested in reason has been such a big part of my life, that it can be difficult to avoid viewing Mauer’s career through that bizarro world lens. But he deserves more than that, or at least his critics deserve less than that. If, after 15 seasons, you can’t appreciate Mauer, the player and the person, that’s on you. It took me far too long to come to that realization, but I’ve finally gotten there and it feels good.
If a Gold Glove catcher wins batting titles and people complain that he didn’t hit enough homers or drive in enough runs, you’re not going to change their mind with talk of positional adjustments and the dependent relationship between RBIs and opportunity. If a career .334 hitter with runners in scoring position is denigrated as not clutch, there’s no follow-up stat to quote that will do any good. When a player who was wildly underpaid early in his career is overpaid late in his career, there’s no use trying to figure out why so many people are concerned with billionaire owners getting excess value. When a brain injury knocks an all-time great off a Hall of Fame path, you’re never going to convince some people that he couldn’t have simply toughed it out. Trust me, I’ve spent 15 years trying all of that, and a lot more.
Mauer was not a perfect baseball player, just like every other baseball player before him, but he was a truly great player for a decade, including one otherworldly season, and he was an average, useful player for five seasons after a concussion brought a sudden, premature end to his greatness. Beyond that, he’s a born-and-bred Minnesotan who wanted nothing more than to play in his home state, quietly living life with his family out of the spotlight and never making headlines for the wrong reasons. As he said on the field Sunday while still wearing his old catching gear during an emotional postgame interview: “I never want to take this uniform off … 15 years and I can’t see myself anywhere else.”
Mauer was supposed to be great, from the time he was 16 years old, and he was great. One of the five greatest Twins of all time. One of the 10 greatest catchers of all time. No matter how many people always wanted more, and how loudly they wanted it, don’t let his imperfections fool you into taking his greatness for granted or thinking that what we got for 15 seasons wasn’t plenty. He lived up to the hype.
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