All great cities are strange in their own way and the strangeness of the Twin Cities, those most middle of middle-American towns, is perhaps in how nearly normal they are. Minneapolis and St. Paul are every bit as off as any place that gave the world Bob Dylan, The Replacements and the Coen Brothers must be, but it's the way they're off that's interesting -- like their famous sons they seem to be part of a country very much like the one the rest of us live in, but a bit older and weirder.
Joe Mauer, a hometown boy who, if he stays with the Twins for the rest of his career, will likely end it as the best player in team history, could only have come from such a place. There's no more normal player than Mauer, who might as well be playing in the 1930s for all he seems to have in common with the world around him. The owner of the sweetest swing anyone has seen since Will Clark retired has never said anything offensive and seems likely never to; he just wins Gold Gloves and batting titles while giving off every impression that he would be incapable of addressing a woman of a certain age without calling her "Ma'am." All of which can make you forget just what an impossibly strange player he is.
Catchers don't win batting titles; the only backstop to win a batting title since World War II, Mauer is working on his third right now. Catchers, even Mike Piazza in his prime, don't lead in on-base or slugging average either; Mauer leads the American League in both. Catchers who can hit generally can't catch; Mauer is regarded by nearly everyone who watches baseball as the best defender in the league. With apologies to Ichiro Suzuki, there's no one so unlikely in baseball. Mauer rightly shouldn't exist.
Perhaps it's this strangeness that's kept people from fully appreciating the kind of year Mauer is having. If he hits as he has thus far for the rest of the year, Mauer will have enjoyed probably the second-best hitting season by a catcher in major league history. If he hits as he did through the end of last season, he'll likely have enjoyed one of the five best. There are a lot of freakishly great players in the game right now, but even Albert Pujols isn't doing anything quite so historic.
Just to situate what Mauer is doing in some kind of context, consider the following highly unscientific list of the best offensive seasons by catchers. You'll note that Yogi Berra, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez, Bill Dickey, and Gabby Hartnett, among others, aren't on it. That's because what tends to separate the great hitting catchers is consistency over time. Players such as Chris Hoiles and Darren Daulton had seasons in which they hit at least as well as Dickey did at his best; what made him special was that he was able to do it a lot. That Mauer is already on this list and is, barring injury, going to make it again says an enormous amount about what he's already done in his brief career.
1) Mike Piazza, 1997, .362 BA/.431 OBA/.638 SLGThis was the best offensive season by a catcher in baseball history by a comical margin. It's still impossible to fathom Piazza, who hit about as well as Pujols did last year, lost the Most Valuable Player award to Larry Walker, an outfielder who didn't even hit as well as Piazza did.
2) Joe Mauer, 2009, .357/.430/.586 (?)If Mauer keeps up his current pace through the end of the year, he'll not only become the first catcher to lead in average, on-base and slugging in a single year, he'll have put nearly 10 more runs on the board than any catcher has ever in any season other than Piazza's 1997, per Baseball-Reference.com's batting runs charts.
2) Johnny Bench, 1972, .270/.379/.541One of the few players on this list to get the recognition he deserved for his best year, Bench led in home runs and RBI while playing his usual unreal defense, earning the MVP award. Don't let the light numbers fool you; per Baseball Reference, if he'd had the same season playing in the Great American Ballpark last year, Bench's line would have been something like .300/.414/.596.
3, 4) Piazza, 1996, .336/.422/.563; Piazza, 1995, .346/.400/.606You wonder if we really appreciated what we were seeing with Piazza. There's a pretty good case to be made that he had the three best offensive seasons ever by a catcher, all in a row; he routinely knocked off seasons that were better than the best seasons of the best-hitting catchers.
5) Mauer, 2009, .340/.420/.520 (?)The back of this envelope in front of me says that if Mauer hits the same way he did through the end of last year over the rest of the season he'll end up with something like this line, which might not net him a third batting title given how Suzuki is hitting, but likely would win him an OBA crown and would rate as one of the all-time ridiculous years.
5) Jorge Posada, 2007, .338/.426/.543One of the great underappreciated seasons of recent years. Posada was and is a great hitter when clipping along with his usual .270 batting average; add 60 points onto that and hold everything else level and you have a year that may well have been the best any American League receiver has ever had at the plate.
6) Dick Dietz, 1970, .300/.426/.515I don't know much at all about Dietz, and MVP voters seem not to have been impressed by his year -- he didn't get a single vote -- but this was a monster campaign. Dietz was third in the NL in OBA and seventh in OPS while racking up 612 plate appearances, a huge total for a catcher; if you were hugely ungenerous this would still rank among the 10 best offensive seasons by a catcher ever.
7) Javy Lopez, 2003, .328/.378/.687There's an argument for this season to rank lower -- Lopez missed out on even qualifying for the batting title, albeit by just two games' worth of at-bats -- but among seasons by catchers with as many PAs, only Piazza in 1997 came within 49 points of Lopez's slugging average. One gets the idea Lopez will be the forgotten man of the Atlanta dynasty, but he was an awfully good player.
8) Mickey Cochrane, 1933, .322/.459/.515In researching great catcher seasons what really impresses you is how little contemporaries seem to care when catchers go ballistic. One of the most highly regarded players of his time, Cochrane beat out Jimmie Foxx, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig for the OBA title and ranked behind only those three in SLG for a team that finished a respectable third. For his troubles he ranked 15th in the MVP voting.
9) Roy Campanella, 1953, .312/.395/.611Campanella, of course, had no problems at all with voters, winning the MVP award three times. In 1953 he happened to lead the NL in RBI, which certainly didn't hurt his case, but it was legitimately his best year at the plate.
10) Piazza, 1998, .328/.390/.570Carrying a Mets team that had no business winning into the wild-card race down to the final week, Piazza in a relative off-year established himself with New York fans as about the scariest hitter most of them had ever seen. The odd old-timer would even admit that Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays wouldn't have been embarrassed to hit the way he did in the second half.
11) Joe Torre, 1966, .315/.382/.560Given that he was playing catcher rather than third, this was probably Torre's finest season, better even than the great 1971 MVP season. He finished in the top six in both OBA and SLG, ran up 614 PAs... and finished 16th in MVP voting.
12) Campanella, 1951, .325/.393/.590At this point in the list, distinctions are highly arbitrary; you could flip this with Campanella's 1953 quite easily, as he had basically the same season and won another MVP award.
13) Darrell Porter, 1979, .291/.421/.484A terrific player for some great Kansas City Royals teams, Porter led the league in walks in his best year while stepping to the plate an astounding 679 times. He suffered for it the next year, and was never again quite the same player, but up until the day he retired he could kill a baseball.
14) Mauer, 2006, .347/.429/.507This was the year when Mauer began to make the Twins look really, really smart for drafting him over Mark Prior in what was taken at the time to be a typical bit of penury from the famously cheap franchise. It was also the year when he won a batting title and lost out in the MVP vote to teammate Justin Morneau, a first baseman who didn't even hit as well as Mauer did.
15) Piazza, 2000, .324/.398/.614In the last year of his peak Piazza was typically insane, carrying yet another flawed Mets team deeper into the calendar than it had any right to go. If you wanted to, you could probably rate this in the top 10, which would give Piazza half of the 10 best-hitting seasons ever by catchers. Great as Mauer is, that's one feat he's likely not going to match.