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How Does Money Affect Your Expectations of a Player? How Much Should It?

In spite of a very good comeback season to date, Joe Mauer isn't getting an easy ride from the Minnesota fanbase. That's kind of messed up.

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This is more of a philosophical question. It's hard, if not impossible, to distinguish a black and white set of answers because everyone will feel a different way.

It's a question I want to ask because, living in Boston and having lived a year in New York City, I've been exposed to two very distinctive East Coast fanbases. Not surprisingly the portion of these fanbases who take their fandom very seriously is numerically larger. It's probably proportionally larger, too. Perfectly reasonable people at work talk about their teams like the stereotype we're all aware of, and I can't tell you how many times I've heard sentences like this:

"I bet Adrian Peterson wants out of Minnesota."

"Can you imagine what Adrian Peterson would be like with the Patriots?"

"Joe Mauer has to want out of Minnesota."

"When was the last time the Twins were a good team?"

It's not everyone. Fenway Park is full of great people you can talk baseball with, but it's also full of people who are so insular in their fandom that it's stupefying. Evidence of being able to conceive of another fanbase having cognitive thought, of being able to conceive that other teams or players might not be on some inevitable path to their team, can at times be overwhelming.

Those expectations lead over to sports radio, where on Sunday afternoon the topic of conversation turned to Theo Epstein and his moves while with the Red Sox. They were talking about J.D. Drew, Carl Crawford, Daisuke Matsuzaka, about how their performances were seen as failures because of how much they were being paid. It wouldn't be a big deal if they sucked and made $4 million, they argued, because expectations increase with a player's salary.

I think it's fair to expect past performance when a player signs a new contract. If a guy turns in a .900 OPS for two years and then signs a big deal, it's fair for you to continue to expect him to post a .900 OPS because that's why he was signed to that contract.

One area that I always end up disagreeing with, on these terms, is when people expect players with big contracts to play through pain. More specifically: some people expect these players to not just play through pain, but to continue to be as productive as they would be if they were healthy.

That was certainly the case throughout Rube Nation this weekend when Joe Mauer didn't start Saturday's game because of a tweaked hamstring. There is still a great deal of distrust towards an organization that wasn't fully transparent with Mauer's injuries last season, and combining that with his big contract certain areas of the fanbase have had plenty of fuel for their outrage.

But for how long do you continue to hold previous injuries against a player? Particularly when that player has played in 60 of the team's 65 games, started in 58 of them, is 6th in the American League in batting average, is 2nd in the American League in on-base percentage, is second on the team in Win Probability Added (behind Josh Willingham, of course), and at his current rate of play will play in 149 games this season. According to FanGraphs, Mauer has already accumulated 2.1 Wins Above Replacement, which puts him on pace for approximately a 5.2 win season.

It's certainly not the 7.9-win season of '09, but it puts him back in line as one of the best catchers in the game and it would be back in line with what you would expect of Mauer before that infamous '09 campaign. It's also a long, long way from the Shadow Mauer we all saw limping and grimacing through 82 games last season.

At the open I mentioned that a part of the expectations for a player under a big contract could and should be based on past performance. But just like everything else in life, outlook and expectations should be mitigated by circumstances.

In Boston, it's common for fans to expect players to become better than they ever have been once they sign a big contract. As though, somehow, making more money magically makes them better players. That's the sense I get from a few Twins fans in regards to Mauer, and it's troubling. Not because that mentality echoes the vaunted, cringe-worthy aspects of the stereotypical East Coast fan, but because the mentality doesn't make any sense.

Fandom isn't an issue of black and white. There are a million shades of gray, which is as it should be. I'm just hoping that after a pretty damned good bounce back season, the attitude towards Mauer might change for the better.

(Just as I'm finishing writing this, I found this piece which was published yesterday by Paul Lebowitz. For an outsider, he gets most of the details correct. It's related, and well worth your time to read.)

Photographs by Micah Taylor, clairity, and Fibonacci Blue used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.