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."

• • •

Tony Oliva

Total batting titles: three

First: 1964, at age 25

Second: 1965, at age 26

Last: 1971, at age 32.

Will a batting title stunt Mauer's growth as a power hitter?

When Oliva hit .323 to win the AL batting title in 1964 -- along with Rookie of the Year honors -- he hammered 32 home runs.

The next year, he won another batting title, hitting .321, but a knuckle injury limited him to 16 home runs. He settled in as a steady hitter who averaged 21.5 home runs over his next six seasons, at a time long before baseball's home run explosion.

Oliva was a much different hitter than Mauer, more of a free swinger famous for throwing his bat at pitches and still getting hits.

"[Mauer] doesn't have to do that," Oliva said. "He's able to take those tough pitches [for] balls. I swing at a lot of balls -- and hit it. I think the lower the better, and when it was low, I smoked those balls.

"So we're different. They tried to make adjustments. They try to make good pitches to you. But when you're a good hitter, it doesn't matter."

Mauer's 6-5 frame and his rare ability to make consistently solid contact leave people drooling over his power potential. But after hitting nine home runs in 2005, his total jumped to just 13 last season.

"Remember, he's only 23 years old," Oliva said. "He's going to get a little stronger. He's going to get a little smarter.

"It's very hard to do better than he did last year. But I think he'll be able to hit more home runs, with time."

Mauer said he realizes there are certain counts (2-0, 3-1, etc.) when he should look for a certain pitch in a certain zone and try to crush it.

In Wednesday's spring opener against Boston, Mauer launched a 2-1 fastball from Julian Tavarez over the left field wall for a three-run homer. It was an opposite-field blast that showed just how powerful Mauer can be. He hit balls just like it last season, but perhaps this one was an omen.

"I found out when I try to do something more, I just get into bad habits," Mauer said. "I'm not really trying to do anything different. The more times you see guys, the better idea you have, and you might know when to take a chance.

"When I say take a chance, I mean look for a certain pitch."

• • •

Rod Carew

Total batting titles: seven

First: 1969, at age 23

Second: 1972, at age 26

Last: 1978, at age 32

What are the keys as Mauer looks to sustain last year's success?

"I never went into spring training saying I'm going to lead the league this year," Carew said. "I just tried to get as many base hits as I could. You have to be greedy. When you get two, you want three. You get three, you want four. You get four, if you get a fifth at-bat, you want to get five."

Carew was a magician with the bat in his hands. Like Gwynn, he could hit home runs, but he never became preoccupied with power.

Still, Carew can see power becoming a bigger part of Mauer's game. He likened him to Garret Anderson, who hit .321 with 16 home runs and 69 RBI as a rookie for the Angels in 1995.

By 2003, Anderson was an MVP, batting .315 with 29 homers and 116 RBI.

"He's the same size as Garret, and the thing to me is they both learned how to hit the ball hard first," Carew said. "Garret went from there to driving the ball, and that's what Joe's going to do."

At TwinsFest, Mauer told Carew his spring training goal was to work on handling the inside pitch. Late last season, teams consistently pounded Mauer with fastballs on his hands. When he does strike out, it's often because he chases pitches inside. He also grounded into 24 double plays last year, 15 more than in 2005.

"I'd say right now, I probably feel more comfortable with the ball out over the plate," Mauer said. "But if they come inside, I feel pretty good, too. That's the thing: You just want to make sure you're a well-balanced hitter, and that's what I'm trying to be."

As a catcher, wear-and-tear is a serious factor, too. By September, Mauer's whole body ached. He had bone bruises on two of his left fingers (from his glove hand) and it robbed him of some bat speed. Earlier in the year, Mauer's hands felt great.

"The kid can hit," Carew said. "I mean, he can hit. And what I really like about him is he's very quiet at the plate. [Justin] Morneau is the same way. You don't find them jumping at the ball. They're always nice and easy, nice and smooth.

"The reason he's able to do that is he uses his hands real well. His hands are the key to what he does at the plate. If your hands hurt, it's tough. You can hurt anyplace else, but if your hands hurt, sometimes it's going to be a struggle."

In some ways, Mauer will always be measured against his .347 average from last year. Will he be satisfied if that's the only batting title he ever wins?

"That's something that nobody can ever take away from you," he said. "I'd be content with that. But I'm just trying to get better and better, you know. Let's see what happens. I'm just starting out."

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