Minnesotans, it is time we sat down and had a serious chat about Joe Mauer. We need to decide who Joe Mauer is going to be and what he's going to mean to us, because right now it's up in the air, and Minnesotans, it is making us angry.
If you dare, I invite you to dive into the comments on Michael Rand's comparison of Mauer and Kirby Puckett, at StarTribune.com. Puckett is one of Minnesota's most-beloved athletes, so it's natural that people would remember him fondly, but Rand's comparison between the two provoked a flood of absolute vitriol. Most of those expressing an opinion see Mauer as a choker, a selfish loser who is above all overpaid. If Mauer were to, in a single game, ground into eleven double plays in key situations, all while wearing a pair of oversize pants stuffed with bundles of fifty-dollar bills, it would at worst confirm the opinion that most of these people have of him.
So, Minnesotans, shall we call Mauer the Villain of the Twins? Internet sites seem positively filled with Mauer Truthers, all hell-bent on convincing the rest of us sheeple that Mauer is a dangerous lunatic who wants nothing more than to lose every game while chasing foul balls into the stands to give himself an opportunity to personally pickpocket as many old ladies as possible.
We're not really like that, though - are we, Minnesota? We're people who like facts here. Minnesota was built by German engineers and dispassionate Scandinavian farmers. We can look at the facts, at the numbers, and here's what we'll find:
- In the estimation of FanGraphs, a major statistics site, Mauer has been the most valuable player for the Twins this year, and the ninth-most valuable player - and most valuable catcher - in the American League.
- Mauer's gotten on base at a better rate than any other hitter in the American League in 2012, a .414 clip. And if that number stayed right there - again, better than any other player in the league - it would be only Mauer's third-best on-base percentage for a single season.
- Mauer's batting average is .319, fourth in the AL in 2012. .319 would represent only the fifth-best single season for Mauer.
- The criticism of Mauer's perceived lack of clutchness are not borne out by the numbers. Mauer has a .955 OPS with runners in scoring position in his career. For comparison, Alex Rodriguez has a career OPS of .947. With two outs and runners in scoring position, that number jumps to 1.024; Albert Pujols has a career OPS of 1.024.
- Detractors say that Mauer doesn't hit in close games, but again, the numbers don't jibe with that criticism. Mauer's OPS is .879 in the late stages of close games - higher than his overall OPS of .873.
By all of these objective measures, Mauer is one of the best hitters in baseball - certainly for a catcher, where only Buster Posey of the Giants has better numbers this season. Subjectively, too, it's not like Mauer is difficult to watch; he's always been known for his sweet swing, and pitchers have regularly spoken about how good of a hitter he is in all situations.
So why, then, does Mauer make us so angry, here in the Northland? It's all about the money, and the expectations it caused.
Mauer was by far the best hitter in baseball in 2009, when he hit 28 home runs and batted .365. He signed before 2010, right as the Twins were opening a new stadium - one that was sold to the public, in part, as a way for the Twins to keep their best players. His contract is the seventh-biggest contract in baseball history, a $184 million behemoth designed to keep him from ever hitting the open market.
In 2009, Mauer was being discussed as being potentially the best player in baseball - better than Pujols, better than A-Rod, better than anyone else. That contract that was based on him being the best in the league, a out-of-control mining cart of a premise that ran on tracks greased by Mauer being perhaps the best athlete in state history and being from St. Paul and embodying all of the Minnesota Nice that we wanted to believe about ourselves.
Is it any wonder he's disappointed us? Expectations were reset; we now expected that baseball people would forever debate whether Mauer or Pujols was better, or that we'd now be arguing about whether Mauer or Mike Trout were truly more valuable. He'd already won an MVP award. All we expected was eight more.
Look at his numbers since then. He was hurt for all of 2011, but in 2010 and now in 2012, he's reverted to the pre-2009 Mauer - an extraordinarily good hitter, one of the best-hitting catchers of all time, but not one of the best hitters in baseball.
This is why we need to talk about Joe Mauer, Minnesota. It is enough for him to be great, or does he need to be singularly great? Will we see him as one of the greatest Twins ever - or as someone who we wanted to be one of baseball's best ever, and who didn't quite live up to that expectation?
If you want greatness from Joe Mauer, you're getting it. If you want him to be the best ballplayer that ever lived, you're going to be angry. But here's the thing, Minnesota, and I can't see how there's any getting around this: if you insist on perfection and can't be happy with near-perfection, you're going to be angry a lot.
Let's talk, Minnesota. Do you really want to be that angry?