Because of what's happened in the last few seasons, it's easy to forget just how brilliantly Joe Mauer has played baseball. Yes, Mauer's twice been an All-Star in the last three seasons. But he's averaged just 114 games in those three seasons, and his highest finish in Most Valuable Player balloting was 19th. A far cry from the previous three seasons, in which Mauer won one MVP Award and finished fourth and eighth in the other elections. Mauer went from superstar to afterthought in what seems like a snap of fingers.
Of course, it was injuries.
In 2011, Mauer's recovery from knee surgery didn't go well at all.
In 2012, he was generally healthy and played in 147 games; granted, he started only 72 games behind the plate, with 72 more starts at first base or as the Twins' Designated Hitter.
In 2013, Mauer was supposed to catch more often. Which he did. Until the 19th of August, when he took a couple of foul balls off the mask. The official diagnosis was concussion, but we might just as accurately say that Mauer suffered a brain injury. And that brain injury wiped out the rest of Mauer's season.
And now it seems he's not going to catch any more at all:
#mntwins cite "consultation with doctors from Mayo Clinic and team doctors" and "inherent risks of future injury" for joint Mauer decision— Mike Berardino (@MikeBerardino) November 11, 2013
That "Mauer decision"? He's going to play first base.
First question: Can Mauer really hit well enough to play first base?
Hell yes. Over the last two seasons, Mauer's got a 142 OPS+. Among the major-league first basemen and DH's with at least 1,000 plate appearances over those seasons, here's where Mauer would have ranked:
163 Joey Votto
149 Edwin Encarnacion
145 Chris Davis
143 Paul Goldschmidt
142 Joe Mauer
David Ortiz would have been No. 1, but just missed the plate-appearances cutoff. Anyway, the point is that Joe Mauer does hit like a first baseman, which of course is what made him such an amazing player for so long. Among catchers with at least 4,000 plate appearances in their careers, Mike Piazza owns the all-time highest OPS+, and Mauer's got the second-highest.*
* Gene Tenace is third on that list, but that's a story for another day.
Mauer, if he's recovered from his brain injury, immediately and automatically becomes one of the two or three best first basemen in the American League. That's essentially indisputable, I think. It's also indisputable, I think, that 150 games of Joe Mauer playing first base is less valuable than (say) Joe Mauer catching 100 games and playing first base in 40 more games. Then again, if those "inherent risks of future injury" are as serious as the Twins seem to believe, there probably wasn't much chance of Mauer catching 100 games per season. And it's worth mentioning that he's under contract for another five seasons, through 2018.
If all this happened five years ago, maybe the Twins give it another shot. Maybe they consider Mauer's brain injury an isolated incident, and get him back behind the plate again. And maybe it works. But we live in a different time. The brain-injury paradigm has changed dramatically, and teams will only become more cautious in these situations.
We don't know enough about Mauer's situation to second-guess the decision here. My gut reaction is that this is the best thing. What's really interesting, I think, is what this says about catchers, generally. It's possible that the profession of catching in professional baseball might be seen to have a natural limit. Maybe it's 800 games behind the plate, or 1,000 or 1200. But in the absence of radically more protective headgear and many fewer home-plate collisions, the frequency of brain injuries at the position might mean the job just can't be done for more than eight or 10 years.