Catchers who can hit sometimes wind up ex-catchers
David LennonDavid Lennon
David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since
Joe Mauer still is a career .323 hitter, a six-time All-Star and a former MVP.
What he's not anymore is a catcher.
Mauer feels bad about it, too. But the concussion he suffered last season -- when he absorbed two foul balls to the mask during an Aug. 19 game against the Mets -- was much worse, and it left him thinking that after 10 years, the time was right to move from behind the plate.
"I really didn't have much of a choice," Mauer said after Friday's workout at Hammond Stadium. "It makes it easier. I just have to accept it. But that's the thing -- if this concussion never happens, then we wouldn't be having this conversation.
"It's disappointing that way, but here's other things -- like my health and my family -- that are pretty important to me," added the Twin who welcomed twin daughters last July. "So I'm going to try to do the best I can to make it happen."
Mauer is talking about switching full-time to first base, where he has played a total of 56 games at the major-league level. With dangerous hitters like Mauer, it's hardly a new concept and makes a great deal of sense in trying to protect an offensive asset from wear and tear -- or worse, in Mauer's case.
The Mets tried to do it part-time with the failed Mike Piazza experiment, and depending on how Travis d'Arnaud develops, they could face a similar decision down the line if he matures into the type of productive hitter many project him to be.
What makes these catchers so special is their offensive skills. The challenge is to find a way to keep them healthy enough to stay in the lineup.
"You look around the league, being a catcher that can do both, it's rare," said Brian McCann, who got a five-year, $85-million contract from the Yankees because he fits that description. "It's a demanding position -- mentally, physically -- so it's like no other position in baseball."
That's what makes the job so hazardous, too, and why Major League Baseball plans to put in place a new rule that would prevent home-plate collisions. Giants manager Bruce Bochy helped spearhead the movement after seeing his own MVP, Buster Posey, demolished at the plate in 2011, but it's unclear if the rule will be in place by Opening Day.
As far as protecting Posey, the Giants get to use the DH only during interleague road games, so they're fortunate to have the flexibility to shift him to first base. Not only does that cut down his exposure as a target -- both for baserunners and foul balls -- but a day without wearing catcher's gear also allows a player to focus more on his task at the plate. As Mauer pointed out, he now gets to participate more in the offensive meetings rather than working with the pitching staff, which takes priority for a catcher.
Giving these types of catchers a breather at first base sounds like a simple solution to a bruising problem, but not everyone is capable of doing it. Mauer was USA Today's high school player of the year in two sports -- as a quarterback and catcher. At a lean 6-5, 230 pounds, he probably could play shortstop if the Twins needed him to. In infield drills at first base Friday morning, Mauer looked as if he had been there since Little League.
The other side of that is the stocky McCann, who said he can't even imagine playing anywhere except behind the plate. Before McCann, 30, signed with the Yankees, his agent, B.B. Abbott, suggested he could spend some time at first base later in his career to keep him in the lineup more as he gets older.
"I haven't thought too much about it," McCann said. "Catchers are a certain kind of body type. You know I'm not going to play second base. If it wasn't for the catching position, I may not be in the big leagues. If I wanted to reach my full potential, I knew I was going to have to catch."
As well as accept the inherent dangers that go along with the job.
Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, as chairman of the rules committee, spoke to the team's catchers about what the new guidelines might be for avoiding collisions -- and how in any case, he wants them to give up the plate to dodge serious injury. Apparently some of his youngsters, however, are more than happy to welcome contact by blocking a speeding runner's path.
"That's part of the game that every catcher enjoys," d'Arnaud said. "That's our thrill, just like the infielder making a diving play in the hole throwing a runner out from his knees."
Even Mauer, after his scary experience with a severe concussion, remains a bit of a purist in that respect. Just goes to show that the Twins can give him a first baseman's mitt, but Mauer's heart still resides behind the plate.
"I don't want that play to lose its aggressiveness," Mauer said. "I've always been in the camp where if a catcher is covering home plate and you need to score, you need to score. But you definitely want to protect those guys as best you can."