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Everyone's a Doctor: Joe Mauer, the Injury Bug and the Notion of Toughness

This was contributed by a trevor.aufderheide on his Twins Daily blog (Tsuyoshi's Island) this week. If you would like to try your hand at writing (and getting promoted to Twins Daily's front page, which is seen by thousands of Twins fans each day) check out our primer on starting your own blog on Twins Daily.
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Anyone with even a peripheral understanding of Minnesota sports media understands the beating Joe Mauer takes on a regular basis from the area's mainstream sportswriters. The simplest of Google searches will quickly reveal a mass of articles from the likes of Jim Souhan, Patrick Reusse and others berating Mauer for his lack of perceived toughness. Ever since Joe Mauer's seminal 2009 MVP campaign, this narrative has only intensified, with many now viewing Minnesota's once-considered G.O.A.T. as a proverbial goat. Therefore, I will investigate the validity of such arguments, in addition to their underlying causes and bases.

One of the standard claims levied against Joe Mauer is that he misses too much time to be a valuable player or a team leader. First, this argument ignores the fact that he played the game's most taxing position for the first 10 years of his career. Even then, Mauer accumulated more playing time than people give him credit for. To qualify for the batting title and other awards related to full season performance, players must average 3.1 plate appearances a game, or approximately 502 over an entire season. Mauer has averaged 506 plate appearances per season over his career, and that includes his two truly injury-plagued seasons (2004 and 2011). Many baseball diehards will still claim that Mauer could've "toughed it out" through more plate appearances, but that argument falters once you actually look at his injury history. As a starting point, here's a list of every Joe Mauer DL stint in the majors:

2004 - 15/60-day DL: torn meniscus.
2007 - 15-day DL: thigh strain.
2009 - 15-day DL: lower back sprain.
2011 - 60-day DL: bilateral leg weakness.
2011 - 15-day DL: pneumonia.
2013 - 15-day DL: concussion.
2014 - 15-day DL: abdominal strain.

That's not the most promising injury history, but it's not exactly Grady Sizemore-status, either. The main point, though, is that it wouldn't have made sense for Mauer to have played through any of those injuries. In baseball, a game where healthy hitters have a hard enough time hitting 95-mph fastballs, playing someone whose swing and instincts are off due to injury makes no sense. Additionally, most writers and fans lack the medical knowledge and insider information that professional medical staffs possess, so who are they to demand playing time from afflicted athletes?

The one injury that raised this question most was Mauer's 2011 bout with bilateral leg weakness. Critics latched onto the injury's funny-sounding name, but it took even professionals weeks to trace it back to a rare viral infection. One applicable modern legal-scientific method is the precautionary principle, which states that if an action has a suspected risk, the burden of proof lies on those demanding action to prove that it is not harmful. In a situation that involved so much medical uncertainty, the fact that people called on Mauer to play through the bilateral leg weakness was unfathomable, particularly considering he's the one whose long-term health was at stake. What only compounded the incomprehensibility of the scenario was that the 2011 Twins weren't very good in the first place, obviating the need for Mauer's presence on the diamond.

One clear reason for critics blasting Mauer, as opposed to other injury-stricken athletes, is his large contract that pays him $23 million annually. This first requires one to prove that Mauer's performance isn't worth the money. Definitely so this year, but Aaron Gleeman and others have pointed out previously that his play as a catcher in '10, '12, and '13 was worth more than what he was paid ($26 million). That aside, maligned athletes draw almost unilateral responsibility for their contracts despite those documents existing as two way agreements. Mauer receives inordinate criticism for making a lot of money; money that the Twins thought he was worth. In fact, the easier argument to make is that the Twins aren't spending enough money. Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars funded Target Field's construction only a few years ago, yet the organization continues to spend under budget.

The money component goes far in explaining Mauer-bashing, but still doesn't explain its viciousness in comparison to other overpaid Twins (Ricky Nolasco, Mike Pelfrey, etc.). Another aspect of Joe Mauer that does turn him into a lightning rod for those who value "grit" and "toughness" is his style of play. While he's had the occasional power surge (see: 2009), Mauer has long been a valuable player because of his on-base skills and finesse. However, for many, those don't hold the same appeal and sizzle that "power" stats like HRs and RBIs do. RBIs are an empty stat to begin with (another debate for another day), but Mauer hasn't had much to work with over the years, given the perenially sorry state of the number two position in the Twins lineup. Any lack of production in that category clearly isn't Mauer's fault, as he's posted a career .329 BA w/ RISP. And yes, the HR numbers dipped after moving from the Metrodome to one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in baseball, but the power's still there. Mauer posted 43 doubles in '10, 31 in '12, and 35 in '13. All of which are numbers above his career average.

In the end, it's almost impossible to divorce any discussion of Mauer from one fundamental question: why do we value perceived "toughness" so much if players can possess other attributes that contribute as much or more to victory? Answering that query involves discussions of masculinity and gender that could fill a hundred blog posts, but it's a necessary frame to consider when analyzing anti-Mauer sentiments. Despite popular perception, Joe Mauer is and has been an eminently valuable baseball player, whether one chooses to believe he's "tough" or not.

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49 Comments

Nitpic: The "bilateral leg weakness" was traced back to a rare viral infection? I missed that...got a link?

 

First, this argument ignores the fact that he played the game's most taxing position for the first 10 years of his career.

 

Joe has only played more than 100 games at catcher in a single season 5 times in his career, and none since 2010.  This is a critical demarcation point in the Mauer timeline.... he was basically "done" as a full-time catcher in that year, at age 27, which was the LAST YEAR of his old contract, BEFORE he began his new 8 year, $23M/year deal.  Since then, he's only played 201 games at catcher in the last four years. By contrast, a much older AJ Pierzynski, by the time this season is over, will have caught over 110 games or more/season every year of the last 14 years, and every year of his full-time career. In the last four years, from ages 34-37, AJ has caught 443 games to Mauer's 201.  Even Ryan Doumit has played the position 164 games in the same time frame. 

    • JB_Iowa, notoriousgod71 and hybridbear like this
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stringer bell
Aug 16 2014 10:20 AM

I have no doubt that Jokin is correct on his numbers of games caught by Mauer.  I do want to say that circumstances have a lot to do with those numbers.  In order to get the unquestioned best hitter on the team more plate appearances, the Twins used Mauer more as a DH and some as a first baseman.  They also signed a bat-first free agent to back Mauer up.  This created two spots for Mauer and Doumit and they switched on day games after night games etc.  Mauer has had injury issues as well, but Gardenhire and the front office used these means to get more plate appearances for the three-time batting champion.

But the "soft" image was also created by not playing in day games after night games and failing to play in getaway games.  I remember tons of complaints about how kids going to a Sunday afternoon game rarely got to see Mauer play.

 

I was never a big Mauer fan (I truly never got the Minnesota idolization of him) but I've come to a basic acceptance.

 

The Twins were in the unfortunate position of having to extend him or risking a shadow cast on the opening of TF,  From a business and publicity standpoint, I never thought they had another choice. From a baseball standpoint, I didn't want it to happen.

 

Mauer just leaves me feeling "blah" but the Twins do need him in the line-up.

It's pretty common for catchers to take a day off in a Saturday night/Sunday afternoon situation. 

 

I understand the Mauer dislike but his career stats are pretty great.  His career OBP would rank 3rd this season.  His career OPS/wOBA/wRC+ would all rank top 20/25ish in the majors this season.  He might not hit HR's but he is really good.  I expect Mauer to have a typical season next year and none of his detractors will give him his due.  they will just say that's what he's supposed to do since he is getting paid big bucks.

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TheLeviathan
Aug 16 2014 10:52 AM

Nitpic: The "bilateral leg weakness" was traced back to a rare viral infection? I missed that...got a link?

 

This points to the real cause of the "everyone is a doctor" thing: the mystery surrounding his prolonged absence.  It was as much a public relations bungling as it was anything.

    • diehardtwinsfan, ScrapTheNickname, Dantes929 and 2 others like this

The stat that takes his WAR times a dollar amount to come up with his value is really a poor stat.  The WAR rankings value catcher more than any other position so if you use an average salary rate, you really overprice the salary of catchers.  For example, in 2013 the total WAR for first base was 52.8 and the total for catchers was 77.1.  If you use an average salary rate, catchers would be paid 46% more than first baseman.  But in reality, it's just the opposite.

The money issue is a non-issue at this point and probably will remain so through 2018. The Twins lucked out in that regard, I suppose, if you consider it "luck" to have gone in to such a tailspin that it was wholly unnecessary to spend a bunch of money to retain other star-level players.

 

As a result, even with the $23 mil going to Mauer every year, there's more than adequate money in the budget to add quality free agents and pay up and coming young talent.

 

The problem, I believe, for many of us is that Mauer got his payday after what was really the only season he showed decent power. The "power tool" has been missing from his arsenal ever since (and yes, moving to Target Field certainly impacted that & that was not his "fault").

 

Even without the power tool, Mauer has been a heck of a hitter... until this season.

 

If he bounces back and becomes a consistent .300+ hitter next year and beyond, I'll be satisfied. That said, I do think the time may be coming when some difficult decisions will need to be made concerning his defensive position. If Vargas and, eventually, Sano, turn out to be legit corner infielders, Mauer may have to be asked to change positions again, this time to a corner OF spot.

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MileHighTwinsFan
Aug 16 2014 11:21 AM
I think much of the criticism comes from classic Minnesota myopia. Here in Denver we are experiencing our third year with the two franchise players (Tulowitzki and Gonzales) missing significant time. Other clubs can point to similar troubles (Hamilton with the Angels, Longoria with the Rays).

Here in Denver I don't hear anything near the criticism of these players that I hear on Mauer. Surely Denver fans are disappointed these guys aren't on the field, but they don't question their toughness.

I do think Minnesotans' concern is rooted in the high expectations we have had of Joe and the lack of appreciation we have for his unique talent. Do we need to remind people that he is the only catcher to have 3 batting titles?

Minnesotans need to stop wringing their hands about Joe not being on the field and enjoy him when he is on the field.
    • ChiTownTwinsFan, Seth Stohs, Dantes929 and 3 others like this
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Willihammer
Aug 16 2014 11:33 AM

I'm not sure why Pierzynski winds up in every conversation about Mauer. Yes, AJ has logged more innings at catcher since 2010 despite being older. A lot more. So he's tougher, one of the toughest players in baseball probably. He's also allowed baserunners to steal at will, can't frame pitches, is a poor baserunner, and isn't as good of a hitter. So, he's not as good, and hardly any cheaper. In fact on a per WAR basis since 2010, AJ's produced 1 WAR per $4.7m. Mauer? 1 WAR per $5.7m.

 

I'm glad the Twins have the better player, even if he's more expensive. I wish they would get a whole bunch more players like that.

 

(I shall now go to the WAR thread and try to defend WAR.)

 

All that being said, I think a lot of the armchair doctoring about Mauer is borne out of a frustration with the fact that the lineup is almost unwatchable without him in it. If the players around him were better, and the team didn't lose 90 games a year, Mauer wouldn't catch so much heat. Maybe its kinda like KG and the crummy T-Wolves teams earlier in the 2000s. KG was among the game's best players and still people said he wasn't "clutch" or whatever. Pretty soon he had enough of it and went and won some championships in another city. We're lucky Mauer seems to like it here a little more, even if some fans don't appreciate his output.

    • Brock Beauchamp, ChiTownTwinsFan, Seth Stohs and 4 others like this

I'm not sure why Pierzynski winds up in every conversation about Mauer. Yes, AJ has logged more innings at catcher since 2010 despite being older. A lot more. So he's tougher, one of the toughest players in baseball probably. He's also allowed baserunners to steal at will, can't frame pitches, is a poor baserunner, and isn't as good of a hitter. So, he's not as good, and hardly any cheaper. In fact on a per WAR basis since 2010, AJ's produced 1 WAR per $4.7m. Mauer? 1 WAR per $5.7m.

 

I'm glad the Twins have the better player, even if he's more expensive. I wish they would get a whole bunch more players like that.

 

 

 

 

 

You're conflating arguments here.  The topic I addressed was in response to judging a career with  "Mauer as a catcher for the first 10 years of his career." and the question overriding the OP, of Mauer's health and durability, not his value strictly as a hitter or a question of if he's a better player.(of which I'm in agreement with you 100%). 

 

And AJ isn't a lonely example (just a familiar example to Twins fans), I could list a bunch, but how about:  

Brian McCann will have caught 100+ games in 8 of 9 seasons and will have averaged about ~132 caught games/year, Suzuki will be 6 of 7 @ 100+ (his string is only broken last year from playing behind a better catcher, not health issues), and will have averaged ~122 games/year at catcher vs Mauer's games caught average over 10 years of 92 games/year.  It would be very difficult to field a very competitive team if the majority of the position players only averaged 60% or less availability to play their best position.

 

(I shall now go to the WAR thread and try to defend WAR.)

 

 

 

 

And yes, given the 92 games/year at catcher which is Mauer's career mark, he only played catcher in 56.7% of the games available. As a prevous poster stated, the WAR stat has a big, fat thumb on the scales for the position. Everyone, I think, is in agreement, Mauer's extensive down time on the DL and DTD list over the years, along with his transition away from catcher, to part-time and now, no-time, to becoming a below average production 1st baseman has lowered his value, and hurt the team's potential offensive production  (imagine Abreu playing 1st instead over the life of Mauer's contract and Mauer at 3rd or in the OF, instead).

I am sorry for Joe Mauer. The guy is one of the best hitters in the league. He has three batting titles (only catcher in MLB history to ever do that), an MVP, 3 Gold Gloves, 5 Silver Sluggers, 6 All Star appearances, yet he isn't good enough because he doesn't hit 30+ homeruns, have 100+ RBIs or play in 162 games a year. To go along with that, I've never read anything about him not being a nice guy.

 

It's not Mauer's fault that the Twins weren't spending money. It's not Mauer's fault that the team sucked. It's not Mauer's fault that he has been injured. We can't act like another team wouldn't have paid him $20 million+ a year if the Twins didn't resign him.

 

The things people say about him are terrible. It's despicable really. Twins fans don't deserve Joe Mauer.

    • Dantes929 and Beezer07 like this
Everyone is the doctor. Who knew?

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Pius Jefferson
Aug 16 2014 03:06 PM

But the "soft" image was also created by not playing in day games after night games and failing to play in getaway games.  I remember tons of complaints about how kids going to a Sunday afternoon game rarely got to see Mauer play.

 

I was never a big Mauer fan (I truly never got the Minnesota idolization of him) but I've come to a basic acceptance.

 

The Twins were in the unfortunate position of having to extend him or risking a shadow cast on the opening of TF,  From a business and publicity standpoint, I never thought they had another choice. From a baseball standpoint, I didn't want it to happen.

 

Mauer just leaves me feeling "blah" but the Twins do need him in the line-up.

 

Acceptance? You're making it sound like being a fan of Joe Mauer is like jumping into a freezing cold river with a strong current. .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Acceptance? You're making it sound like being a fan of Joe Mauer is like jumping into a freezing cold river with a strong current. .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

 

Pretty much.  He leaves me cold from an emotional connection standpoint.

 

Objectively, I can admire his accomplishments and I can admire the 3 batting titles and I can admire his sweet swing but overall there just isn't much emotional connection for me.  

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Trautmann13
Aug 16 2014 03:47 PM

It's stuff like fans hating Joe and calling him a puss that I think that it may have been smarter of him to go to Boston like many speculated following 2009, when he was the greatest hitter in baseball.

 

Joe plays so well in Fenway when the Twins head out East. Imagine him playing half his games there, banging balls off the Monster day after day. His HR numbers would have likely gone up, along with his RBI and doubles.

 

I feel bad for him in a way because if he wasn't such a nice guy and wasn't such a team player, he could have some more MVPS and titles to his name. He wouldn't be the has-been guy he has become.

 

(BTW, why does it seem that all of baseball respect Mauer more than Minnesotans? That seems backwards)

I am sorry for Joe Mauer. The guy is one of the best hitters in the league. He has three batting titles (only catcher in MLB history to ever do that), an MVP, 3 Gold Gloves, 5 Silver Sluggers, 6 All Star appearances, yet he isn't good enough because he doesn't hit 30+ homeruns, have 100+ RBIs or play in 162 games a year. To go along with that, I've never read anything about him not being a nice guy.

 

It's not Mauer's fault that the Twins weren't spending money. It's not Mauer's fault that the team sucked. It's not Mauer's fault that he has been injured. We can't act like another team wouldn't have paid him $20 million+ a year if the Twins didn't resign him.

 

The things people say about him are terrible. It's despicable really. Twins fans don't deserve Joe Mauer.

 

 

No question that Mauer has had a great career, and he definitely doesn't deserve some of the ridiculous things said about him by the "responsible" media, as in the cases of Dan Barriero, Michael Rand and Patrick Reusse, let alone the 1000s of rubes spewing garbage on the various social media.

But regardless of casting fault or blame, I think it is legitimate to examine and identify the large amount of time, and the types of at-times, unusual injuries/illnesses, that Mauer has had to deal with, as well as the large amount of time spent on the DL or DTD list, in the context of his great career.

As far as being one of the best hitters in the game, at the Catcher position, sure.  But take the example of all 1st Baseman in 2014.... Mauer's career wRC+ at 132 (OPS+ 133) would rank him in 9th place this year, behind Adam LaRoche, and just ahead of Michael Morse, not exactly the first guys you think of when you think about "elite" hitters.  Here's the link:
 

http://www.fangraphs...ers=0&sort=17,d

 

(BTW, why does it seem that all of baseball respect Mauer more than Minnesotans? That seems backwards)

 

You have to separate that into 2 times periods, though.  

 

Pre-2011 and 2011 and beyond.

 

Even after Mauer signed his big contract, I think (from a distance), Mauer was still beloved by most Minnesota fans regardless of the money.

 

But 2011 had a devastating effect.  The contract, his virtual absence, the way the publicity was handled and his failure to put out good information.  Plus, for me, the way it seemed like the Twins were "kow-towing" to him when he was permitted to do his rehab in Florida with big brother Jake.  The Twins were in the middle of negotiating the renewal of the Player Development deal with Rochester and it was fairly shaky -- I thought it was a perfect time for Mauer to show leadership by doing a rehab stint in Rochester and building bridges.

It just seemed like he needed "kid gloves" to be used when handling him. And I do think that some people reacted to that.

 

I don't hate Joe Mauer.  In fact, his struggles over the last few years have probably increased my affection for him.  

 

But part of it is "the bigger they are, the harder they fall".  When you have someone who was made a Deity by a large part of the fan base, it isn't surprising that there would be a lot of disfavor when something goes wrong.

 

Perfection is a b*tch.  Nobody could live up to the build-up that many Minnesotans (including the media) had given Mauer.

    • jokin, Longdistancetwins and Trautmann13 like this

Not to add on anything that was left out of the story, what about being shut down basically every year in September.

Nitpic: The "bilateral leg weakness" was traced back to a rare viral infection? I missed that...got a link?

Nitpic I did not know that opinions from old stories had to be referenced here. it is called google There are several stories that say it was likely due to virus as well as.  ones that say Dr. Mauer didn't believe it was viral. But as the headline says, everyone is a doctor. Except for me, of course.

http://minnesota.twi...ws_min&c_id=min

It's stuff like fans hating Joe and calling him a puss that I think that it may have been smarter of him to go to Boston like many speculated following 2009, when he was the greatest hitter in baseball.

 

Joe plays so well in Fenway when the Twins head out East. Imagine him playing half his games there, banging balls off the Monster day after day. His HR numbers would have likely gone up, along with his RBI and doubles.

 

I feel bad for him in a way because if he wasn't such a nice guy and wasn't such a team player, he could have some more MVPS and titles to his name. He wouldn't be the has-been guy he has become.

 

(BTW, why does it seem that all of baseball respect Mauer more than Minnesotans? That seems backwards)

I don't think Mauer gets mistreated by many fans in the upper midwest.  But I do think that whatever "mistreatement" he gets from fans and media would be mulitplied several fold if he were playing in Boston (or another major media market, where people expect to win), taking up 25% of the payroll, and putting up a .717 OPS after missing a lot of time over the past few years.

Nitpic I did not know that opinions from old stories had to be referenced here. it is called google There are several stories that say it was likely due to virus as well as.  ones that say Dr. Mauer didn't believe it was viral. But as the headline says, everyone is a doctor. Except for me, of course.

http://minnesota.twi...ws_min&c_id=min

You'll forgive me for thinking if he really missed 2 months due to "a flu bug," that's not going to do much to change the opinion of those who think he might be a bit soft.

You'll forgive me for thinking if he really missed 2 months due to "a flu bug," that's not going to do much to change the opinion of those who think he might be a bit soft.


I'm doubtful anything will change peoples' cherished beliefs. There are still flat-earthers out there too.
    • Beezer07 likes this

I don't think the "haters" really hate Mauer.  Since 2011 the Twins have not played well, and as the Twins best player, Joe gets the brunt of the criticism.  People look for an excuse, and they see his injuries.  They blame his injuries for Joe's lack of production and the Twins poor record.  After his 2009 MVP season, who can blame people for wanting more seasons of excellence, expecting more of the same, despite the Twins move to Target Field from the Metrodome.

What do we all want ? For Joe Mauer to play every day and play like Joe Mauer.  The problem is, fans have a different idea of what Joe Mauer should play like.

    • Dantes929 likes this

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