For Unto Us a Batting Champ Is Born

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for mauer.jpgHe has two batting titles.  He has a Gold Glove. He has his own theme song.  And since today is his 26th birthday, I’m going to make the case that Joe Mauer might be, if not the best, certainly one of the most irreplaceable players in any position in the league.

Mauer has consistently ranked near the top of the league in two of the best measurements of a player’s value to his organization:  VORP and Runs Above Average.  Last season, Mauer was fourth in the league in VORP, and his 43.0 RAA was the best for a catcher in either league.  He’s also ranked in the top five pretty consistently throughout his career, with his worst year coming in 2007, when he was limited to 109 games due to injury.  However, the problem with both VORP and RAA as statistical measures is that they both weigh each plate appearance exactly the same.  For example, a solo homer when the team is up (or down) by ten runs is equal to a walk-off home run, when one clearly affects the outcome of a game more than the other.  Thankfully, we also have Win Probability Added, which takes such things into account.  Last season, Mauer’s 4.88 raw WPA led the entire league, and once again, he ranks near the top pretty consistently. 

Of course, one of the biggest problems with all of those metrics is that they only measure offense and fail to account for a player’s defensive contributions. While there are some pretty good metrics for evaluating defense, each have their own limitations and there is little consensus as to which metric is really the most accurate.  Basically, all of these defensive metrics attempt to measure a position player’s defensive contributions by determining how many runs per game he saves, and despite their limitations, they are pretty good at evaluating defense for most position players.  Except for catcher, that is.  Since so much of a catcher’s defense depends upon the pitcher, it’s really difficult to determine just how many runs per game a catcher actually saves.  But it’s interesting to note that, whichever metric you use, Mauer once again consistently comes out near the top for catchers, and a good case could be made that he is one of the best defensive players at any position in baseball.  He is also very good at throwing out baserunners (about 36% of them), though he isn’t the best in the league.  I sometimes wonder if his reputation sort of precedes him and guys are simply less likely to run on him in the first place, which in and of itself might be more valuable than his actual ability to throw runners out.

It is often argued that Mauer isn’t that great of a hitter since doesn’t have much power, and since he only has 44 career home runs, one might be inclined to agree.  However, when you dig a bit deeper into his career numbers, it appears that he does have more power than a lot of people tend to think.  While his .457 career slugging percentage isn’t exactly a Pujolsian .624, he’s hardly the crappy singles hitter his critics make him out to be.  Mauer has a career OPS+ of 128, and has had an OPS+ of 130 or better three times in his career (137 in 2004 and 2008, and 144 in 2006, the year he won his first batting title).  In comparison, Justin Morneau (who is often considered the most dangerous hitter on the team), has a higher career slugging percentage of .499, but a lower OPS+ of 122 and has actually never had an OPS+ as high as Mauer in any of his seven major league seasons.

One has to wonder why Joe Mauer is so consistently overlooked as an MVP candidate, even though he puts up better numbers than anyone else on the team (and most of the league, especially when adjusted for position) and is arguably one of the best defensive catchers in baseball.  Justin Morneau is often considered the most dangerous hitter in the lineup, but other than his power numbers, Morny isn’t significantly better than Mauer in most offensive categories (he’s actually a bit worse in some of them). And while Morny is certainly a very good hitter, his career numbers are actually pretty average for a first baseman.  This is an issue that has been explored in depth by other, smarter Twins bloggers (and Joe Posnanski), so I’m not going to go into much detail on the subject.  I tend to think that voters (and opposing teams) are dazzled by Morneau’s raw power and all of the RBI he racks up and tend to undervalue Mauer’s ability to simply put the ball in play with runners in scoring position.

The Twins have Joe Mauer locked up until after the 2010 season, and there is a lot of debate among fans as to whether or not it would be worth the estimated $150 million to keep him.  Although Mauer is much more durable than people give him credit for, he plays a physically  demanding position and doesn’t have the greatest health history.  He missed much of his rookie season with knee surgery, missed most of 2007 with leg problems, and so far has missed the first few weeks of this season with back problems.  Having said all that, I do think the Twins would be wise to extend Mauer’s contract.  Yes, it’s a lot of money for a small-budget team to risk on a player with his health history, but his bat has been so invaluable in the lineup that I think it is a risk worth taking.  Even if the Twins end up moving him to a position where he would be less injury-prone, like third base, Mauer is athletic enough that he should make the transition successfully.  And though a 3B who hits .317/.399/.457 certainly isn’t as valuable as a catcher who does, it’s possible that Mauer’s power numbers might improve if he were in a less physically demanding position.  But there’s also the distinct possibility that, with the move into the outdoor stadium, his health will no longer be such an issue.  Either way, signing Mauer to a long-term contract would be in the best interest of the organization.

  • There’s the Kevin Slowey we know and love: Twins defeat Angels 9-2

kev_slowey.jpgKevin Slowey rebounded from his awful first couple of starts, in which he gave up ten earned runs on twenty-three hits in 11.1 innings.  Slowey was coming off of his worst start of the season on Monday night, when the Blue Jays smacked him around for five earned runs on thirteen hits in 5.1 innings.  Other than one mistake to Torii Hunter in the second, Slowey managed to shut down the Angels for seven innings, giving up just two earned runs on six hits and striking out five.  Of course, it helps that the offense managed to provide some much-needed run support, b
eating up the Angels’ bullpen for nine runs in two innings.

And um, I guess until the pitching staff has a game like this one, maybe I should stop complaining about them so much.  Yikes.

Jason Kubel had another good night at the plate, going 4-for-5 with a double and 2 RBI.  This is his second consecutive four-hit game, and the first time a Twin has had back-to-back four hit games since Mauer did it against the Dodgers in 2006.     

Lefty reliever Craig Breslow continued to struggle with his command, walking the first batter he faced, but settled down and pitched effectively enough to keep the Angels of the scoreboard in the eighth.  Juan Morillo made his debut with the Twins in the ninth, and his 94 mph was as good as advertised.  Morillo has been working with pitching coach Rick Anderson on his command, and whether or not he’s put his control issues behind him is still a huge question, but he certainly wasn’t having any problems finding the strike zone last night.  He retired the first two batters he faced before giving up a harmless single to Juan Rivera. 

Oh, and as much as I love both baseball and hockey, even I think that this is an abomination.

9 Comments

I’m with you – the jersey is wrong on so many levels. Thankfully the Boston fans have never stooped that low. You make a convincing case for Mauer – but with his risk of injuries you have to wonder if the Twins will be willing to risk that amount of money.

Julia
http://werbiefitz.mlblogs.com/

Erin,
It’s guys like Mauer who should be winning the MVP because he is so irreplaceable. From what I have heard from you, he seems like a very important part of the team. I would love to have him as a catcher, but the health risks would make me a bit hesitant. I hope he can play more games consistently.
Not to say that Pedroia should not have won the MVP ;) I can’t complain about that.
Elizabeth
http://redsoxgirl46.mlblogs.com

Julia,Well, I know Red Sox fans are hoping they won’t ;) Owner Jim Pohlad has expressed a desire to keep Mauer, and the Twins are actually in a good position to increase payroll. And Joe has expressed a desire to stay with the Twins. Certainly the Twins would be justified in letting him go considering his injury history, but I guess I would be a little surprised if they did.Elizabeth,Pedroia was a good choice for MVP, and I certainly wouldn’t argue with the voters in this case. I just find it baffling that the voters consistently put Morneau ahead of Mauer, when Morny isn’t even the best player on the team. I’m not knocking Morneau, he’s certainly an outstanding hitter and a good first baseman, but his numbers aren’t that great compared to other 1Bs in the league.

Mauer is one in a million. You could use him right about uh… two weeks ago? Who is this Kubel guy? (just kidding, hahaha) Nice to see the real Slowey show up this time or is that the fake Slowey? Time will tell. Gotta kick out of that jersey foul link. Thanks! (personally, I like the Roy-ker #33 frankenjersey)
–Jeff
http://redstatebluestate.mlblogs.com/

If I’m the Twins ownership, I’m doing whatever it takes to keep Mauer. They have a new stadium. They have a guy who, as you say, is MVP caliber. Yes, he’s been injured, but is there a player who’s completely free of risk? I’d go for it. But then I’m a fan of those big, bad, free-spending Yankees. :)

http://janeheller.mlblogs.com

Jeff,Well, Slowey is a flyball pitcher so he will get hit, but he shouldn’t be that bad. And as bad as the Royker frankenjersey was, it’s still not as bad as the ‘McLoven 69′, only because ‘McLovin’ is spelled wrong.Jane,I guess I’d be a little surprised if the Twins didn’t end up signing Mauer. Owner Jim Pohlad has expressed a desire to keep him, Mauer himself has expressed a desire to stay, and as long as they don’t insult him with an extremely low offer, he probably will. And with the new ballpark, the organization will have the revenue available to increase payroll. Really, if the Twins want to be anything more than AL Central contenders, if they really want to compete for a championship, they are going to have to invest in the team. And extending Mauer would be a good start.

I am still glad he did not become a college quarterback and play for those cheating Florida State Seminoles. Can you tell I am a Florida grad. lol
I will put him high on the list of today’s top players, but I might not go that high as to anoint him until he has a few more years under his belt.
No matter what, he will be a Hall of Famer if he stays consistent.

Rays Renegade

http://raysrenegade.mlblogs.com

I really like Joe Mauer but I still think Grady deserves the MVP every year. I would also consider myself sort of biased.
I agree with you about signing him to a long-term contract though. The Twins should lock him up.
Melissa
http://clemsongirlbaseball.mlblogs.com

Rays Renegade,True, it remains to be seen if Joe will be healthy enough to consistently put up HOF numbers. But I think that he will. And I will withhold judgement on FSU and it’s academic cheating scandal since I will probably end up going to a school (Minnesota) that has had a few of its own over the years.Melissa,Grady Sizemore wouldn’t be a terrible choice for MVP, either. I was just pointing out that Morneau is often considered MVP-worthy when he isn’t even the best player on the team. Poor Joe will probably never get the recognition he deserves, unless he kills Morny. Or signs with the Red Sox.

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