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June 17, 2009 at 2:20 am ET
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Can Joe Mauer Bat .400?

Pirates Twins BaseballIt’s been nearly 68 years since the Splendid Splinter batted .406, but despite a hot start and two batting titles, Joe Mauer has more than history working against him.

The position that he plays.

Even with watered down pitching, a strike zone designed to protect hitters and all the battle gear this side of the Stanley Cup finals, no one has been able to bat .400 in nearly seven decades. With all of those advantages, not one player has pulled it off, and no catcher has ever batted better than .362 (Mike Piazza in 1997 and Bill Dickey in 1936). And when one considers what receivers go through, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Catchers haveテつto call games, handle pitchers, squat hundreds of times and withstand foul tipsテつthat ravage their shoulders, knees, hands, feet and arms –テつ every night.テつHaving to endureテつ all of that abuse, how couldテつanyone possibly withstand that beating and still bat .400?

Rod Carew batted .388 in 1977, then George Brett finished with a .390 mark in 1980, and there have been a smattering of .360’s over the years. The closest anyone has come, though, has been Tony Gwynn’s .394 average in the strike-shortened 1994 season. Even during Ichiro’s record-breaking 262-hitテつcampaign of 2004,テつhe only managed to bat .372.テつUnlike Suzuki, however, Mauer takes a lot of pitches, has an almost inhuman ability to work the count into his favor, and draws walks.

Mauer walked 84 times last season, and has already drawn 24 free passes this season. And though it’s only been 42 games, being fortunate enough toテつwatch Mauer play every day, it’s nearly impossible to describe suchテつincredible plate discipline, bat control, and that beautiful swing in a way that could do them justice.テつBut more than that, this much is clearテつ–テつMauer may be out of his mind locked-in at the moment, but even when that focus inevitably slipsテつa bit, it won’t be by much.

Mauer is a .324 career hitter, and has picked up a hit in 36 of the 42 games he’s played thus far this season. In fact, Mauer has collected 20 multiple-hit games after his 4-for-4 night on Tuesday against the Pirates, which brought his average to .429 on the year.

Mauer currently has a nine-game hitting streak, but has also had streaks of six and 14 games this season. He has already tied his career best mark for home runs with 13, and has done so in 98 fewer games that it tookテつ to accumulate thatテつtotal in 2006.

Most important to Mauer’s quest, however are two critical factors — Denard Span and Justin Morneau.

Firstly, Span is batting .291 with an on-base percentage of .384 in front of Mauer in the lead-off spot, and Morneau is enjoying another MVP-caliber season with a .329 average, 16 homers, 55 RBI and a .402 on-base percentage batting behind Mauer.

Put another way, Mauer is going to come to the plate with runners on base, and there isn’t a pitcher alive that wants to face Morneau with ducks on the pond, so Mauer is going to get pitches to hit.

Which translates to knocks. And lots of them.

And while Detroit, Kansas City and the White Sox have the second, third and fourth-best team ERAs in the American League, Cleveland ranks dead last and Mauer sports a .318 career average against his AL Central opponents. And he’s batting .328 against lefties. And there are only 96 games remaining on the schedule.

So, can a catcher bat .400? Can Mauer bat .400?

Mauer is not immune toテつthe aches and painsテつthat come along with donning the tools of ignorance. Mauer missed most of his rookie season of ’04, some time in 2007, and the first month of this season. So staying healthy may be the only thing that could slow the game’s best catcher.

While David Pinto from Baseball Musings breaks it down more scientifically, there was a time when no catcher had won an American League batting title, and now Mauer has two. History tells us, though that no player, let alone a catcher will bat .400 ever again.

Toward the conclusion of the 2008 season, Jayson Stark wrote that he had a new rule in life — “Never, ever count out the Twins.”

Well, Mauer plays for the Twins, so the best advice I can offer is simple:

Don’t bet against him.

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