Joe Mauer made his name in the major leagues as one of the best-hitting catchers in the last generation, but bilateral leg weakness coming off of knee surgery in 2011 meant that he would have to find another way to contribute to the Minnesota Twins.
In 2012, the team found the perfect balance for its franchise player, making sure that he did not put too much wear of his legs by keeping him off catching duties about half of the time. Coming off a 1.5 fWAR season in which he put up a career-worst .729 OPS, Mauer caught only 74 games last season, splitting the rest of his time between first base and DH.
He was not a full time catcher for the Twins last season, but it got him back to his All-Star form at the plate, as Mauer finished with a vintage 319/.416/.446 triple-slash, with a career-best 14% walk rate to boot.
With a resurgent year behind him, Mauer has set his sights on regaining his title as the league’s best catcher in 2013 by spending more time behind the plate. In fact, Twins GM Terry Ryan has said that he expects Mauer to catch up to 125 games in the coming season.
It’s a lofty goal, even for someone with Mauer’s track record.
And it may be a mistake.
Look, there’s little doubt that the Mauer is more valuable to the Twins behind the plate. That said, the Twins are better as long as Mauer can have plate appearances and the significant knee issues that led to his disappointing 2011 season is something to be managed going forward, and not something that’s necessarily “fixed”.
Mauer will be headed into his age-30 season in 2013, and diving head-first into a full-time catching role when he’s quite possibly beyond his catching prime may well exacerbate the knee issues that the team did such a good job of managing in 2012.
That should mean a continual transition from catching to a full-time DH or first baseman, even if there are reasonable temptations for the team and Mauer to go back to the well.
Though not necessarily a proper comparison because Mauer is both taller and heavier, it’s worth noting that Victor Martinez had logged just under 7000 innings before the Detroit Tigers signed him to have his role behind the plate significantly reduced.
Going into 2013, Mauer will be at 7224.1 innings spent as a catcher. Durability will be an issue that will come up as long as he adds to it, and should there be further health complications to his knee that affects the 2013 season, the debate about whether Mauer should catch at all – considering the contract that he was – will come up again.
Complicating things is the fact that he had the most success offensively when he’s caught. Mauer had a elite .952 OPS as a catcher last year, compared to .814 as a first baseman and .746 as a DH. Yet, you have to believe that it’s a transition he’ll be able to make because his raw talent. Mauer’s bat will play anywhere, and it’s in the team’s best interest to get him to the plate as many times as possible.
It might not be in the catcher’s role that he wanted, but it may be the career-extending move that both Mauer and the Twins need.