Concussions Killed Mauer’s Career, But Not His HOF Case

Scott Rolen's election to the Hall of Fame last week triggered almost immediate discussions about next year's likely Hall of Fame class. Social media being what it is, as opposed to what we wish it became, Rolen's election also triggered an unfathomable outpouring of bile against one of three deserving Hall of Famers who make their first appearances on the writers' ballots toward 2023's end.

Adrián Beltré is a Hall of Fame lock. Not just because he's a paid-in-full member of the 3,000 hit club, but because he has 93.5 wins above replacement-level player (WAR) and he's the number-two third baseman ever in terms of run prevention: Beltré's 168 defensive runs above his league average is second all-time to Hall of Fame Brooks Robinson. (Baseball Reference rates Beltré the number four all-around third baseman.)

Chase Utley deserves a plaque in Cooperstown, too, even if his lack of black ink might be blinding. He wasn't an overwhelming hitter, but he was a run machine once he reached base, including being worth 45 runs as a baserunner and worth another 25 runs due to his ability to avoid double plays. He's also fourth for run prevention at second base (+141 runs, behind only (in ascending order) Hall of Famers Bid McPhee, Joe Gordon, and Bill Mazeroski.

And, then, there's Joe Mauer. The number seven catcher all-time according to Baseball Reference. Uh-oh.

"I've never seen fans of a team hate an all-time great of their own the way some Twins fans do Mauer, tweeted The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe. "They're just so convinced he gave them a raw deal for that contract." As in, the eight-year, $184 million contract extension he signed with the Twins in March 2010. As in, before the injury that ultimately put paid to his life as a catcher, then a ballplayer period.

It's as though a man whose baseball profession had already led him to knee and leg issues committed some grave capital crime when, in August 2013, Mauer took a hard foul tip off his face mask. It caused a concussion that soon caused the Twins to pull him out from behind the plate and move him to first base — a position left largely vacant when they traded Justin Morneau to the Pirates a year before Mauer's concussion.

Morneau, who suffered a concussion on a baserunning play the year Mauer signed that yummy contract extension, and who would suffer a second concussion on another diving play after he'd signed with the Rockies for 2014. One concussed first baseman eventually replaced by a concussed catcher who'd never again be the player he'd been prior to August 2013.

The guy with a reputation as a baseball gym rat who played the game with a commitment and a steadiness that caused some people to mistake him for emotionlessness spent the rest of that contract extension doing his level best to play despite things like the balance issues and light sensitivities that now made hitting a challenge and fielding a battle.

The Twins' struggles around Mauer's had far less to do with Mauer's and more to do with its ownership seeming to impose a de facto spending cap the rest of Mauer's career, including major league salaries and minor league development. But the native son, the franchise face, was too simple a target to resist, as the injured often are.

As if Mauer hadn't battled enough at the plate following 2013, in May 2018 he suffered a second one after he dove chasing a foul ball and injured his neck. Concussion symptoms kicked in a few days later. They didn't just impact him on the field, either. His wife, Maddie, told The Athletic they were no treat for him at home with two young twin daughters to raise, either. (The story was published as she was about to give birth to their third child, a son.)

"It's not quiet at our house and they don't understand why dad wants it to be quiet or be in a different room or have the lights off," Mrs. Mauer said.

Our girls had been born about a month prior (to the 2013 concussion). Both of these times it does put things into perspective that you're dealing with these symptoms at work, but you're dealing with them at home just as much. I think that's something he may not have talked about as much publicly, but it was a difficult challenge to be going through concussion-like symptoms with children.

"The neck [injury] is an easy one to take care of," Twins trainer Tony Leo told The Athletic for the same story. "We can fix that. But the concussion had all these ebbs and flows going up and down."

I think people don't appreciate how much it impacts you on a day-to-day basis with just simple things like getting out of bed. Am I going to feel okay? Am I going to have a headache? Am I going to have ringing in my ears? Am I going to feel nauseous? Am I going to be able to see all right? When I turn on the lamp next to my bed, is that light going to cause me to start having a headache? Am I going to be too agitated and upset at my kids when it's not their fault, but just because of all the sensations going on.

Everything starts compounding and adding to the anxiety you're going through when you're trying to minimize all these distractions and trying to allow the brain to heal. Little things trigger big symptoms, which cause you to doubt whether you're healing or not. It's really hard to remove yourself from everything let alone when you're in the clubhouse with music, all the lights we have, TVs, people. You have the same thing at home with the day-to-day living that . . . We get focused on the baseball. I get focused on getting them back on the field for the game. But how do you start minimizing everything else in life that's bothering you, especially with kids who just want to be around dad?

Maybe instead of soaking Mauer in a phlegm-and-bile bath because of what his head refused to let his body do at the level it once did during five of the eight years of that contract extension, the idiot brigades might consider what it took for Mauer to continue playing at all, at any level. After they consider that, perhaps miraculously, it actually didn't compromise his Hall of Fame case.

As a catcher, Mauer — unusually tall for a backstop at 6'5" — was easy to overrate while he played. I made that mistake once myself. I'm not making that mistake again. I'm going to show you where Mauer will sit among Hall of Fame catchers who played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era, according to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric. (Total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances.)

Mike Piazza----.613
Roy Camapanella----.587
Joe Mauer----.569
Johnny Bench----.551
Yogi Berra----.549
Carlton Fisk----.525
Ted Simmons----.514
Gary Carter----.512
Ivan Rodriguez----.503
HOF C AVG.----.547

You're not seeing things. Among that group of Hall of Fame catchers, Mauer is number three — 18 points ahead of Johnny Bench, and 20 points ahead of Yogi Berra, the two men considered the greatest all-around catchers who ever played the game. (You might care to know, too, that as a catcher Mauer had 62 more walks than strikeouts at the plate.) He was also a highly-regarded pitch framer behind the plate who was worth 65 defensive runs above average for his entire life there.

Mauer retired in 2018 because he decided at last that family life without further health compromise was more important than his itch to compete. (The Twins retired his uniform No. 7 the following season.) "Experiencing a concussion looks different for everyone," he said in his formal retirement letter to Twins fans, "but my personal experience forced me to look beyond baseball at what is best for me as a husband and father."

Instead of shaming Mauer because they don't get what two concussions did to his Twins life under that contract extension, the idiot brigades should marvel that those two serious, life-and-career-altering injuries didn't compromise his case as a Hall of Fame catcher in waiting, and even admire him for having the will to try playing on in spite of them. And, for deciding that being a husband and father was more important than playing the game he loved.

But that might ask too many people to surrender their ongoing and erroneous belief that injuries incurred in real competition equal weakness at best, thievery at worst, and character flaws somewhere in there, too. "I am done with a lot of things," Jaffe also tweeted, "but especially done arguing about Mauer with Twins fans who don't understand the impact of the concussions on his career." As of this sentence, so am I.

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