- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The future for major league baseball’s current group of prospects is largely colored by two catchers who are supposed to redefine the position.

Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, the fifth pick in the 2007 draft, made his big league debut last month with fanfare not seen at Camden Yards since Cal Ripken retired.

Just behind him is Bryce Harper, the 16-year-old prodigy currently plotting to get a GED, enroll in junior college and make himself the first pick in the 2010 MLB draft so the Washington Nationals can pair him with Stephen Strasburg to make up the most highly touted (and highly paid) battery in big league history.

But those two red-hot prospects might be aiming at a new standard for offensive play by a catcher - the one being set right now.

Joe Mauer, at the ripe old age of 26, is putting together what might be the best season ever by a catcher.

After missing most of spring training and the first month of the season with inflammation in his lower back, Mauer homered and doubled in his first two swings of the year and really hasn’t come down since.

He hit .414 with 11 homers and 32 RBI in May, earning American League player of the month honors. Through Sunday, Mauer was batting .407 with a career-high 14 homers and 42 RBI.

If the fact that Mauer is hitting over .400 in late June isn’t significant enough, consider the stratosphere he’s in for players at his position.

OPS-plus, a statistic that adjusts on base-plus-slugging percentage for differences in ballparks and eras, might be the best metric to measure offensive production by players in different eras.

By that standard, the best season for a catcher to this point was Mike Piazza’s 1997 season with the Dodgers in which he hit .362 with 40 homers and 124 RBI, for an OPS-plus of 185.

Other top seasons include Johnny Bench in 1972 (166 OPS-plus), Roger Bresnahan in 1903 (162), Roy Campanella in 1951 (159), Bill Dickey in 1936 (158) and Gabby Hartnett in 1937 (also 158).

This season, Mauer’s OPS-plus is 221.

He already has made history at the position in his short career, becoming the first catcher to lead the majors in batting average in 2006 with a .347 clip and pairing his second batting title with a Gold Glove award last season.

But what Mauer has done this season is something different.

The top pick in the 2001 draft always has been beloved in his hometown - he was a three-sport athlete at St. Paul’s Cretin-Derham Hall High School, won national football player of the year awards, got scholarship offers from Florida State to play quarterback and struck out exactly once in his high school baseball career.

But with the Twins, there always has been something missing.

Justin Morneau, not Mauer, won the AL MVP award in 2006 and finished ahead of his former housemate again last year (Morneau was second, Mauer fourth).

Some wondered why Mauer didn’t use his silky swing to hit more homers - one Twin Cities radio personality derisively dubbed him “the Baby Jesus” because of the preferential treatment he got from provincial fans who overlooked his contentment to punch singles the other way without driving in runs.

Wieters even has earned the moniker “Mauer with power.” But now, Mauer himself has power.

Will he hit .400? It’s unlikely. But now that Mauer is capable of winning batting titles and hitting homers, he just might elevate the position to a new level before Wieters and Harper ever get the chance.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide