How long can the Twins’ best player stay behind the plate, given the beating catchers regularly take?
DETROIT – Catcher’s gear has been referred to as “the tools of ignorance,” but what can’t be ignored is that protection isn’t guaranteed when a foul tip flies toward the facemask of the guy behind the plate.
And it could force catchers such as Twins All-Star Joe Mauer to consider a position switch sooner than later.
On Monday, Mauer was jarred by a foul tip off the bat of Mets first baseman Ike Davis and landed on the seven-day concussion disabled list a day later when he reported feeling dizzy. He will undergo tests Thursday and hopes to be cleared to fly back to the Twin Cities and continue his recovery.
As of Wednesday, there were six players on Major League Baseball’s concussion disabled list. Five of them were catchers — Mauer, Colorado’s Yorvit Torrealba, Houston’s Carlos Corporan, Detroit’s Alex Avila and Oakland’s John Jaso.
Dr. Gary Green, MLB’s medical director, said Wednesday that so many catchers on the list at one time could be a coincidence. But he did acknowledge that around 40 percent of players on the concussion DL have been catchers. He pointed out that, other than the pitcher, the catcher handles the ball the most on the field, and foul tips and collisions at home plate come with the territory.
“I am concerned about the catchers,” Green said, “and we’re focused on ways to help the catchers, gathering information and making recommendations to MLB.”
Mauer is the fourth Twin to land on the concussion DL this season — and the second catcher. Ryan Doumit returned to action recently after he had his bell rung by a foul tip.
“It’s a concern for the entire industry when it’s increasingly a hazard for that position when your best player is a catcher,” said Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony. “Fortunately, he has not had any issues in the past. You hope this is an isolated thing and not a trend for all catchers. You hope it works out as well as it did for Doumit where a week later, he felt fine.”
Mauer has learned to play first base in recent years and also slides into the designated hitter spot when his legs need a break. But he considers himself to be a catcher first and foremost and wants to delay a permanent position switch as long as he can.
The Twins are paying Mauer $23 million per season, one of the largest contracts in baseball. He’s batting .324 with 11 homers, 47 RBI and a .404 on-base percentage. If Mauer is less effective because foul tips off his mask are leading to concussions, how does the club get the most out of its investment?
Mauer spent Wednesday recovering at the team hotel and was unavailable.
“I don’t want to overreact to this,” Antony said. “This just occurred in the last day or two. It has always been Joe’s preference to stay behind the plate. When you have who we consider is the best catcher in the game, it is hard to move a guy around, but a lot of things dictate that.”
Avila is set to head out on a rehab assignment for the Tigers, and has indicated he will now wear a mask with more protection on it. But Twins manager Ron Gardenhire wondered if more padding can work.
“The baseball comes flying out of the guy’s hand at 95 miles an hour and gets foul-tipped into the mask,” Gardenhire said. “I don’t know what you can do to keep your head from being jerked back.”
Teams one day might have to consider moving offensive-minded catchers to another position to keep their bats in the lineup. Mauer has said he wants to catch as long as he can. Yet his plan — to delay those plans — could change with more foul tips off the mask.
“If it becomes one of these situations where it could affect him for a length of time, yeah it could happen,” Gardenhire said. “Will it? I don’t know. We’ll have to see. It’s going to have a lot to do with what Joe thinks about it, how it goes from here.”
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