FORT MYERS, FLA. – Joe Mauer says he has been plagued by blurred vision.
Does that mean we need to view his past two seasons through corrective lenses?
Mauer confirmed Tuesday that the concussions that caused him to move to first base after the 2013 season affected his vision the past two seasons, as the one-time MVP and three-time batting champ hit like a utility infielder.
If you believe blurred vision is the sole reason for his regression, this sounds like a wonderful story. That’s how Mauer spun it Tuesday, after reporting to Twins spring training. He acknowledged his vision problems, and ended just about every sentence with a version of “The message we’re trying to get out there is how good I’m feeling and how far I’ve come.”
Here’s where things get blurry. When the subject is Mauer and health, things always get blurry.
Mauer is a proud stoic. He rarely has acknowledged injuries. When his career veered off course in 2011, someone close to him chose to incorrectly describe his ailments as “bilateral leg weakness,” applying a ready-made punch line to every muscle strain Mauer would suffer the rest of his career.
Mauer never satisfactorily explained the mysterious injuries that limited him to 82 games and three home runs that year. Now he’s coming off the worst season of his career, the worst two-season stretch of his career, he’s about to turn 33, and he’s explaining his woes on vision problems related to his concussions.
It’s logical. We watched a knee brush against Justin Morneau’s helmet and destroy his career when he might have been baseball’s best hitter. (Morneau asked the Twins this winter if they had interest in signing him, and General Manager Terry Ryan told him that with Mauer and Byung Ho Park on the roster, there was no room for him.)
Concussion symptoms offer the simplest explanation. For the Twins, they are the ideal explanation, because they would ease so many other concerns.
When you’re a homegrown former MVP making $23 million a year, every year feels pivotal, but this one might tell us more than most. Mauer is saying the problem that ruined his hitting for two years is gone, or at least alleviated. Now he’ll have to hit well enough to prove his problem isn’t a lack of strength or adaptability.
Mauer isn’t just polarizing among Twins fans, some of whom will revere him no matter how he plays and some of whom blame him for every loss. He’s polarizing within the Twins organization.
Those close to him rave about his diligence and Everyman persona. Those who care more about results wonder why a full-time first baseman nearing the end of his prime doesn’t add more muscle to his frame or adopt an approach that would beat the defensive shifts that nullify so many of his line drives.
While Mauer’s lack of power never will satisfy those who equate salary with home runs, Mauer recovered from his 2011 woes to produce two consecutive, productive seasons. He hit .319 with a league-best .416 on-base percentage in 2012. In 2013, he hit .324 with an .880 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).
Mauer was never going to hit 28 home runs again as he did in his MVP year of 2009, especially not playing in Target Field, but he had again become an All-Star and an artist.
Then came the concussions and his regression. Mauer was mediocre in only 120 games in 2014, and worse in 158 games in 2015. He said he never told his bosses his vision was blurred because he wanted to play.
Last season, of the 16 first basemen who had 460 or more at-bats, Mauer produced the lowest OPS.
In other words, if you produced as little as Mauer did last year, you did not get to be a full-time first baseman unless your name was Joe Mauer.
For once, Mauer has come clean about an ailment, maybe just in time to polish his reputation. If he starts hitting again this season, the past two seasons will become associated with concussion recovery instead of career apocalypse. If that happens, the nice boy from St. Paul might wonder why he didn’t come clean more often.