The knock on the Twins' superb catcher was his lack of home runs. Now he has 10 this month, and no one knows why.
ESPN scheduled the Twins and Brewers on Sunday night to cleanse the palate between entrees of Yankees, Red Sox and Mets. The network probably did not anticipate stumbling into a Midwestern main course -- baseball's best player.
What else can you call Joe Mauer, a 6-5 catcher who excels at calling a game, calming pitchers, blocking pitches, throwing out runners, saving kittens from trees, hitting for average, drawing walks, helping old ladies with their groceries, working counts, running the bases and, once we had accepted his lack of power as an Achilles' heel, now even is hitting home runs?
"I think he's right at the top of the list," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. ''I think if you were starting a franchise from the ground up, he's the guy you would want to look at, along with Justin Morneau."
In 2006 and 2008, Morneau seemed even more valuable than Mauer, because of Morneau's superior run production. As Mauer developed into a fine all-around catcher, a lack of power and durability were his only flaws. Now that he's playing virtually every day and hitting more home runs per at-bat than anyone in baseball, Mauer has become the most unique and irreplaceable talent in the game.
"I think he is," teammate Jason Kubel said. ''I don't know what else you could ask him to do."
Mauer has increased his power without altering his swing, leading everyone he knows to adopt a different theory about his power surge.
There is the Gardenhire Theorem: That months of down time while convalescing enabled him to concentrate on lifting weights.
Mauer demurs. "I don't think you get stronger when you can't work out all winter because you're hurt," Mauer said.
There is the Roy Smalley Supposition, that Mauer has learned, perhaps even subconsciously, to elevate his usual line drives so they land in the seats. ''I'm not sure about that," Mauer said. ''I don't think my swing has changed at all."
What has? "That's the question everybody is asking me," Mauer said. ''I really don't know. I think, if anything, I'm just getting into good hitter's counts and understanding what pitchers are trying to do to me. And I'm not trying to hit home runs. When I try to hit home runs, that's when I have problems."
He's not having problems now. Despite missing spring training and the first month of the season because of back problems, Mauer has pounded big-league pitching, making the most refined skill in sports look simple as hammering a nail.
Last year, Mauer hit nine home runs. This month, he's hit 10, including a power pop into the upper deck in right field in the first inning Sunday. In the Twins' 6-3 victory, he went 2-for-3 and was hit by a pitch.
He has homered once every eight at-bats, the best ratio in the big leagues, and is hitting .438 with 29 RBI, a .525 on-base percentage and an .875 slugging percentage.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time a player reached Mauer's levels of batting average, homers, RBI and runs scored over his first 21 games in a season was 1954, when Willie Mays hit .471 with 11, 30 and 24.
"I wouldn't say I'm surprised, because he's always had power," Morneau said. "In batting practice, he hits it in the upper deck all the time. I guess he just has more strength. He's growing into his body. He's gaining that strength you start getting when you get to be 25."
"The only criticism anybody ever had of him was a lack of power, and now he's hitting home runs," catcher Mike Redmond said. "So how can he not be the best player in the game, or one of the best?"
"I think they should raise ticket prices for the first row in left field," Michael Cuddyer said. ''Fans can be guaranteed to get a Mauer home run ball at least once a homestand."
In May of 2009, Joe Mauer became the best player in baseball, at least temporarily, even if nobody, including Mauer himself, is quite sure why the ball is suddenly flying over the fence.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. firstname.lastname@example.org