As someone who just recently moved back to Central Minnesota after several years of Twins fandom from afar, it’s been jarring to see the level of animus directed at our once-beloved, homegrown, three-time batting champ Joe Mauer.
Lately, grumpy Twins backers have been occasionally distracted from spewing vitriol at Mauer because of the ascendance of young, dynamic players like Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton.
But as soon as there’s a free second in the air, or as soon as Mauer taps another ineffectual ground ball to a very ready fielder, the anti-Mauer rhetoric comes flying.
Mauer-bashing has been a familiar feature of post-Metrodome Twins fandom; the old-school-types have always griped about Mauer’s lack of power, his eternal love of unmanly opposite-field singles and his inability to be “clutch” and drive in runs like a real man — in other words, What Would Hrbek Do?
(What Would Hrbek Do? Probably eat a couple pounds of hot wings and bask in Carrier-brand climate-controlled bliss. But I digress.)
But us know-it-alls could always fall back on Mauer’s ludicrously high on-base percentage, his value at the catcher position and his ability to put the bat on the ball and avoid strikeouts as reasons Mauer was a full-blown star and a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Now, it’s gotten harder.
After the $184 million contract, the concussion, the move to first base, the nagging injuries and this year’s complete cratering of his once-stellar numbers, sauntering into a Central Minnesota saloon and vouching for Joe Mauer is more dangerous than admitting a love for soccer; trust me — I’m foolish enough to have done both.
So, as our beloved Joe methodically collects ground outs to second base and hits balls directly into well-shifted defenses, here are a few talking points if you find yourself tasked with defending the increasingly indefensible Twins first baseman.
Groundballs are egalitarian and unselfish
Joe Mauer has never been a power hitter.
But this season, he’s hitting even fewer fly balls, the primary driver behind his career lows in batting average and on-base percentage; in 122 games through Monday, Mauer has the lowest fly-ball rate of his career, and those absent fly balls have now transformed into more impotent ground balls.
For the sake of his batting average and the Twins’ success, this is terrible news.
But, what if Mr. Mauer is simply trying to get more opposing players involved?
Unlike fly balls, which generally involve only one player, ground balls get at least a couple of players involved.
And, in Mauer’s case, more ground balls means a lot more action for the second baseman — the most criminally overlooked position player.
Second basemen are bridesmaids to the shortstop’s bride; they’re not as tall, not as strong, not as talented.
There is no such thing as a second base prospect in the minor leagues — they’re all failed shortstops.
Perhaps, in his own, understated “Minnesota Nice” way, Mauer is simply getting some underused and overlooked opposing players involved.
Quick at-bats mean Sano hits sooner
Mauer has built his career on a patient approach.
In 2015, however, Mauer is swinging at — and missing — a higher percentage of pitches than in any year of his career.
Sure, one could look at the data and adduce that at age 31 Mauer’s skills are eroding and posit that he is (unsuccessfully) trying to slow his decline by being more aggressive at the plate.
But, fellow Mauer defender, I have an alternate explanation: as the three hitter, Mauer is simply trying to hurry up and get out so Twins fans can watch Miguel Sano, our legitimately exciting and talented clean-up hitter.
Again, as an über-polite, 2% milk-loving Minnesota native, Mauer wouldn’t dare admit to this gambit — he’s far too humble.
But a look at his career-low walk rate and newly discovered impatient and ineffective approach tells a different story: Mauer’s just trying to improve our fan experience.
Now hurry up and ground out, Joe, so we can watch Miguel hit.
Stat-haters needn’t learn numbers
When he was good, one of the most difficult aspects of parrying Mauer criticism was trying to convince your great-uncle that there was more to hitting than driving in runs or smackin’ dingers.
Well, I’ve got some good news for you, Uncle Roscoe: now that Mauer is so inept he’s indefensible, you won’t have to learn any of those pesky, newfangled advanced statistics.
Put away the TI-83 and forget WAR, wOBA, wRC+ or even on-base percentage: now that Mauer can’t hit a lick, you can stick to runs-batted-in and batting average to prove that Mauer stinks — and actually be right!
Your earnest Mauer jersey can now be ironic
I attended a Twins game a couple weeks ago and was tickled when, as I walked back to my seat from the concessions, a man walked in front of me wearing a Joe Crede jersey.
In 2015, a Joe Crede jersey is the perfect choice for the Twins fan who longs to project a sense of detached irony: he was briefly good, but not too good; he played long enough ago to be retro but not so long ago that you’ll be labelled a fogy; and you’ll induce a knowing nod from other hip, in-the-know Twins fans.
Well, good news Joe Mauer jersey owner: soon enough, you can begin transitioning your No. 7 jersey from an earnest endorsement of a functional major league baseball player to a winking, referential nod to a ignominious chapter in Twins’ lore.
A once-adored piece of fabric will now stand as a testament to the nearly quarter-of-a-billion dollars the Pohlad family spent on an automatic ground-out machine.
So gird yourself, fellow Mauer defender, as we go forth, breaching enemy territory in bars and restaurants across the Land of 10,000 Lakes, heads held high, armed with a fistful of talking points with which to batter and best our opponents — logic and reason.