- Joe Mauer logged his 2,000th hit on Thursday night. The Twins' cornerstone never achieved much fame outside of Minnesota, but he's probably a Hall of Famer in waiting.
Raise a glass of room-temperature tap water to Joe Mauer. On Thursday night in Minnesota, the veteran Twins star became the 287th and newest member of the 2,000 Career Hit Club, with his two knocks in a 4–0 win over the White Sox gaining him entry. He punched an RBI single into centerfield against Chicago’s Lucas Giolito in the third inning for career hit No. 1,999—prompting the oh-so-clever playing of fellow Minneapolis icon Prince’s “Party Like It’s 1999” afterward—then made history in the seventh with another single, this one off lefty reliever Aaron Bummer through a drawn-in infield, to drive in a pair and reach 2,000.
As noted above, the 2,000 Hit Club is crowded, both past and present. Aside from becoming No. 287 in its membership, Mauer joins nine other active players beyond the ropes, and by season’s end, he may have to scoot over a bit to allow Chase Utley (currently at 1,856 career hits) and/or Ian Kinsler (1,828) some room as well. But Mauer’s accomplishment is a little more exclusive in franchise history, as he became just the third player ever to reach 2,000 as a member of the Twins, joining Hall of Famers Rod Carew and Kirby Puckett.
The history-making night continues what’s been a terrific start for Mauer, who is slashing a blazing .412/.545/.529. He’s picked up 14 hits in 10 games across 44 plate appearances and has 10 walks to just seven strikeouts depite no homers. That’s not all that surprising: Aside from his AL MVP-winning 2009 campaign when he homered 28 times, Mauer has never topped 13 dingers in a season. Instead, his calling card throughout his 15-year career has been hard line drives up the middle and into the gaps, with a freakishly consistent ability to go to all fields.
The hot hitting is also a welcome return to form for Mauer, who hasn’t been much of a force at the plate over the last four seasons. Last year was his best in a while, as he finished with a batting average of .300 or better and slugging percentage over .400 for the first time since 2013. Related or not, that downturn coincides with his move out from behind the plate and over to first base: Since switching positions after the 2013 season, Mauer has hit an anemic .277/.361/.390 (not counting this year) with a 106 OPS+. That’s a far cry from the .323/.405/.468 he slashed from his rookie season in 2004 through ’13, winning the MVP and five Silver Slugger awards in the process.
The last few years have also been a period of declining health for Mauer. No longer a catcher to protect him from concussions, he’s still struggled to stay on the field as a first baseman and designated hitter, averaging only 138 games over the last four years. But so far so good in 2018, with Mauer starting 10 of Minnesota’s 11 games this season after an incident-free spring training and bounce-back ’17 season. And the Twins need him that way if they want to earn a wild-card spot again or even challenge the Indians for AL Central supremacy.
This season’s strong start is crucial not just to the Twins’ playoff hopes, though, but also to Mauer continuing to build his Hall of Fame case. While 2,000 hits is nothing to sneeze at, it’s also not an automatic guarantee of a plaque in Cooperstown; just ask players like Edgar Renteria or B.J. Surhoff, who reached that mark but who disappeared off ballots with nary a tick of support. Mauer, though, is a step above guys like that thanks to his incredible prime at a valuable and scarce position, and that’s reflected in the numbers. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system—which measures a player against enshrined Hall of Famers by Wins Above Replacement over his career and seven-year peak, then averages them out—has Mauer solidly in. His totals—54.5 career, 39.0 peak, 46.7 JAWS—are all above the average for the 15 catchers in the Hall, albeit just barely in all three cases; overall, his numbers would rank seventh among the backstops, sandwiched between longtime Yankees stars Yogi Berra at No. 6 and Bill Dickey at No. 8. As a catcher, he’s Hall of Fame material.
The phrase “as a catcher” is doing a lot of heavy lifting there, though, because Mauer hasn’t donned the tools of ignorance in five years and almost certainly never will again. His relatively short time behind the plate, meanwhile, leaves him at a big deficit measured against his peers at the position. Mauer played only 920 games as a catcher, a lower total than all but two enshrined players: Former Giants and Cardinals star Roger Bresnahan, who caught and played centerfield over 17 seasons in the early 20th century, and Buck Ewing, who like Mauer split time between catcher and first base in the late 19th century. Both of those players were Veterans Committee inductees, too.
Then again, it’s hard to imagine anyone seriously holding Mauer’s lack of playing time as a catcher against him when it comes time to vote. He didn’t choose to leave the position, and given the concussion that led the Twins to switch him to first base, it’s better for all parties that he did move. It’s unlikely, too, that the Hall or voters would care about where, how and when Mauer compiled his stats. Ernie Banks spent more of his career as a first baseman than a shortstop, but his best years came playing the latter, and that’s what voters recognized when it came time to fill in their ballots.
Besides, Mauer has been such a good hitter that his case will remain strong. Reaching 3,000 hits is unlikely unless he experiences a massive late-career surge, but Mauer still has that 2009 AL MVP award, three Gold Gloves, three batting titles, and—as of now—a career line of .309/.392/.444 to go with the JAWS seal of approval. As The Athletic’s Jayson Stark notes, Mauer’s combination of 2,000-plus career hits, a .300 or better batting average, an OBP above .390, an OPS above .800, and three batting titles has been equaled by just eight other players in MLB history: Ty Cobb, Tony Gwynn, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Honus Wagner, Carew, Ted Williams and Wade Boggs. Those aren’t just Hall of Famers—they’re inner-circle Hall of Famers. Mauer isn’t in that class, but he’s plenty worthy of a bronze plaque when it’s all said and done.
Regardless of whether or not Cooperstown comes calling, though, Mauer is worth appreciating just for what a steady and superb presence he’s been across nearly two decades of work for his hometown team. The Twins have never been able to translate his success into a long postseason run—he’s never gotten past the first round of the playoffs in his four trips—but he still helped carry the team out of its late 1990s doldrums as the No. 1 pick of the 2001 draft. He’s just as important to the franchise as Carew, Puckett or Harmon Killebrew. That he didn’t become a mega-star league-wide is likely due to playing for a smaller-market team that never experienced sustained playoff success.
It also might have to do with Mauer’s rather muted personality. Perhaps the most Midwestern man alive, Mauer looks like he wears the same pair of Duggar slacks to the ballpark every single day. If it weren’t for baseball, Mauer would likely be a suburban dad with three kids and working on a fourth, driving a minivan and fretting over his taxes. When SI’s Tom Verducci profiled him back in June 2009, he noted that one of Mauer’s favorite pastimes was mowing the lawn. He’s MLB’s resident Ned Flanders.
Joe Mauer's 2000th hit was off a pitcher named Bummer, which is also the harshest swear in Joe's vocabulary— It's The Great Becoming, Charlie Brown (@RandBallsStu) April 13, 2018
What’s sad, though, is that a sizable portion of the Twins’ fanbase has soured on Mauer over the last several years due to the injuries that ended his time at catcher and the massive eight-year, $184 million deal he signed before the 2010 season. Mauer deserved and earned every penny of that deal, but the subsequent downturn of both him and the Twins—Minnesota won 94 games in the first year of his deal, then collapsed to 99 losses in 2011, the first of four straight losing seasons—made him an easy target for criticism. Leave aside that most of the team’s problems in those years could be attributed to a total atrophy of the pitching staff and some woeful drafting; as the face of the franchise, Mauer unfairly took most of the heat.
Hopefully, that can change with the Twins looking once again like a team on the rise and with Mauer performing closer to his old self. How long that lasts is anyone’s guess, given that he’ll turn 35 in a week and is in the last year of his contract, but Twins fans should enjoy the ride while they can.