MINNEAPOLIS — As soon as the ball left the bat, Joe Mauer took off running.
As Mauer stood on first base with one out in the first inning, Justin Morneau sent a drive to left center field in Saturday’s game against Kansas City. Royals center fielder Jarrod Dyson looked like he might have a play on the ball, but Mauer read it perfectly. The ball was just out of reach for Dyson and Mauer kept running — and almost ran into teammate Brian Dozier, who was on second base when the play started.
It wasn’t because Dozier made the wrong read; he did the right thing by waiting at second base. The fact that Mauer ended up right on Dozier’s heels was a testament to Mauer’s instincts as a base runner.
“I’ve said this quite a few times: I think Joe Mauer’s the best base runner we have,” said Twins general manager Terry Ryan. “He’s instinctual. He doesn’t have any fear. He really cuts bases well. He’s probably the fastest catcher in the American League.”
Mauer has often been lauded for his ability to hit for a high average (three-time batting champion) as well as his defense behind the plate (three Gold Glove awards in his collection). But Mauer’s knack for base running often goes unnoticed or unheralded.
Sure, Mauer may never lead the league — or even his own team — in stolen bases. His career high for steals was 13 back in 2005, and he hasn’t stolen more than eight in a year since then. He has yet to swipe a base in 74 games in 2013. But it’s not about speed that makes Mauer a deft base runner.
It’s his ability to read the ball off the bat, like he did Saturday on Morneau’s double. It’s his aggressiveness going from first to third on a base hit to the outfield. It’s his awareness of the opposing fielders’ strengths and weaknesses and how to best exploit them.
The St. Paul native learned a bit about base running from another St. Paul native who was known for his ability to run the bases. Mauer has picked the brain of Paul Molitor over the years, working with the Hall of Famer during base running drills in spring training.
“That’s where I’ve learned a lot from,” Mauer said of Molitor. “In spring training he holds court down there and base running stations, things like that. It’s amazing a lot of the little things you can pick up throughout a game, small things that can make a big difference in a game.”
Mauer gets on base more than most players — he led the league with a .416 on-base percentage last year and was getting on base at a .409 clip prior to Sunday. That means he’s also running the base more than most.
Despite that, he rarely makes a bad out on the bases. If he takes a risk by trying to take an extra base, it’s a calculated one.
“Instinctually, he’s really, really good,” said Twins third base coach Joe Vavra. “He’s not going to make too many mistakes on the base paths. That’s critical. He’s got good speed; it’s deceptive speed. Once underway, he runs well with everybody. He’s a great athlete out there. There aren’t too many things he can’t do good.”
Earlier this month in a game against the White Sox, Mauer lined a double to right field. As he hustled around first base, Mauer knew there might be a play at second so he slid into the base. There was something unusual about the slide, though: he went in headfirst.
It’s something Mauer has rarely done in his career, instead opting to slide feet first almost every time. But for whatever reason, he changed things up on this particular slide.
“I was joking with the guys, I was like, ‘Ah, I don’t know if I’ll be doing that a whole lot,'” Mauer said. “I think in that particular moment, I think my head was moving faster than my legs. A little sore, just trying to get there. Obviously, too, knowing where the ball is, trying to avoid the tag, things like that. I don’t know if I’m going to be doing that a whole lot more.”
Mauer says he’s picked up base running habits from years of playing, especially his time in pro ball since the Twins drafted him No. 1 overall in 2001. But much like Mauer’s smooth swing, which seems to come naturally, so too does his ability to run the bases.
“I think that comes God given,” Ryan said. “Playing the game as a youth and always being around the game, you do develop feel for some of those things. But if it was that easy, there would be a lot more of it. We all watch base running and we all watch run downs and we all watch execution. It doesn’t happen as easy as he makes it look.”