Lost in all the excitement of the Twins winning their fifth American League Central championship in the past
eight seasons was the fact that their All-Star catcher, Joe Mauer, won his third AL batting title in the past
four years, finishing with a .365 average in 2009. This is the highest single season ever for a catcher.
Mauer was the first catcher in AL history to win a batting title when
he did so in 2006. As far as other catchers are concerned, in the National League, Ernie Lombardi won two titles
in 1938 and '42, and Bubbles Hargrave did the same in '26. That's it, which means Mauer has won as many batting
titles as all other Major League catchers combined.
Mauer's only the ninth player in AL history to win at least three batting titles, the last being Wade Boggs,
who won four in a row from 1985-88 and five overall in six seasons. Ty Cobb holds the Major League record with 11
batting titles, his last coming in 1919. The other six are Rod Carew (7), Ted Williams (6), Nap Lajoie (5),
Harry Heilmann (4), George Brett (3) and Tony Oliva (3).
How great was Joe Mauer’s season? How does it rate historically? Was it the greatest season ever by a catcher?
The case for Mauer is in the percentages. He led the American League in batting average (.365), on-base percentage (.444) and slugging percentage (.587).
This is rare stuff, the Sabermetric Triple Crown. Alex Rodriguez hasn’t done this. Nor has Albert Pujols or Ken Griffey Jr. Nor did Joe
DiMaggio, Willie Mays or Henry Aaron. It’s the kind of thing done by men like Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Barry Bonds and
Ted Williams — the absolute dominant hitters of their eras. And now Mauer stands with them.
Certainly no catcher has done it. What few realize is how seldom a catcher leads in the other percentage categories. Johnny Bench, for example:
Two MVPs, two 40-homer seasons, three RBI crowns — but he never led in OBP or slugging. Nor did Roy Campanella (three MVPs), or Yogi Berra (three MVPs), or
Gabby Hartnett, or Bill Dickey, or even Mike Piazza, the consensus choice for best hitting catcher ever.
Of the candidates for best
catcher in history, only Mickey Cochrane — not coincidentally the catcher Mauer seems most similar to — ever led the
league in even one of the percentage categories. He led the league once in on-base percentage (1933). That’s the case for Mauer. And it’s a strong case indeed.
But there’s a problem: Mauer missed a month. Not only do those missing games hurt his team (because a lesser man is in the
lineup) and limit his counting stats, they probably helped his percentages by reducing the wear-and-tear the position puts on his body and mind.
Mauer had 28 homers, 94 runs, 96 RBIs. Not only did they fall short of the
league top 10 (much less the lead), they don’t compare to the numbers Piazza put
up in 1997 [.362 batting average, .431 OBP,
.638 SLG, 40 homers, 124 RBIs, 104 runs]. In a pitcher’s park, no less. Comparable batting average and OPB to Mauer this year, far superior SLG and counting stats.
Bill James’ win shares stat credits Mauer with 32 win shares — the third time Mauer has topped 30, which, again, is typical
only of the very best of players. Catchers almost never lead the league in win shares; Mauer has now done it two years running.
Bench in 1972 had 37 win shares; Piazza in 1997 had 39. Had Mauer played in April, and played
as well as he did the rest of the year, and maintained it all season, he would probably be up there with Piaza and Bench. He didn’t. It takes nothing
away from the marvel that was Joe Mauer in 2009 to say that the missing month means his wasn’t the greatest season ever for a catcher.
Story, in part, by Edward Thoma a Mankato Free Press staff writer.
Click to read Mauer's 2006 Batting Championship story
Click to read Mauer's 2008 Batting Championship story