by: Matt Carlin – December 14th, 2018
The Twins – White Sox game on September 30th was a well deserved farewell to a fantastic player, and by all accounts a better person, in Joe Mauer. After seeing the pregame celebration and his signature opposite field stroke, I felt the day could not be a better representation of how much Mauer meant to the Twins and baseball in general. However, seeing Mauer don the tools of ignorance one last time was the perfect albeit bittersweet send off for the hometown hero. While we have five years to debate his Hall of Fame candidacy (and he clearly will have no issues with the infamous character clause), I could not help but become fascinated with the complex case brought on by his move to first base.
Joe Mauer was drafted first overall out of a St. Paul High School by the Minnesota Twins in 2001, forgoing a football scholarship to Florida State. He made his major league debut behind the plate in 2004, and established himself as one of the top catchers in the game shortly thereafter. As a catcher, Mauer posted a 124 wRC+ over ten seasons. His best offensive season came in 2009, where he slashed .365/.444/.587 with a career high 28 home runs, good for the 2nd highest wRC+ season ever for a catcher. For this campaign, Mauer was named American League MVP and rewarded with an eight year $184 million contract extension. Additionally, he was a six time all star, five time silver slugger, three time gold glove winner, and is the only catcher to win three batting titles – all accolades that appear to be heavily weighted by the BBWAA in their Hall of Fame voting process.
In order to preserve health both during and long after his career, Mauer transitioned to first base/DH prior to the 2014 season. While Mauer was a fine defender at first base, he slashed .279/.359/.387 with 102 wRC+ from 2014-2018, numbers much closer to league average than Cooperstown. After a resurgent 2017 season, many publications around the game began to debate the impact of Mauer’s move to first base on his overall Hall of Fame chances. While general consensus appeared to peg Mauer as a victim of the “peak vs longevity debate,” could it be possible he was simply too good behind the plate to keep out?
As a whole, the Baseball Hall of Fame election process has not been kind to catchers (18 total including Negro League selections). Only Third Baseman (17 total including Negro League selections) are less represented in the Hall. In order to compare catchers across eras, as well as analyze Mauer’s overall HOF worthiness, I used Jay Jaffe’s Jaffe WAR Score System (JAWS). JAWS is an average of a player’s career WAR averaged with their seven year peak WAR. Positional averages are standardized to match the highest total players per position (currently 24 Right fielders), and players are listed at the position for which they accumulated the most value.
The above graph represents catchers currently in the Hall of Fame by JAWS score (overall catcher ranking in parenthesis). In order to fully demonstrate how historically good Mauer was behind the plate, I have included Buster Posey and Yadier Molina as two active catchers widely viewed with inside track Hall of Fame chances. With the seventh highest JAWS score, Mauer is the only catcher inside the top 10 not currently elected (Just behind Yogi Berra). Additionally, his 7 year peak bWAR of 39.0 is the fifth highest accumulated by a catcher. Further exploring Mauer’s performance as a catcher, I looked to use aging curves to compare Mauer’s offensive peak to similar players.
As described in Analyzing Baseball Data with R, a players’ peak is most likely around his age 27-30 season. Coincidentally, Mauer moved to First Base full time after his age 30 season, noted with a dashed line in the above graphs. For Mauer’s aging curve, we can see a trend of historically good seasons early, and a steady decline expedited due to injuries and their lingering effects. While his production and Hall of Fame chances took a dive with the move to first base, by similarity score, Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey were the most similar players. Additionally, when compared to league wide wOBA Mauer is consistently well above league average. By no means am I advocating for induction based off of the premise of “what ifs,” I believe that as evidenced above, the body of work for the 10 years Joe Mauer spent behind the plate are worthy of induction.
While the lifelong Twin has at least five years for the BBWAA to determine his fate, Mauer the first baseman should not prohibit us from fully analyzing the case of Mauer the catcher. In its most simplest form, I believe the Hall of Fame is best viewed as a collection of “the top players at a given position in their respective era, compared to the top players of all time,” and Joe Mauer stacks up with those who primarily played behind the dish. One limitation of the scope of my research was a way to truly assess how the Hall quantifies catcher defense. For example, when comparing him to Yadier Molina, although Mauer is far superior offensively and was a solid defender, Yadi is viewed as a surefire Hall of Famer largely due to his reputation as an elite reciever. While not perfect, Baseball Prospectus uses adjusted FRAA as a way to quantify the entire defensive contributions of a catcher. Joe Mauer’s highest adjusted FRAA season was 18.3 in 2006, a number eclipsed by Yadier Molina eight times.
From Sandy Koufax to Kirby Puckett, the Hall of Fame is filled with players who had shorter than desired peaks and overall careers. Unfortunately for Mauer, the Hall also has not been kind to catchers who had careers altered by injury such as Joe Torre (the player) and Ted Simmons or tragically cut short such as Thurman Munson. However, as mentioned, I believe the strength of Mauer’s peak as well as the narrative surrounding his career (hometown team, exceptional character, well respected) will eventually warrant enshrinement in Cooperstown.
Well played Mauer.
Cover Photo credit to pennlive.com
Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus