Mackey: Mentioning Joe Mauer with Kirby Puckett; Is it sacrilege?
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I said something on our radio show earlier today that I haven't been able to stop thinking about for 10 hours -- one of those instances where you make a statement in the heat of a debate, then think to yourself, "Wait... Do I really believe that? Or am I just putting my foot in my mouth?"
Then, instead of backtracking, you keep pushing forward on the initial premise -- a premise you're mostly unsure about, but don't want to admit it.
That statement was this:
Despite what our romantic narratives lead us to believe, Joe Mauer is a better player than Kirby Puckett was.
It was a knee-jerk comment made at the end of a segment where Judd Zulgad and I debated the relevance of "leadership" in baseball clubhouses. The comment wasn't meant as disrespect to Puckett. It was meant as kudos to Mauer.
After thinking about it all day I don't necessarily take it back, because there are reasons for why I said it to begin with. But I should probably elaborate...
Puckett is a legend. His personality, his catch up against the plexiglass, his home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, his durability and his fantastic individual career numbers make him a legend.
I don't even recall exactly how Puckett's name entered this conversation, but I know it had something to do with the vocal leadership portion of our conversation - Puckett telling the boys before Game 6, "Jump on my back."
Puckett's status gets elevated by the perception he is a great leader, just like Mauer's status gets downgraded by the perception that he isn't.
It's my contention that leadership in baseball A.) doesn't just come in the "rah, rah," kick over a water cooler form, but rather in many forms - some of them unspoken, and B.) that leadership is generally vastly overrated in baseball compared to other team sports like football, basketball and hockey - all of which require high degrees of choreography, teamwork and synergy.
Baseball, in reality, is mostly a series of individual match-ups that make up a team sport. Michael Cuddyer was a vocal leader. So was Justin Morneau. Neither one of those guys was able to turn Cole De Vries, P.J. Walters or Liam Hendricks into serviceable big league pitchers. Nor were they able to turn Luke Hughes and Drew Butera into serviceable big league hitters. Just like Puckett's vocal leadership didn't make Frank Viola or Jack Morris great pitchers. They were great with or without Puckett.
That's not to say leadership isn't important. But oftentimes it seems like people give 90% of credit to leadership in situations where 10% will suffice. Not to mention, a .400 on-base percentage is a pretty underrated form of leadership.
Puckett hit the home run in Game 6 because he was an awesome baseball player, not because of brash vocal statements.
Also, Kent Hrbek himself wrote in 2008, "Puck said that ('jump on my back') before every game he ever played. Every time he left the clubhouse he said, 'Jump on my back. I'm driving the bus tonight.' We used to laugh at that. Randy Bush would check the lineup card, see that his name wasn't on it and yell out, 'Jump on my back tonight, guys. I'm driving the bus.' I'd say, 'I don't want anyone on my back tonight, because I'm too fat and I'm too sore.' We'd all laugh at that stuff, including Puck. But then it became part of Puck's legend. And Puck didn't mind being legendary."
So, with all of that said, here's what I mean when I put Mauer's name next to Puckett's:
• People generally overcompensate negatively toward Mauer because of his mysterious 2011 season (and other injuries that have kept him out of the lineup). Puckett played all the time. That said, he also never played catcher, which is a much more physically taxing position.
• Mauer takes heat because he doesn't drive in 100 runs, doesn't score 100 runs and doesn't hit enough home runs. Funny, because Rod Carew never gets ripped for those same things. Neither does Tony Gwynn. Or Paul Molitor. Or Roberto Clemente.
• Puckett was a more vocal leader than Mauer, and Puckett's leadership likely played a role in two World Series-winning teams. But here's where leadership gets blown out of proportion: Mauer's Twins teams have finished below .500 four times in 10 years. Puckett's Twins teams finished below .500 seven times in 12 years. It's interesting how nobody ever talks about leadership when reminiscing about those sub-.500 Twins teams in the 80's and 90's.
• Mauer plays a more premium position. Yes, centerfield is also a premium position. But it's much easier to produce offensively as a centerfielder. That's why it's also unfair to compare Mauer's offense to non-catchers of this era like Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout. There's a reason why only seven catchers in baseball history have managed to hit 300 or more home runs in their career - because producing offense is really, really hard for catchers. Of course, both Mauer and Puckett moved to easier positions (Puckett to right field, Mauer to first base) after about 10 years in the league.
• If we compared Mauer and Puckett to NFL quarterbacks, Mauer, to this point in his career, would be a little like Dan Marino - a ton of regular season success, numbers that put him at or near the top of several positional categories, but no success in the postseason. Puckett would be a little like Terry Bradshaw - nobody will say he's the greatest at his position, but everyone will say he shined when it mattered.
• No catcher since 1940 has a higher batting average or on-base percentage than Mauer. His slugging percentage is 10th over that 73-year stretch.
• For the statistically-inclined, Mauer has already produced 44 Wins Above Replacement, according to Fangraphs. Puckett produced 45.
• Mauer per 162 games: .323/.405/.468... 14 HRs... 87 RBIs... 95 runs
• Puckett per 162 games: .318/.360/.477... 19 HRs... 99 RBIs... 97 runs
• Mauer, career, with two outs and runners in scoring position: .346
• Puckett, career, with two outs and runners in scoring position: .302
• Of course, Puckett has two rings. Mauer has yet to win a playoff series. Or, hell, a playoff game.
Ultimately, both are elite players. Puckett's personality and durability is more endearing to Twins fans, and his postseason heroics are the biggest separator between him and Mauer. But Mauer's career isn't over yet, and one could argue he's entering a potential rejuvenation period.
Who would I take if I had to take only one of them?
Honestly, I'd probably take Puckett -- if for no other reason than to be entertained by his persona during 90-loss seasons.
But it's close. And perception isn't always reality.