Say what you will about the 2012 Minnesota Twins, but there is at least one thing that they have done perfectly well. They have gotten some excellent production from the catcher slot, and the three talented catchers on their roster have allowed them to rotate the lineup to keep players well-rested and strong bats in the batting order.
While playing behind the plate, Mauer, Doumit, and Butera have combined to hit .313/.383/.441 in 449 plate appearances with 27 doubles and eight home runs (entering play Saturday). For context, American Leaguers (all positions) as a whole have hit just .256/.322/.412 this year. That the Twins have received such amazing hitting from a position that is typically one of the lightest with the lumber speaks to the incredible talent these players possess. When we consider that the catcher rotation has also allowed the Twins to give regular first baseman Justin Morneau extra rest in his return from numerous injuries, the arrangement looks even more brilliant.
It also proves that they are using their catchers the right way. For years, Twins fans and coaches have speculated that Mauer would need to make a defensive switch – to first base, third base, or the outfield – because the rigors of catching every day would take a toll on him as he aged. But the addition of Doumit shifted that thinking 180 degrees. Suddenly the Twins found themselves with two well above average hitters who can catch, which means the Twins are not giving away outs when Mauer is the designated hitter or first baseman. So far, Mauer has caught just under half the team’s games (50 of 106 to be precise). Thus, he has suffered only about half the fatigue he would sustain in a full season of crouching. Doumit has caught 38 times, and Butera 28 (the numbers add up to more than 106 because two catchers have spent time in some games).
The benefits to Mauer are easy to see just by looking at the statline. After a down year in 2011, when he played in just 82 games and hit .287, he has been able to participate in nearly every Twins contest this season. And his batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage have skyrocketed by about 50 points apiece. Now that Doumit is signed through 2014, we may be able to delay all talk of Mauer switching positions for at least three years. That’s great news because Mauer has stated his preference to remain behind the plate. Interestingly, his stats this season support that desire. Mauer has hit .371 when he’s in the lineup as a catcher, compared to just .258 at first base and .279 at DH. It should be said, though, that other factors probably affected those numbers. For example, Mauer has started at first base against some tough left-handers this season in order to give Morneau a day off, and those at bats against lefties probably dragged down his average a bit. Also, he spent more time at DH earlier in the year when he was in a bit of a slump, which further affects his positional numbers.
Butera has played his part remarkably well. Like Mauer, he is hitting about 50 points higher this season: .218 as opposed to .167. And while that .218 average is certainly not going to scare any pithers, his defensive prowess has allowed him to be an asset to the team. Butera as an everyday catcher is a little scary, but a Butera who catches 30 games a year and allows Mauer and Doumit to rest is a good thing. The team needs to be more willing to pinch hit for Butera in close games, though, as I have pointed out before.
Perhaps the only other way to improve this arrangement would be if Butera could play another position. Mauer and Doumit both offer positional flexibility with their ability to play first base, outfield, or designated hitter, but Butera cannot play first or outfield, and it would be a cruel joke to use him as the DH. Carrying an extra catcher on the roster is a bit of a sacrifice, since the Twins often have 12 or 13 pitchers and can only hold three or four bench players at a time. We all know Butera can get in front of a ball in the dirt, and he has a great arm. Would it be too ridiculous to let him take a few grounders at third base?
Then again, Butera might be the most versatile catcher of them all. How many other MLB catchers have pitched a scoreless inning of relief and struck out Carlos Gomez?