Friday, June 09, 2006

The Catcher In Their Eye

There's something that's been on my mind a lot in the last few days -- nay, months. Something wonderful, beautiful, amazing, powerful. Something that can bring a smile to my face with a mere two words.

Joe Mauer.

Yeah, I know what you're all thinking. "She only likes Joe Mauer because he's good-looking." Yes, it's true he was and will be the catcher on my All-Cute team for years to come (or until Jeff Clement makes it to the majors), and sure, he's one hell of a fashion model, but no, really, the reason I've had him on my mind a lot lately (besides that he's on my fantasy team) is that he's been a total Mariner-killer this year. Here's a guy already batting .379/.438/.540 overall, and in the 7 games he's played against us, he's gone .548/.600/.871. Hell, in these last three games he went .750/.800/1.167. (From splits.) You couldn't keep him off base any more than you could keep Eddie Guardado away from that extra slice of pizza.

It's not like there haven't been good-hitting catchers in the past; it's not even like there haven't been good-looking good-hitting catchers in the past. (Hello, Mike Piazza.) But the last time a pure catcher won a batting title was 1942, when Ernie Lombardi, a career .306 hitter, put up a wartime .330 average. Joe Torre won a batting title in 1971, but he spent that entire season playing third base.

Obviously, it's not entirely unexpected that catchers find themselves at a disadvantage in terms of winning batting titles. Catchers tend to get rested more often than other players just due to the stress of playing the position, both on their brains and on their knees. Nowadays, an extremely good hitting catcher in the AL will at least be able to DH sometimes to take time off from catching, but in the NL, they either end up playing first or third, or benching it, on their off days. It's been pointed out that Mauer barely qualifies for the batting title in terms of plate appearances, and so far this year he has been the DH in about a sixth of his games. And even if Brian McCann continues to rip the tar out of the ball, there's no way he'll get enough PA to qualify for the NL batting title after his stint on the DL.

And oftentimes, catchers aren't exactly the most fleet of foot; they're not the guys beating out grounders or stealing bases, they're often the guys lumbering towards first hoping their knees hold out. (Cue mental image of Todd Pratt, or Sal Fasano.) When you think of the physical composition of a catcher, you often think of a guy who's going to stand his ground when someone tries to barrel him over at home plate; someone who can use their body to block a pitch in the dirt. Someone named "Pudge", or "Yogi", or "We're Not Selling Jeans Here".

To be fair, though, catchers don't seem to have quite the same leeway they used to for lack of hitting skill; lately it seems like more and more of them are hitting like a Piazza or a Posada and less and less like a Molina or a Molina.

Beyond just being an astoundingly good-hitting catcher, though, there's more to Joe Mauer's value. He was already a local baseball hero around the Twin Cities in high school, and then was the number one draft pick overall in the 2001 draft -- by his hometown team -- and gets to blossom into a major league star practically in his own backyard. I can only imagine what it'd be like if the Mariners had Grady Sizemore, for example. Maybe we'll see how things work out with Matt Tuiasasopo.

I'm actually impressed with the way the Braves manage to draft a lot of good local talent, although I suppose when you're down south, there are a lot more big bigleaguer-producing colleges and high schools around than when you're in the Pacific Northwest. Still, on their 40-man roster they've got Kyle Davies, Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann, Blaine Boyer, and Josh Burrus all from around Georgia, who grew up watching a strong Braves team. Hell, their number one pick this year, Cody Johnson, grew up in Florida idolizing the Braves.

Anyway, I'm sure there are a lot more cases of young baseball hometown superheroes that I'm not even aware of, but today, I just felt like rambling about Joe Mauer for a little bit. I'd love to see him and Ichiro battling out for the batting crown all along the way this year -- Ichiro broke the 84-year-old single-season hits record; can Mauer be the first catcher to win a batting title in 64 years?

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