Another disappointing season?
The Kirby Puckett vs. Joe Mauer comparison/contrast has been on my mind these last few days. Though positionally they are different players (Mauer a catcher… Kirby center field), Mauer’s recent health issues will narrow that gap sooner than later. They both played for the Twins… both were the number three hitter in the lineup… both, by far, the most popular players on their respective teams… both all-stars… the face of their respective franchises… both the highest paid players on their teams.
I moved to the Twin Cities and started following the Twins in earnest in 1986. I had followed them from afar because of my previous sojourn in the Red River Valley and through friends who grew up in Minnesota and were life-long Twins fans. Living in Chicago I usually went to Wrigley UNLESS the Royals or Twins were playing the White Sox. I always went to at least a few of those games with friends.
1986 was a good time to start following the Twins in earnest. That was the year before they won their first World Series. It was an over-achieving team of lunch-pail kind of guys that were about the same age as me: Gladden, Brunansky, Hrbek, Gaetti, Viola, Blyleven, and, of course, Puckett. Puckett was worth the price of admission, as a fielder and a batter. He was charismatic, a difference maker, a true super-star.
I assume that today’s fans feel about Joe Mauer the same way. He does stop time when he bats. All eyes in the stands and both dugouts are on him when he steps to the plate. Few players can do that in any era.
As I was thinking about them I looked up their stats. Baseball is, after all, a game of numbers. The first thing I found is that I had forgotten how great Kirby really was. Here are some side-by-side stats after their first 7 seasons with the Twins:
Kirby Puckett and Joe Mauer after first 7 seasons
What you notice in looking at these stats is that Kirby’s batting average after his first 7 seasons is really remarkably close to Mauer’s… but he hits more homeruns AND plays in more games. Kirby brings his batting average and power to more games than Mauer.
Mauer won an MVP in 2009, the year of his historic slugging percentage. That year he put up way more homers than he has at any other time in his career. So I decided to compare Mauer’s best season in his first seven, 2009, with Kirby’s best season in his first seven seasons, 1988. Here is a chart that compares those:
Mauer's best and Puckett's best in their first 7 seasons
Comparing the these two great seasons we see the same trend. Catcher Mauer is not able to play in as many games as the durable Puckett. Over a season that durability adds up to RBI. The number three hitter has one job: drive in runs. Again in 2009, Mauer hit substantially more home runs than his career average… he more than doubled his career average. He has never come that close before or since. Puckett in 1988 hit just a few more than the number you would expect.
What do the Twins long term need to be competitive as a team… besides dominating pitching? A high average hitting catcher who plays in just 135 games a year? Or a run producing center fielder who plays in 158 games a year? I think the answer is obvious.
At the end of 7 seasons Joe Mauer has 1 MVP trophy… Puckett none. At the end of 7 seasons Mauer has won 1 playoff game… Puckett a World Series.
Man, do I miss Kirby!