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TwinsCentric: Why is Mauer such a lightning rod?

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: April 9, 2014 - 9:40 AM

It happened again on Tuesday. A local mainstream writer put out a column that was, to some extent, critical of Joe Mauer, and the reactions from fans were highly visceral on both sides.

The piece in question came from Patrick Reusse, suggesting that the impetus is on Mauer (who still hasn't driven in a run this year) to step up and carry the team back to respectability.

Some saw it as a reinforcement of the reservations they have long held about Mauer. Others saw it as another in a long string of unfair media attacks on the team's best player, a guy who has been used a central scapegoat and punching bag during the franchise's ongoing lull.

What is it about Mauer that makes him such a divisive and controversial figure among fans and writers? It's a question I've long pondered.

There's no question that Mauer gets far too much grief for a player of his ability and accomplishment. Traditional media types grumble because he doesn't fit the classic superstar mold, and fans follow course. He shies away from reporters, he isn't a vocal clubhouse fixture, he has missed time often due to injuries and he doesn't rack up big HR and RBI totals.

These overblown critiques have led to a swelling of backlash amongst those who, despite not even necessarily being huge Mauer fans, feel the need to position themselves as defenders.

After all, Mauer is the team's best player and one of the best players in franchise history. Maybe we should spend a little more time appreciating his strengths rather than bemoaning his shortcomings?

To be clear, Mauer does have shortcomings. He's not infallible, and that sometimes gets lost in the rush to defend him against outrageous detractions. He hasn't been able to stay on the field, which isn't really his fault -- a punishing position and bad luck have been chief culprits -- but remains a mark against him. He also doesn't hit for a ton of power and doesn't run all that well.

That means that although Mauer's abilities to spray line drives to left field and get on base at an elite rate are extremely valuable skills, they don't stand out as much in a bad offense. When other players in the lineup are hitting, Mauer will drive them in or get driven in. When the lineup is struggling, he ends up getting stuck at first and second base pretty often.

He doesn't create offense single-handedly in the way that someone like Justin Morneau did. And that's why, in a season like last year where the lineup was filled with underperformers, Mauer finished with only 47 RBI and 62 runs scored in 113 games despite a .324 batting average and .880 OPS.

When the offense is fully functioning, as it was in 2006 or 2010, Mauer is a transformative cog and an MVP-caliber contributor. When the rest of the players are scuffling, Mauer isn't really the type of player who will "carry" an offense, as Reusse beckons him to do in his latest column.

At least that hasn't been the case in the past. Maybe it changes here in 2014 with Mauer transitioning to first base full-time. Maybe he moves a little closer to the form he showed in 2009, when he truly could power an offense rather than facilitating it.

The signs haven't been real positive to that end, but it's still very early, and the 30-year-old is adapting to a new position while also shaking off rust after missing the last chunk of 2013 and dealing with lingering concussion symptoms during the offseason.

I know many people want to see Mauer take more of a lead in driving the offense's production. He's very highly paid (which seems kind of irrelevant at this point), he's the first baseman and -- above all -- he's the most talented hitter on the team.

I don't think those people are necessarily misguided, at least until they start calling him an overpaid slap hitter.

I myself would like to see Mauer take on a role where he's putting the ball over the fence more frequently, and is more aggressive early in the count with runners on base. If that doesn't happen, and he continues to be the Joe Mauer we've come to know, I'll still enjoy watching him. He's one of the very best.

But unless other players around him in the batting order are the ones stepping up, he may not have the means to make a profound impact on this club's run production.

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