Thursday, August 22, 2013

Joe Mauer and the future of catching

Joe Mauer is primarily a catcher — but for how much longer?
(His highlighted fingernails are to make it easier for the
pitcher to read his pitch calls.)

It has been a topic of discussion practically since Joe Mauer reached the major leagues: How long will he remain a catcher?

Catchers — particularly catchers who are outstanding hitters — tend to have short careers. For every Yogi Berra or Pudge Fisk there's a Johnny Bench or Ted Simmons, essentially burned to a crisp by their early 30s. Not only were Bench's and Simmons' abilities at the plate ground away by their early 30s by the strain of catching, their ability to simply play the position on a regular basis was gone too.

Mauer is 30 now. While he hasn't carried the workload in his 20s that many of the catching greats before him have -- he has only once caught as many as 120 games in a season -- he is fast approaching the age where the position historically catches up to the best. And this week we all got a sharp reminder of why catcher is the most physically punishing position in the game, when Mauer went on the concussion disabled list.

Mauer has now missed two games, and nobody really has any idea if he'll be back in a week or if he's done for the year. Brain injuries are not easily diagnosed or treated. Twins fans learned that lesson with Justin Morneau.

Pat Reusse offered two predictions Tuesday in a Star Tribune blog post on catchers and concussions, one specific to Mauer and the other general.

Mauer, he said, will be a first baseman in 2014 and leave catching behind.

And teams, he said, will stop allowing good hitters to put themselves at risk behind the plate. A hitter as talented as Mauer will be moved, quickly, to a less hazardous position. Catcher will become the domain of defensive specialists who hit at the bottom of the order.

Prediction No. 1 may indeed prove true — if. If Mauer's out for an extended period, that could scare him, and the front office, into making the switch.

Doing that would prompt the Twins to decline re-signing Morneau (a free agent after the season), which is a decision they might reach regardless. It would probably keep them out of the bidding for Cuban defector Jose Abreu, which they may or may not enter. It would force them to either hasten the arrival of prospect Josmil Pinto next season or get by with the combo of Ryan Doumit and Chris Herrmann.

None of those side effects would necessarily be deal breakers if the team and the player decide a position shift is in their best interests.

Prediction No. 2 is moot. That's what catcher is — a position of defensive specialists who hit at the bottom of the order. Joe Mauer is the exception to the rule.

And the truth is that teams with a Mauer-caliber hitter behind the dish tend to be really good, because that kind of hitter at a defense-first position is so rare. Make a list of the greatest teams of all time, and almost all will have a Hall of Fame caliber catcher. (The '27 Yankees are the exception.) The Reds of the 1970s had Bench. The Yankees of the 1930s had Bill Dickey. The Yankees of the 1950s had Berra. The Dodgers of the 1950s had Roy Campanella. The Athletics of the early 1930s had Mickey Cochrane. The Yankees of the late 1990s had Jorge Posada.

That kind of advantage is a powerful incentive to let a quality hitter who is also a quality receiver stay at catcher.

The Twins have wasted a few years of Mauer's catching prime by surrounding him with inadequate talent. One has to wonder now how much of his prime will be left when the Miguel Sano/Byron Buxton wave takes hold.

The equation hasn't changed. Mauer is more valuable as a catcher than as a first baseman. But he's more valuable as a first baseman than on the shelf. And now that he's in his thirties, that second sentence is gaining importance.

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