In 2009, Joe Mauer won the AL MVP award, the Gold Glove for defensive excellence and the AL batting title, he was considered one of baseball’s brightest stars. Just as quickly as he gained notoriety, though, his career went downhill after he suffered a series of concussions. Those concussions quickly led to reduced offensive productivity and defensive reliability.

This year, that’s changed. Joe is back with a vengeance. And then some. Joe’s health (and swing) are back. He’s the Twins’ most consistent hitter. He’s become the American League’s best defensive first baseman. This past weekend, the Twins’ opponent was the Toronto Blue Jays. Toronto’s first baseman, Justin Smoak, has had a good year, hitting 38 home runs. He’s considered one of the best defensive first basemen in all of baseball. What I saw this weekend in that matchup was the difference between a highlight reel guy (Smoak) and a consistent professional (Mauer).

In Sunday’s game, Smoak didn’t make the defensive play on a Jason Castro base hit. Dick Bremer, the Twins TV voice for a generation, called it a 7-hop bleeder. It was a ball that should have been caught. Castro likely would’ve beaten out the infield hit. Instead, the ball got through and the Twins runner, Eduardo Escobar, went from first to third on the hit.

Prior to this year, Kent Hrbek was the Twins’ best defensive first baseman of my lifetime. He spoke once about his mindset defensively. He said that his first instinct was to be like a hockey goalie by not letting the ball get past him. After that, his goal was simple. Save the extra base. Save runs. Sometimes, it meant he stole outs and rallies from the other team. Before that, though, he didn’t let the ball get past him.

This year, Joe Mauer has used his 6’5″ frame and his athleticism to not let balls get past him. His range (statistically) isn’t that impressive. Ask his infielders whether Joe’s range has saved their bacon and they’ll tell you that he’s saved them lots of throwing errors. Ask Joe’s pitchers whether he’s saved them outs. They’ll tell you that he’s been the glue that’s held the infield together. Whether he’s making a diving backhanded stop or picking a short-hopped throw, his teammates, pitchers and coaches will tell you that he’s the most consistent defensive first baseman in the league. In fact, this year, Joe Mauer has committed 1 error all season. His fielding percentage over 937 chances is .999.

The Joe Mauer of early in his career is back. The elite-level defensive play has returned. His offensive productivity is back. Perhaps the most overlooked statistic is Joe’s batting average with runners in scoring position, aka RISP, is .321, one of the highest batting averages in the league. Consistently, he puts together great at-bats.

Minnesota has some impressive young 2-way talent. It’s impossible to not think of Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton when that’s the subject. Still, Joe Mauer’s quiet leadership and productivity have been instrumental in making the Twins a highly competitive team with a very good shot at making the playoffs.

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