Great glove makes Mauer stand out
MINNEAPOLIS—It makes perfect sense that Joe Mauer would relate playing behind the plate in baseball to standing behind center in football. After all, Minnesota's all-star catcher was named the Gatorade national high school football player of the year a few months before the Twins made the St. Paul, Minn., product the first overall pick in the 2001 draft.
"The quarterback needs to know where everybody goes, what the defense looks like," said Mauer, who capped a frenzied 2000 football recruiting battle by signing a letter of intent with Florida State. "A lineman might have to worry about one or two guys, a receiver just has to find a hole or something, but a quarterback has to see everything and make sure everybody's in the right spot."
Mauer's quarterback career at Cretin-Derham Hall High was marked by a strong, accurate arm and a quiet, albeit forceful, leadership style. And now, in his fifth major league season, he is displaying those same attributes on the diamond. His talents as a hitter made headlines before he was drafted and continue to act as his calling card, but Mauer's defensive abilities are on the same plane.
"I think his defense probably doesn't get seen because he's unbelievable at the plate," Twins righthander Nick Blackburn said. "But he's going to throw guys out, and that's something I take pride in, as far as not letting runners steal on me. And with him back there, it's not going to happen."
Through 96 games this season, Mauer had just two errors and one passed ball while throwing out 19 would-be base stealers against 40 successful thefts.
"He had all the tools before he got here," Twins closer Joe Nathan said. "It's a huge thing for a pitching staff to have that confidence in him, knowing that if we throw it in the dirt with a man on third he's going to block the ball. As far as tools behind the plate, he's second to none."
Mauer, 25, will be counted on to lead a young rotation as the Twins hope to contend for the American League Central title. Not one of Blackburn (age 26), Francisco Liriano (24), Scott Baker (26), Glen Perkins (25) or Kevin Slowey (24) ever has pitched a full season in the big leagues.
"It's a process of growing up as a young catcher when a lot has been put on your shoulders," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "And being the great hitter he is, people underestimate how much work he's put into running a pitching staff; he doesn't get enough credit for that.
"We've pitched pretty good around here and you have to have a catcher who's able to handle that. He's taken charge now—he goes to the mound when he sees something. He used to sit back there and make us tell him to go to the mound, but now he's in charge of the game. You can see it. He's really grown."
Mauer is quiet by nature, but he has gained confidence and become a more vocal leader.
"It was pretty intimidating when I first got up here, at 20-years-old trying to go and tell Brad Radke to do something," he said. "I've learned how to go out there and say what needs to be said."
Last season might have been a turning point for Mauer. The coaching staff has worked with him on becoming more assertive, and the tide turned in 2007.
"He's a quiet guy, but you can see it now," Gardenhire said. "He looks in the dugout and recognizes that we're talking about things and he knows we need a little time, and he runs out to the mound. That's just recognizing and understanding the game a lot better, and that's called growing up as a player."
Size Doesn't Matter
Before Mauer was drafted, some scouts cast doubt on him as a catcher because of his size (he's now 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds). But Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff, who was the scouting director when Mauer was drafted, did not share in those doubts.
"I was just enthralled, just mesmerized with the accuracy of his arm from the first time I saw him when he was 15," Radcliff said. "Then I saw him as a 16-year-old on the junior USA team and the guy never made a bad throw. The accuracy was amazing at a young age, and continues to be."
When it comes to improving defensively, Mauer is purely old-school. He doesn't watch much video of basestealers or of himself. He depends on simple, time-tested drills during spring training to prepare for each season. He works with former all-star catcher Terry Steinbach in the spring and gets tips from Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek and backup catcher Mike Redmond all season long.
"If there's any way to get better, I'm all ears," Mauer said. "I look at guys that have been successful defensively, like a Pudge Rodriguez, who's got unbelievable feet. It's whatever I can do to get better. I feel like I'm on the right path, but I feel like you can always improve."