I’m not particularly fond of how Minnesota treats its sports stars. The Puckett-like love affair is rare. More often, we pick nits. Kevin Garnett doesn’t score enough, or isn’t clutch enough. Joe Mauer doesn’t hit for enough power or doesn’t show enough leadership. Fran Tarkenton can’t win the big one, Harmon Killebrew is too quiet, Rod Carew is self-absorbed … the list goes on and on.
(There are forces at work here that are slicker and far more powerful than subjective analysis. It feels like it has to do with the human need for entertainment, or drama, or our self-identity forcing us from one side to the other to find our niche. I have to believe some bright person has studied this – the ebbs and flows of fame in a celebrity culture. If anyone knows of any books on this, I’d love to hear about them.)
I’ve defended Mauer consistently throughout his career. Most recently, it was an ongoing topic on the Gleeman and the Geek podcast for most of this offseason. The last time I wrote extensively about fan reaction to Mauer was just before his breakout 2009 season, in a story titled “I Was Promised Superstar
.” If you have a minute, I think it’s worth the click. It recaptures the Mauer debate four years ago, and it’s funny how it has changed and how it hasn’t.
What hasn’t changed is the “health” debate. That was a concern eight years ago, and it’s a concern now, though the early returns this year appear positive. Whatever preparation or medical treatments Mauer has undergone are paying off, but I wonder if the important change wasn’t one of philosophy. Prior to this year, there was a “Iron Horse” stubbornness about how often Mauer should play catcher, certainly fromh Mauer and possibly with the organization. Catching wears down a player. (In fact, we studied how that hurt Mauer’s performance a couple of years ago
.) This year, he’s playing every day, but “resting” at first base and designated hitter. And the overall results have been good.
The other debate that might benefit from a change in philosophy is the “power” debate. It seemingly went away in 2009 when Mauer hit 28 home runs on his way to the AL MVP award. It came back in 2010 when the Twins moved to Target Field and opposite field home runs became the stuff of fairy tales. In 2009, most of Mauer’s power was opposite field home runs. He’s hit just 14 home runs since the move to Target Field, and only two within its confines. To change that trend would require pulling the ball, a change that the uber-patient Mauer seems reluctant to even attempt.
It’s also worth noting that while it’s fun to cite “Games Played” statistics and what he’s batting with runners in scoring position, the overall impact numbers like WPA show that the fans know better than stats. Mauer hasn’t had a particularly positive impact on games this year. Friday night’s game (in which he demonstrated some power with a double and triple) was what finally lifted him to an impact above “historically mediocre.”
If you’re wondering why fans have booed Mauer, that might be explanation enough. He generated enormous expectations, cashed in on those enormous expectations, and in what should be his prime years he isn’t living up to them. Add to that a reluctance to change his philosophy, whether it be pulling the ball or swinging at a first strike. Finally, he’s also the face of a franchise – another role which he signed up for and for which he is richly compensated – which appears to be exiting its golden era.
Add that up, and you get frustration, and frustration, not ignorance, is why fans boo.