Everyone's a Doctor: Joe Mauer, the Injury Bug and the Notion of Toughness
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel, USA TodayAnyone 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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