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"I'll tell you how good a hitter he is," Harris says. "He almost never breaks a bat. He changes bats because they wear out, not because they break."
"I've broken a couple," Mauer says. "I don't know the number. Not that many. I try to hold on to them for as long as I can, but yeah, sometimes they fray. I've only broken maybe three or four."
Here's another measure of Mauer's excellence: the checked swing, typically the signal of defeat for a hitter in his one-on-one duel with the pitcher. Hitting is timing, the Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn said, and pitching is disrupting that timing. The checked swing announces the hitter's surrender.
"Maybe five times in four years I've seen him take a checked swing," says bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, a Twins coach for 29 years. "I've seen it only once this year. He's a freak."
The secret to Mauer's success is his serenity, his minimalist movement and emotion. He is the Ben Hogan of hitters, bringing the sweet spot to the hitting area with no extraneous movement. "I think the biggest thing about my swing is I don't have a lot of stuff going on," he says. "Guys have different triggers for timing, and my timing is very simple." As a boy growing up in wintry St. Paul, Mauer pounded balls into a tarpaulin hung in the family garage. His father, Jake Jr., a salesman for a company that designs trophies, rigged up a contraption that would drop the balls through a coffee-can-and-PVC-pipe device, leaving time only for a quick, short stroke. By the time Mauer was a senior at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, his swing was so pure that he made contact nearly every time he swung (he, in fact, struck out only once in high school), though with little power at first.
"My coach, Jim O'Neill, took me out for batting practice one time," Mauer says. "He would just throw and pepper certain spots. And that's when we found out that middle in or middle a little up was my spot. I was consistently hitting balls over the fence.
"So after we were done, all he said was, 'Why don't you look in that spot the next couple of games?' I think I hit seven home runs in the next seven games. I took that and ran with it, not just for hitting home runs but hitting good pitches."
Mauer has grown into such a finicky hitter that he has swung at only nine first pitches in 202 plate appearances this year. He stands at the plate taking mental measurements of how the baseball behaves out of a pitcher's hand. "I just try to see how the ball moves, especially my first at bat," he says. "I always like to see a couple of pitches before I offer at one. I think ever since I can remember I've always felt pretty comfortable with two strikes."
With each strike pitchers jackhammer away at a hitter's leverage. It doesn't work as well with Mauer. Through Sunday, the average major league hitter this year had hit .186 in two-strike counts. Mauer had hit .253 in such spots. "When I get two strikes," he says, "I widen [my stance] a little bit and stay shorter to the ball. When things go bad, I joke with my coaches, 'I'm just going to go straight to my two-strike approach' because I'm comfortable with it. I don't like to get in that situation, but if I do get there, I don't panic or anything."
At 26, a Gold Glove catcher, batting champion, homegrown icon, and now, having closed the last loophole in his game by adding power, Mauer might well be the most valuable asset in baseball. Statistical analysis by the website fangraphs.com estimates that Mauer is giving Minnesota about $38 million worth of annual value this year. (Pujols is worth roughly $39 million according to the site's calculations.) Soon the Twins must put a real dollar figure on his worth. Mauer is scheduled to earn $12.5 million next season, when the Twins open Target Field, their publicly financed outdoor ballpark, after which he will be eligible for free agency. The Red Sox and the Yankees, each playing this year with a 37-year-old catcher and no obvious replacement inside the organization, will likely reenact last winter's bidding war over Mark Teixeira (eight years, $180 million) if the Twins don't sign Mauer to an extension.