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Mauer’s greatness may take some time to bloom
by Alan Schwarz
NEW YORK—When Joe Mauer squats behind the plate for the Metrodome’s first pitch on April 5, the Twins phenom will accomplish something only two catchers in the draft era have ever done: make his major league debut as an Opening Day catcher legally forbidden from celebrating with a beer afterward.
Makes you want to celebrate yourself. Until you realize that the two guys Mauer will be joining are Bob Didier and Butch Wynegar. Then you want to cough into your homer hanky.
Sure enough, baseball is a game where just because someone starts fast doesn’t mean he finishes strong. Reaching the big leagues is vastly different than succeeding there.
What Mauer has done so far is, of course, very special. He won’t turn 21 until April 19, but the former No. 1 overall draft pick has so impressed Twins brass that they traded an all-star catcher (A.J. Pierzynski) and bet that Mauer, after just 21/2 minor league seasons, is ready to produce at the big league level. His batting .330 as a pro with outstanding strike-zone judgment and defense are the best signs one could hope for.
Magazines, including the one you’re holding, are touting Mauer as one of 2004’s top rookies, a prime candidate for Rookie of the Year (see Top 20 Rookies, Page 11). But is it fair to expect his future potential to arrive this early? What can the recent history of young catching prospects tell us about his upcoming performance?
Mauer has plenty of company in terms of debuting behind the plate this fast. Baseball likes to think of its catchers as monolithic veterans, but in fact promotes 21-and-under backstops almost more than any other position on the diamond (except pitcher). Shortstops are first—with Robin Yount, Alex Rodriguez and 96 others since the draft began in 1965—but catchers place second with 69 so precocious that they shot up to the big leagues at age 21 or below. Johnny Bench was one. So were Fred Kendall and Gilberto Reyes.
Debuting this fast on Opening Day is the rarity. The vast majority of catchers play their first game as late-season callups, getting their feet wet in the big leagues before becoming regulars. What Mauer will try to do—be so young and play a whole season from the start —is almost unprecedented.
Didier was the first in the draft era. Now, Didier was no Joe Mauer: The 20-year-old had hit just .219 in the minors before the Braves made him their Opening Day catcher in 1969. Didier batted .256-0-32 in 114 games that season and never played regularly again.
The next was the immortal Bob Davis, a decent prospect whom the Padres started on Opening Day 1973 and watched go 1-for-11 with two errors in his first five games. The 21-year-old was sent back to Double-A and didn’t return for another two years.
The most comparable case to Mauer has to be Wynegar, a top Twins prospect who batted .323 in the minors before jumping to the big leagues at age 20 in April 1976. His rookie numbers don’t blow you away—he batted .260-10-69—but he did make the all-star team. Within a few years, he was just an average player.
This makes comparisons tough. Beyond Didier and Wynegar, the only other modern catcher age 21 or younger to get even 250 at-bats in his debut season was Ivan Rodriguez in 1991. There’s a reason for this: Few can handle the job while remaining productive at the plate, and most who try play themselves out of the job, at least temporarily.
With this checkered history behind us, I am not expecting a whole lot out of Mauer this year. Getting 400 at-bats would be a major accomplishment. Doing much in those at-bats —hitting .275 with even six home runs—would be even more so. Rookie of the Year? No way.
But Wait . . .
Debuting so early will surely depress Mauer’s numbers for a few years. Like Shawn Green and dozens of other prospects who had the stroke and mentality to handle an early promotion, his average will take a year or two to climb and the power three or four. But they should come, because when someone graduates to the big leagues this quickly and becomes a regular, it’s usually for a darned good reason.
For all the complaints that people make about kids being rushed these days—a claim that actually doesn’t bear out when you study the facts—players who graduate to the big leagues quickly and survive a full season almost always enjoy fine careers. There have been 40 draft-era players 21 or younger who have played at least 100 games in their debut season, and the names simply blow you away. Barry Bonds. Darryl Strawberry. Albert Pujols. A few Mike Carusos stain the carpet, yes, but it’s usually a red one to stardom.
The point is, Mauer still hasn’t even set foot on it. It’s one thing to predict a 26-year-old, Triple-A moose with a September under his belt—see “Hamelin, Bob”—to put up the numbers required to win a Rookie of the Year award. Mauer is a completely different creature, one just climbing out of the cocoon.
He will surely spread his wings and take flight in time. Let’s just be as patient as he is.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.