He has spent most of his retirement counting his kids’ milestones, participating in family events and occasionally playing golf. But five years after the end of his playing career, it’s Joe Mauer whose achievements will be heavily scrutinized over the next two months.
The former Minnesota Twins great is one of 12 new candidates to be included on the ballot for the 2024 class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which was released on Monday morning. Mauer, Adrián Beltré and Chase Utley are the top candidates on a ballot also featuring 14 holdovers from last year, including ex-Twins star Torii Hunter.
Mauer finished with a career .306/.388/.439 slash line, 2,123 hits, three Gold Gloves and 55.2 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference. Though the 2009 American League Most Valuable Player absolutely wants the honor, he knows some voters may find his case complicated.
“Everybody is kind of saying, ‘What do you think? What do you think?’” Mauer said by phone on Monday night. “There’s nothing I can do except be humbled and honored that I’m on it. We’ll see what happens and hope for the best. But it’s a tremendous honor to be on the ballot and it would be unbelievable if it goes further than that. So we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Mauer still has good prospects to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. But prior to Aug. 19, 2013, he appeared to be a shoo-in for Cooperstown.
Joe Mauer’s final career home run was a grand slam to straightaway center field off the Yankees’ Tommy Kahnle in a 10-5 #MNTwins win at Target Field on this date in 2018.
It was a 3-2 pitch and Mauer’s only swing of the at-bat.
2006 AL MVP Justin Morneau on color commentary. pic.twitter.com/N2SQRHdsyC
— The Twins Almanac ⚾️ (@TwinsAlmanac) September 11, 2022
Not only was Mauer already an MVP with two additional top-six MVP finishes, but he also was — and remains — the only catcher to ever win three batting titles. At the age of 30, Mauer produced 1,414 hits and a 44.6 WAR. He was a six-time All-Star en route to his fifth Silver Slugger Award.
Then a foul ball off the bat of New York Mets’ first baseman Ike Davis smacked Mauer’s helmet, resulting in a season-ending and career-altering concussion. Aside from a ceremonial pitch on the final day of his career, Mauer never again donned a catcher’s mask.
As a result of the concussion, Mauer suffered vision issues late in his career and was forced to switch positions, which could prove detrimental to his Hall of Fame case. Whereas his production as a catcher was top-tier, it registered as light for a first baseman, the position Mauer played for the rest of his career.
Mauer batted .278/.359/.388 for the rest of his career, a span of 2,900 plate appearances. Even though he was a plus defender at first base, producing 13 Defensive Runs Saved in 2017 and 21 over five seasons, the value lost by switching from catcher was costly. Mauer produced 10.6 bWAR over his final five seasons, which could leave him on the bubble with some voters.
While he planned to play through at least 2019, which would have helped Mauer increase his hit total, another concussion, one suffered when diving for a foul ball in mid-May, resulted in 25 missed games and a decision to retire after the 2018 season.
Mauer’s 55.2 WAR total is better than the 53.6 combined average for Hall of Fame catchers, but it includes his first base totals. As he discussed his case, Mauer said he’s aware of the potential for issues the injury and position switch could cause.
“Obviously, the concussions, it happened,” Mauer said. “Things happen in the course of a career and I’m thankful I had the time to be behind the plate because that’s what I enjoyed the most. … I love the position in baseball, being behind the plate, calling pitches, working with the staff. I really took a lot of pride in that. I know a lot of people out there maybe know me a little bit more for the bat, but I took a lot of pride in trying to be a complete player and trying to be just as good defensively as I could be offensively. But we’ll see what happens.”
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Only 16 catchers in baseball history have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Mauer’s catching WAR total is higher than Hall of Famers Roger Bresnahan (42.1), Roy Campanella (42), Ernie Lombardi (37.7) and Ray Schalk (33.1 WAR). Still, Mauer’s WAR total falls below Gene Tenace (46.8) and Thurman Munson (46.1), two great catchers who weren’t inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The lines are blurrier when you consider Mauer is on par with Buster Posey, who retired after his age-34 season with 44.8 WAR and is considered a strong candidate for induction.
Perhaps voters will view Mauer through a similar lens as Sandy Koufax, who was forced to retire after his age-30 season because of severe arthritis. A three-time Cy Young Award winner, Koufax finished his 12-year career with 48.9 WAR and earned induction after receiving 86.9 percent of the vote in 1972, his first year on the ballot.
“My dream was to play in the big leagues and I was able to do it at home for 15 years,” Mauer said. “Sometimes I look back at the things that I was able to do and pinch myself, but I definitely had an unbelievable opportunity and I’m very thankful that I got to do what I got to do. … It’s an honor. I mean, to be grouped in with other great players that you played against, that you watched. It’s not just a given. A lot of guys put on the uniform, but there’s not many guys on the ballot. You’ve got to play for a while and you got to do something special to be on it. I’m beyond honored and humbled to see my name along with those great players.”
Retiring after his age-35 season, Mauer isn’t full of regret. Another season or two would unquestionably have enhanced his Hall of Fame credentials by increasing his stats. But the final concussion he suffered and the issues it caused, including more vision issues and sensitivity to light, along with the upcoming birth of his son made it easy for Mauer to retire.
Mauer retired on Nov. 12, 2018. Two days later, his wife, Maddie, gave birth to son Chip. Last week, Mauer marveled that his son is already 5 years old. The couple also has twin 10-year-old daughters, Emily and Maren, which leaves Mauer busier at times than during his playing career.
“It just was my time,” Mauer said. “It felt right. … I haven’t looked back. You know, I miss competing, being with the guys and things like that. But I also really enjoy being there for the kids and their milestones and all the things I get to say yes to, trying different things. It’s been a good transition, I just really can’t believe it’s been five years. But you know, it’s been a lot of fun to be dad and to be there for them.”
(Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn / Minnesota Twins / Getty Images)