Twins: What can Mauer do for an encore?

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 30, 2007 - 2:11 PM

Already a batting champion, the Twins catcher faces some big expectations. We asked Tony Oliva, Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn what Mauer needs to do to continue to improve as a hitter.

FORT MYERS, FLA. -- When you win a batting title by age 23, you quickly run out of people you can turn to for advice. • What surprises -- and adjustments -- await Joe Mauer after a season that saw him hit .347 and become the first catcher to claim the American League batting crown? • Nobody really knows. And who's he going to ask? • Since the start of World War II, only 15 players have won batting titles by age 23 -- a list that includes Ted Williams (left), Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and George Brett. • Mauer, who turns 24 on April 19, enters his fourth season with the Twins facing ever- growing expectations. With a new, four-year, $33 million contract, he'll be asked to prove last season was the norm, not an exception. • That's a lot to handle, so for some perspective, we caught up with three hitters who can actually relate. • Tony Gwynn (right), Rod Carew and Tony Oliva (above) combined to win 18 batting titles. They shared their experiences and gave their thoughts on Mauer's evolution as a hitter.

Tony Gwynn

Total batting titles: eight

First: 1984, at age 24

Second: 1987, at age 27

Last: 1997, at age 37

How tough is the first year after you win a batting title?

Gwynn sure remembers. In 1984, he hit .351 for the San Diego Padres and won the National League batting crown. But by his standards, he slumped in 1985, batting .317.

He recalled USA Today mentioning him as a candidate for 1986 Comeback Player of the Year, as if he had fallen into oblivion.

"When you have success, people expect you to have that same kind of success year in, year out," Gwynn said. "I got pitched to differently in 1985. We traded Alan Wiggins, and I spent that year learning how to hit a breaking ball. I saw a lot of them."

Mauer has the advantage of returning to a lineup that stayed largely intact. He should have Luis Castillo and Nick Punto batting in front of him, with Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau and Torii Hunter behind him.

Like Gwynn, however, Mauer set the bar very high last year. He threatened the .400 mark into July and held off both Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano to claim the title on the season's final day.

In 1985, Gwynn's average was under .300 into June. What can Mauer expect if his average takes a similar dip?

"I was reading the paper every day, listening to what everyone was saying," Gwynn said. "I learned you can't do that. The only way to keep people off your back is just go out there and be productive."

Gwynn finished his career with 3,141 hits, becoming a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He's in his sixth year as San Diego State's head baseball coach, so he can appreciate Mauer's development as a young hitter.

"His balance at the plate is really good," Gwynn said. "As a coach, I talk to my guys all the time about being balanced. You get into a balanced position, you can hit anything anywhere. He's a tall guy to begin with, but you can see he's got his legs under him.

"The other thing is his ability to use the whole field. That really is a thing of beauty. You can take a fastball in and pull it down the right field line, and you can take that same fastball away and line it down the left field line. To me, that's the essence of hitting."

• • •

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