Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mauer Goes for a Fourth Title

Tonight Joe Mauer knocked three base hits and collected a couple walks along the way. This marked his 20th game with at least 3 hits on the season. It also brought his batting average up to .325. The American League leader after the days games will be Miguel Cabrera at .333. A strong finish and Mauer could have his fourth batting title.

Here's a little perspective to give this conversation some weight. At age 23 Mauer became the first American League catcher ever to win a batting title. Over the next three years he won two more, becoming the first catcher in Major League history to win more than two. I cannot overstate how impressive it is for a player to have three (three!!!) batting titles before turning 27. The next season the hometown kid hit .327 - placing third in the American League and adding onto one of the most impressive starts to a career of all time. Unfortunately, last season the run came to an abrupt halt missing much of the season and playing as a shell of his former self in the remainder. 

The mixture of a disappointing 2011 and hangover from the lost promises of his prodigious power from 2009 led many to wonder if he just didn't have it anymore. Even my favorite annual painted a grim picture for his future citing injuries and an inevitable move from behind the plate, with no mention of his demonstrably special hitting ability. I can't blame them, it had been two years since he'd really dominated and everything that could go wrong, did in 2011. Going into 2012, anybody would have been happy if he could simply stick behind the plate and provide just average production.

Half way through May, 40 games into the season, the critics looked to be spot on. Mauer hit only .275 and knocked just one home run. The slow start essentially confirmed the position that Mauer was solidly in the decline phase, supporting the idea that he caught too many games and wore out his long limbs.

However, since May 19th, Mauer has been sneaking his way back into the race for the AL batting title hitting .340 over that span (with a much improved .487 slugging pct.). He's been red hot in September, going 18-38 (.474 avg.) bringing back his average up to .325. Even if Joe falls short of the hardware, he's shown everyone he's not to be forgotten that easily. 

Tonight Mauer is in the top 3 in batting average behind the always solid Miguel Cabrera and the slumping Mike Trout (To say Trout is in a slump is to say he's been hitting in the .280's since the beginning of August, it's all relative.). I think Trout, the inevitable MVP, will fall behind Mauer and then it's up to Joe to pass Cabrera. Interestingly, the Mauer vs. Cabrera race is now in its third incarnation as both have finished top 4 in the same season twice since Miguel came to the AL Central in 2008.

Regardless of the outcome, the next two weeks should be, at the very least, fascinating to follow as Cabrera looks to win his third straight title, Mauer looks to rebound for the fourth of his career and Mike Trout tries to surge to cap an amazing season. We can't discount the dark horse candidates like Derek Jeter, Adrian Beltre, David Murphy or Billy Butler either, as there's still over two weeks remaining. 

And for Twins fans, not only do they have something to actually root for over in September, they'll have a player to celebrate for years to come.

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