Joe Mauer is not only the Most Valuable Player in the American League, he is also the best player in the AL.
But they only give out the hardware for the MVP, not the best player, which in this case would probably be Best Player in the AL (BPAL). On Monday the Baseball Writers Association of America announced its MVP voting for the AL, and Mauer -- against a truly impressive field -- was the deserving winner. The landslide winner.
Mauer received 27 of 28 first-place votes. The man is 26 years old and he is already historically good. Before Joe Mauer, no AL catcher had ever won a batting title. There have been great catchers, tremendous catchers, Hall of Fame catchers, and none of them had ever finished first in batting average for a single season.
But Joe Mauer has won batting titles in three of the past four seasons. And his numbers keep getting better in all categories. He opened the 2009 season on the disabled list with back problems, but this season became his best work not only hitting for average but for power. He led the league in average at .365, on-base percentage at .444, slugging percentage at .587 and OPS at 1.031.
He was, as these statistics clearly indicate, the AL's best hitter. This season was his breakthrough as a power hitter, his 28 home runs more than doubling his previous best. The lack of power had been the only possible criticism of Mauer, but that issue has evaporated.
And then you factor in the difficulty, the physically and mentally demanding nature of his position, and he graduates to an even higher level. Mauer has won the Gold Glove Award at catcher the past two seasons. At a relatively early stage in his career, he is a superior defensive catcher and an astute handler of pitchers. At this point, you could see him having a Johnny Bench caliber career at catcher, except with a higher batting average.
The Twins staged a stunning late-season run to win the AL Central, finally winning a tiebreaker with the Tigers. During this run, the Twins were without their leading power hitter, first baseman Justin Morneau. If any further evidence of Mauer's worth was needed, this stretch offered definitive proof.
In the BBWAA voting, the only first-place ballot not received by Mauer went to Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera had a nice statistical season, but did not lead the league in any major category. At the end of the season, the Tigers faded out of the playoff picture, and Cabrera was not a part of the solution. His overall finish in the voting -- fourth place -- was a more accurate reflection of his relative worth than that one first-place vote.
The second- and third-place finishers were predictable; two Yankees, first baseman Mark Teixeira and shortstop Derek Jeter, in that order. Teixeira led the AL in RBIs and tied for first in home runs.
Jeter led the Yankees as their captain. This was baseball's best team in both the regular season and the postseason, so Jeter in that sense was as valuable as anybody. But that sort of thing is a subjective judgment, which is the kind of argument the MVP annually offers. From an objective standpoint, the 2009 AL Most Valuable Player was still Joe Mauer.
It is possible that Teixeira and Jeter damaged each other's chances in this voting. This is the kind of thing that can happen when you're playing for the best team in baseball. Still, at the end of the voting, the right result occurred.
It is time now to begin considering Mauer not only along the lines of batting champion and MVP, but in the context of something more like: "It's Joe Mauer -- we're in the presence of greatness."
He had already been named the AL's Outstanding Player in the Players Choice Awards, as well as being named the top player in the AL by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Mauer himself is a suitably modest fellow, but a consensus is forming behind the notion of his greatness.
Winning the MVP can be seen as the ultimate validation of a player's career. In this case, it is probably like one more signpost on the road to a great career.
Of course, Mauer is the AL's Most Valuable Player. In his case, even that seems like a bit of an understatement.