It’s too late in the season to call it a fluke. Every time he plays part of a season and get injured, we claim that over a full 162-game season this would not have happened. But this season it’s happening.
It’s happening in a place where little else is happening. Minnesota may receive little attention because of its arctic geography and weather conditions, its ugly stadium with some kind of a “baggie” in right field (baggies are only good for bringing snacks to school) and its lack of mainstream media coverage. Not to mention the fact that most of Minnesota’s team embodies the term “mediocrity.”
But it’s happening. And it’s the reason the Twins are competing for a playoff spot. “It” is the transformation of Joe Mauer from a good catcher to a legend.
Most casual fans know Joe Mauer is a catcher who performs well offensively on an otherwise offensively mediocre team. They know he is a valuable player. What they fail to realize is that Joe Mauer, who should be a runaway winner of the American League Most Valuable Player award this season, may be the best player of this generation not named Albert Pujols (though I still think watching Tony LaRussa try to pronounce José Alberto Pujols Alcántara would be worth having “Phat Albert” go by his birth name).
The 26-year-old Mauer has battled injuries since his second full professional season in 2006, when he hit a remarkable .357. Mauer had also shown only limited power, hitting just 13 homers during that 2006 season and seven in the two years since. To put those numbers in perspective, former Yankee (he had one at bat in a preseason game) Billy Crystal hit just three fewer home runs than Mauer in 2007.
But this is his breakout year. This is when Mauer goes from a good catcher to the best player in baseball.
Think about the type of season this will be for the history books.
Mauer’s current .373 batting average, if he can keep it up for the final 12 games of the season, would be the highest batting average for a catcher in history by a full 10 points. His .442 on-base percentage would be the fourth best season for a catcher in that department, and the best since 1935. His 1.050 on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, a statistic widely regarded as the best measure of a baseball player’s offensive production, would be the second best in history for a catcher. The only better season was Mike Piazza in 1997, when Barry “Squarejaw” Bonds, Mark “Super-Goatee” McGwire and “Slammin’ ” Sammy Sosa likely saw their stats inflated by the juice, and not the kind that comes in boxes with sippy straws.
So Mauer’s stats back up the assertion that this is a special season. Mauer will not, however, be a one-year wonder. His career batting average is a whopping .327, and he is clearly only improving as a hitter. Mauer, also, will command a massive contract once his deal expires after next season. Only a few teams like the Red Sox, Yankees and Angels will be able to fork over this kind of cash. Think about the kind of season Mauer could have with Mark Teixeira in front of him and Alex Rodriguez behind him. The thought is kind of scary for those of us who root for the boys from Beantown.
This year will be not only one of the best offensive seasons in history, but also the year this three-time All-Star jumps onto the map. Just as all great bands need one great song to “blow up,” this season will be Mauer’s hit. Mauer’s 2009 is Marshall Mathers’ “My Name Is…,” which made Eminem a household name.
Joe Mauer has the prototypical size to be a superstar and has quashed doubts about whether he will ever reach his potential. If he can avoid injuries, it seems likely Mauer will break Mickey Cochrane’s record for career batting average by a catcher, which is .320.
ESPN camera crews and national news reporters had better bundle up and make the trip up to the Twin Cities next year to see the St. Paul native in what will likely be his final season with his hometown team. And all baseball fans should watch the Twins any time they’re on TV next year.
Because 50 years from now baseball fans across the country will be able to tell their children they saw the great Joe Mauer become a superstar, like my dad tells me he saw when Nolan Ryan went from failing to dominant. He’s a once-in-a-generation talent (with apologies to the aforementioned Pujols, who is a similar talent but a different type of player) who will be mentioned with Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Cal Ripken Jr. as one of the game’s greats.
Those of us near an ocean may keep rooting for a Red Sox/Yankees vs. Dodgers/Giants World Series to see the clash of the coasts. But if, much to our chagrin, we’re lucky enough to see a matchup between the Minnesota Twins (now with 50 percent less frostbite) and the St. Louis Cardinals (now without that McGwire guy), we might be treated to the spectacle of a lifetime: watching the best two players of a generation slug it out for a World Series championship.
Collin Gutman is a senior in Pierson College.