Coming off his worst season with the last-place Twins, Joe Mauer’s approval rating has never been lower. It’s so bad right now even Adrian Peterson wouldn’t trade places with him. And that’s only a slight exaggeration.
Over the years I’ve mocked Mauer’s over-the-top wholesome image and questioned his durability and toughness, but we’re starting a new year, so in the name of appreciation and optimism, let’s look back at what Mauer has accomplished during his decade-plus with the Twins and forward to what should be a comeback year for the embattled star.
The last link to the Central Division Dynasty days of the 2000s, Mauer’s place on the Twins’ Mount Rushmore is secure. From 2006-2009, the St. Paul native hit .336, reached base at a .419 clip and slugged .496. In those four seasons, he won three batting titles, three Gold Gloves, appeared in three All Star Games and finished in the top six of the AL MVP balloting three times.
Mauer’s 2009 campaign is arguably the best in team history. The Gold Glove catcher hit .365/.444/.587, pacing the league in those categories, while establishing career highs homeruns (28) and RBI (96). He did this while striking out just 63 times in 606 plate appearances. The Twins, of course, defeated Detroit in Game 163 to capture the AL Central title. The dream season culminated in Mauer’s near unanimous selection — 27 of 28 first place votes — as the American League’s Most Valuable Player.
At top form and hugely popular
With his MVP trophy in hand and the Twins moving into a new stadium, Mauer could have run for governor and won unanimously. Even that one guy would have voted for him. There was nowhere to go but down.
Prior to the 2010 season, with free agency looming in the fall, the reigning MVP inked an eight-year, $184 million contract extension to remain in Minnesota. He was 27, the Twins were winning and Target Field was largely publicly financed. The franchise had a moral obligation to make that deal. Besides, the Yankees and Red Sox already had designs on our Hometown Hero.
While Mauer would never recapture the power he displayed in ’09, he was a very good player for most of the next four seasons. Aside from an injury-riddled 2011 campaign (.287), the former batting champ hit .327, .319 and .324 from 2010-2013, leading the league with a .416 OBP in 2012.
As good as Mauer’s timing was in 2009 however, it was that bad in 2011. With the major pieces of their 94-win 2010 team returning, the Twins were expected to compete for a division title. Instead they racked up 99 losses. Mauer suited up for just 82 games, missing many with a mysterious ailment known as bilateral leg weakness.
Public’s perception changed
With the new contract kicking in, nearly doubling his annual salary to $23 million, the public wasn’t in an understanding mood. The “aw shucks,” humble personality that once endeared him to so many Minnesotans became a liability. He was suddenly seen as indifferent and lacking passion.
Despite performing well the next two years, the damage was done. Mauer’s durability remained in question and the Twins kept losing. Finally, after a concussion prematurely ended his 2013 season, the 3-time Gold Glove catcher was moved to first base permanently. Playing the new position, he struggled in 2014, hitting .277 and slugging .371, both career lows.
Conventional wisdom is that age, injuries and complacency have caught up with Mauer and last season is the new normal. I don’t buy it. Mauer turns 32 in April and has plenty of productive baseball ahead of him. While his laid-back demeanor may lead some to think he doesn’t care, you don’t achieve what he has without a tremendous amount of pride and determination.
Joe Mauer won’t win the MVP in 2015, but he will regain his form as one of the American League’s elite hitters and remind us why he is one of the best players to ever wear a Twins uniform.
David Zingler has been a freelance writer on the Minnesota sports scene for over 10 years. He has done work for Minnesota Public Radio, Minnesota Score magazine and Internet Broadcasting, among others.
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