If we didn’t know it was real, Joe Mauer’s career with the Minnesota Twins might strike us as being more like a fairy tale than an actual story. That is, until August 19, 2013. That was when Mets first baseman Ike Davis hit a foul tip that hit Mauer square in his helmet.
The moribund Twins, coming off a 69-93 season, had the first overall draft pick in 2001 for the second time in franchise history. The first time the Twins had the No. 1 pick, they drafted Tim Belcher, who didn’t sign when the team wouldn’t pay the going rate for a top selection. Minnesota also failed to sign their second round pick, Bill Swift; none of the players they actually did sign ever played a game in the majors.
The Carl Pohlad-owned Twins were not known for aggressively investing in their team. In 2000, the Twins drafted Adam Johnson with the No. 2 pick, largely because he was willing to sign for a $2.5 million bonus, a smaller sum than the next five players drafted. The consensus top pick, Mark Prior, wasn’t going to be cheap (he ended up signing for a $4 million bonus and a $10.5 million major league contract). But the Twins had the chance to not spend money and get a top prospect who was a local boy, and they took it, signing Joe Mauer to a $5.15 million bonus and no guaranteed major league deal.
Mauer was far less of a reach than Johnson had been the previous year; indeed, he may very well have been the mock draft darling if it hadn’t been for the presence of Prior and Mark Teixeira, who were both considered to be as complete a prospect coming out of college as one could ever find. Mauer was already a hitting machine at a young age — he only struck out once in his entire high school career — but there’s always a risk with a high school catcher.
The concerns turned out to be unwarranted. Mauer went from a St. Paul high school to hitting .400 in rookie ball almost immediately after signing. Three years later, he was already in the majors. By his age-30 season in 2013, Mauer could boast six All-Star appearances, an MVP trophy, three Gold Gloves, and four Silver Sluggers, and was widely considered an elite catcher. With six weeks to go in the 2013 season, Mauer was having his best year since before his injury-shortened 2011, hitting .323/.404/.476 for a 143 wRC+ and 5.2 WAR. His case for Hall of Fame induction was proceeding quite nicely. The post-Pohlad Twins opened their wallets for their best player, signing Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million extension in 2010.
But as we know, the foul tip to his head ended up being the major turning point in his career. Placed on the seven-day concussion disabled list, Mauer didn’t play for the rest of the 2013 season. Until the last game of his career, Mauer didn’t play another game at catcher, as the Twins moved him permanently to first base to protect his health. Entering 2014 with a career wRC+ of 134, Mauer didn’t put up that number in a single season as a first baseman. And it wasn’t a coincidence; Mauer dealt with blurred vision for years. From a star to a league-average player at best after a single pitch, Mauer continued to play for Minnesota until his retirement after the 2018 season.
Finishing with nearly 2000 games in the majors, and collecting 2,123 hits, a .306 average, and 52.5 WAR, Mauer finished with career numbers that the vast majority of players would be elated to have accumulated. He may even still make the Hall of Fame, depending on how the electorate considers the concussion. When contrasting Johan Santana and Kirby Puckett, there’s a lot of inconsistency regarding how the voters treat peak value and injury-shortened careers. If considered a catcher, Mauer would rank ninth all-time in hits at the position. It would be hard to argue the event that led to his move to first resulted in Mauer’s career numbers ballooning as the typical move from catcher to an easier defensive position might. And while I will still be just-short of having my Hall of Fame vote when Mauer becomes eligible for induction, I absolutely will vote for him should I have the opportunity a couple years later.
Let’s construct an alternate history for Mauer’s career using 2013 as the jumping-off point. Using the ZiPS projection system, I ran the rest of Mauer’s career as-of the concussion. The foul tip misses Mauer this time, he collects 38 more hits and a .311/.391/.451 line for the rest of 2013, and then experiences a normal decline phase as a catcher:
|ZiPS Proj. ROC||.290||.367||.408||3863||499||1119||218||8||74||495||475||669||13||111||24.5|
|ZiPS Proj. Career||.307||.388||.440||8364||1205||2571||508||28||182||1144||1107||1251||56||124||71.3|
I think Mauer has a clear-cut case for induction as a modern Mickey Cochrane — another legendary catcher struck down by injury — but the normal Mauer decline phase makes the case for his enshrinement overwhelming. ZiPS projects Mauer to fall short on his quest to become the first catcher to collect 3,000 hits, but he passes the 2,500-hit line and still retains the .300 batting average he actually finished with, though this time with 1,500 more at-bats. 71.3 wins would leave Mauer looking up at only Johnny Bench among catchers, but even for voters who aren’t interested in WAR, the old-fangled stats amply make his case.
Joe Mauer had the kind of career any player should have been proud to call his own. It would be a shame if an errant foul ball cost him the chance to make a summer speech in upstate New York.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.