Joe Mauer is healthy, he’s working out, and he’s on track to be ready to go well before Spring Training. This may not seem like huge news, but it is. Whatever the Twins do in free agency this year, whatever happens with Justin Morneau various injuries, whatever decision Michael Cuddyer makes, none of that will matter for the Twins’ 2012 hopes if Joe Mauer is not physically sound and stamping out hits on a daily basis.
Mauer hit .287/.360/.368 last year in 333 plate appearances. Those numbers would have been impressive for almost any catcher in the Majors, but for Mauer it was a big letdown of a season. After socking 28 homers in a breakout 2009 season and following up with 43 doubles in 2010, Mauer had zero power in 2011. Only three times did Mauer cause a baseball to fly over an outfield fence, and his 15 doubles and .368 slugging percentage were career lows. He also spent multiple stints on the Disabled List, and even when he was on the field, there were indications that he was less than 100% physically. It may be surprising to learn this, but Mauer actually improved markedly in the second half of the season: after the All Star Break, he hit .314/.393/.416. But any momentum he generated with that showing evaporated when he developed pneumonia and missed the season’s last few weeks.
But he is over the pneumonia, and if we can believe the news stories, his legs are at full strength. Barring a freak accident, Mauer won’t need to have surgery this offseason, which means he can begin “baseball activities” in January and play a full Spring Training schedule. In another positive sign, Mauer and the Twins have hinted that they have a plan to build Mauer’s power a little more. He could be spending more time lifting weights this offseason and less time working on flexibility. If so, that’s an encouraging sign. It would be foolish to expect him to regain his 25 homer power, but a few more 40 double seasons would not be too much to ask.
If you went to a Twins game this summer, or if you read anything about the Twins on the internet, you probably heard some constructive criticism of Mauer’s toughness from fellow Twins fans. Okay, maybe “constructive criticism” isn’t the right phrase. It was more like bitter, obsessive ranting. Mauer-bashing had solid roots in real fact; the guy really did fail to meet even minimal expectations, and the constant mystery surrounding his health issues was galling and unnecessary. But anti-Mauer sentiment really climed to hysterical levels, as he became a single-handed scapegoat for everything that went wrong with the team. That was a little unfair, because even if Mauer were healthy and playing near 2009 levels, the Twins would still have been comfortably in last place in the AL Central.
But maybe the Mauer-bashing serves a purpose. There were some mumblings this summer that the criticism was making Mauer a little angry. Good. That means he’ll have something to prove next year. People are motivated by lots of things: money, loyalty, love, etc. But there’s no greater motivator than the combination of pride and revenge. I mean, success is great for its own sake. But if you’re succeeding and proving someone else wrong in the process, that’s even sweeter. Remember the last time Mauer had something to prove? In 2009 he missed the first month of the season with an ill-timed surgery, and we heard the first rumblings about moving him away from the catcher slot. Mauer responded by hitting a homer in his first at bat, then raking at a .365 clip for the rest of the season. We can only hope that his irritation will drive him all offseason long.
You know what? If Mauer really does show up to Spring Training with a chip on his shoulder, and if he goes on to have a big year at the plate, the Twins should keep using the anger strategy. My modest proposal: hire a small band of loud, obnoxious, preferably foul-smelling men to follow Mauer around and call him names. By all accounts, he’s a very polite and quiet person. So instead of lashing out at the hecklers, he’ll just put his head down and take out his frustrations in the weight room. If done right, we could make Mauer a .400 hitter in no time.
Actually, we can all chip in and save the Twins a few bucks by doing this for free. If you live in the Twin Cities area, make sure you have a few choice comments ready for Mauer. So when you pass him on the sidewalk, you’ll have a good insult ready. Don’t make personal attacks like “are those your sideburns or did your scalp throw up?” Not only is that not funny, it won’t really motivate him to do anything. Keep it baseball related. Yell something like “Hey Mauer, Justin Verlander told me that you’re too slow to hit his fastball out of the park!” or “your arm is so weak, you couldn’t catch Austin Jackson stealing if your life depended on it!”
I’m sure that Mr. Mauer will appreciate your unsolicited critiques. In my experience, 6’5″, 230 pound men are very friendly when you shout insults to their faces. And just think of how fired up he’ll be the next time the Twins play the Tigers!