Joe Mauer carries a lot of pressure on his knees, both physically and metaphorically speaking.
Some of that is pressure a few of us can relate to, like being a newly married man with a family on the way (twins, no less). Most of it, however, we can’t. Like checking your bank account and seeing a figure which includes multiple commas or getting buzzed by a Chris Sale fastball followed by a slider that seems to bend through space and time. And the scrutiny that follows when you don’t deliver 30-plus home runs a season.
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As the anchor of the lineup, Mauer’s knees carry the weight of the local baseball world.
Physically, catching can definitely take a toll on the body, especially the knees, and that can certainly affect a player’s output at the plate. After the 2011 season, then-hitting coach Joe Vavra said in a radio interview that he noticed Mauer had troubles “getting off of his backside and favored his legs a bit” during his swing. To improve, Mauer focused heavily on strengthening his knee after that season and entered the 2012 season better prepared for the rigors of the position, and the numbers speak for themselves.
The added offseason attention helped overall but he also demonstrated that he could continue to hit even while catching on a regular basis – a feat some felt was not possible as they plotted a new position for Minnesota’s highest paid athlete. In 2012 his offensive production when adorning the tools of ignorance far exceeded that when he wasn’t squatting in 2012. In 323 plate appearances last year while catching, he put up a triple-slash line of .365/.460/.493 with six of his home runs. The results were significant improved from over his 2011 season in which he hit .239/.328/.324 in the aftermath of his knee surgery.
That said the knees may have been a factor behind his defensive decline in ’12. His caught stealing rate plummeted to a career low and the coaching staff attributed this to a mechanical change.
“I don’t know if he’s throwing different but I think he’s had some injuries that have changed some of his mechanics,” manager Ron Gardenhire told reporters in camp. “His arm is still there, he’s still got a cannon. I think the tendencies are when you are not able to work on things like that a lot you get a little long with your actions.”
One of the biggest questions is how many innings will Mauer play as a catcher. While Mauer has offensive acumen that would play anywhere on the field, having his bat at the catcher’s position greatly enhances his value to the team, allow someone with more traditional power to assume the first base or designated hitter role.
Last year, in terms of innings played at the position, he ranked 26th among all backstops. One of the game’s ironmen, the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina, caught multiple games in a row for long stretches of time, maxing out at 12 in September. By comparison, Mauer’s longest streak was three games in 2012. With the addition of Ryan Doumit, it is conceivable that the days of Mauer hooking up the chest protector for more than 900 innings are behind him, but Gardenhire says the amount that Mauer spends behind the plate in 2013 is purely up to his star. With more time to heal and his admitted passion to catch, he could be more inclined to do so this year.
The defensive abilities may simply erode with age but Mauer’s hitting will never come under question. If you are expecting a sudden home run outburst, that is probably never going to come to fruition. Because of his hitting style and ballpark that is not conducive to it, his home run totals will probably fall into the 10-to-15 range annually. Still, the on-base percentage and high average should continue so long as he is able to draw a breath.
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