Joe Mauer cruised past 2,000 hits earlier this year — a milestone we all might have assumed he would reach sooner, but an important marker all the same. He's continued to creep up the all-time list, and a meandering Thursday afternoon (as well as remembering that reader Dave had prodded me on this track a couple weeks ago) led to some of these nuggets and thoughts:
• Entering play Thursday, Mauer has 2,048 hits and is surrounded by some pretty interesting names. The player directly below him on the list, at 2,043 hits, is former Twins catcher A.J. Pierzynski.
The fates of both players are forever intertwined by the trade in the 2003 offseason that sent Pierzynski to the Giants (for a haul that included Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano) to clear the way for the precocious Mauer. A.J. was an accomplished hitter at that point, leaving Minnesota with a .301 career average. The fact that both got to 2,000 hits and that it took until 2018 for Mauer to catch up to Pierzynski, who last played in 2016, both qualify as stunners.
• Mauer also entered Thursday tied on the all-time list with Johnny Bench, the former Reds catcher and cinch Hall of Famer.
Baseball Reference lists a Hall of Fame Monitor section, a creation of Bill James that assigns a numerical value based on accomplishments to a player's Hall of Fame candidacy. Generally speaking, 130 as a batter means you're a lock for the Hall. Bench finished his career at 214. Mauer is at 92. Pierzynski, interestingly enough, sits at 108.
• Mauer needed three hits to pass Adrian Gonzalez for 259th place on the all-time hit list. Gonzalez still is considered active even though he was released last month by the Mets; when Mauer passes him, he will move into ninth place on the active player hit list.
• It's hard to look at Mauer's career, and particularly his hit total, and not wonder what might have been. His peak stretch was probably 2008-10, when he won two of his batting titles and an MVP award. In those three seasons, he averaged 178 hits — a good number, but not otherworldly.
Had he been able to keep up that 178 hit pace from 2011-present, he would have more than 2,500 hits right now. We almost certainly would be talking about Mauer as a near-lock Hall of Famer instead of a borderline (at best) candidate.
Instead, he is about 500 hits below that pace. Injuries (particularly concussions) played a major role. I would also argue that the increasing prevalence of shading and full-on shifts have cost Mauer dearly since 2014, the point in time that he (mostly, with the exception of 2017) has been around a .270 hitter instead of .323 (his career average through 2013).
Smashes up the middle and soft liners down the left field line that reliably used to be hits seem to have turned into outs with great frequency as teams have adjusted to Mauer and he has been unable to reliably counter by hitting the ball where they aren't.
Statistically speaking: In full seasons between 2005 and 2013, Mauer never had a batting average on balls in play lower than .319 and four times had a BABIP that was .364 or higher. In the five years since (counting this year), it's been below .319 three times and has never been higher than .349.
• What would be interesting in Joe's twilight years is this: After his eight-year, $184 million deal ends after this season, he manages to play a few more years with the Twins at a deeply discounted rate, stringing together seasons of reasonably good health and production approaching what it was in 2017.
If he could amass enough counting stats (like, say, 2,500 hits) to boost his historically good prime, maybe the Hall of Fame would call his name after all.
Either way, he's going to have a big statue at Target Field someday.