Best. Season. Ever?

Yesterday, I talked a little bit about why I don’t really care who baseball writers vote as the AL MVP, because we pretty much all realize it’s Joe Mauer, and it’s not particularly close. In fact, Mauer’s having such a good season that there’s a pretty good chance it will go down as the best season any catcher has ever had in the history of the game.

Mauer is currently hitting .383/.448/.653, good for a .464 wOBA in 415 plate appearances, the best mark in baseball. His +46.5 wRAA is better than any non-Pujols player in baseball, and he missed the month of April. The next best catcher in wRAA this year – Victor Martinez at +15.9, and he’s not really a full-time catcher. Mauer is a catcher hitting like a DH, and that just doesn’t happen very often.

The current standard for best catcher season of all time is probably Mike Piazza’s 1997 campaign. He hit .362/.431/.638 for a .454 wOBA, and because he played almost every day, he racked up 633 plate appearances and a +63.9 wRAA. Mauer’s rate stats are better, but he’s not going to match the counting numbers that Piazza put up thanks to his one month stint on the disabled list.

However, that’s just the offensive side of the game. Piazza wasn’t a defensive asset, even early in his career. Runners advanced 187 bases against Piazza in 1997 (via stolen bases, wild pitches, or passed balls), while he only nailed 45 runners attempting to advance. Mauer’s only had runners take 74 bases on him this year, and while his 16 “kills” aren’t that impressive, his reputation is keeping guys from running at will.

How much does that stuff matter? Well, in 1997, Piazza was rated as a -2 defender by Sean Smith’s catcher defense formula, while Mauer has been +10 or better in each of the last two years. Mauer’s ability to keep guys from running on the bases saves his team runs, and that goes in his ledger as well, to the tune of something like 10 extra runs that Piazza didn’t provide.

Remmeber, Piazza’s lead in wRAA is +17.4, but Mauer makes up most of that with his defensive abilities. As of right now, it’s pretty close to a push between ’97 Piazza and ’09 Mauer, but if Joe keeps hitting in September, he’s going to pull away. This very well could go down as the best season any catcher has ever had.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


74 Responses to “Best. Season. Ever?”

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  1. Joe R says:

    And Teixeira will still win the MVP for his clutchy mcteamister performance, and not just compiling.

    Yay right brained journalistic logic.

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  2. Ezra says:

    Piazza’s season is marred with an asterisk, making Mauer’s season all the more impressive. Way to go, Joe!

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    • B says:

      Now, I dislike PIazza as much as anyone, but when I went to look at his stats on baseball reference, the darndest thing happened. There was no asterisk. Hmmm….

      On another note, Mauer has been outrageously good this year.

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  3. Karl says:

    Let’s see, he leads the AL in OBP, SLG and OPS as well despite missing the first month and not being able to really train in the offseason. I don’t care if the Twins fall apart. Give this man the MVP already.

    Yesterday PTI asked over/under Mauer hits .380 for the season. What do you think?

    Karl Moats
    Writer, FantasySportsAtLunch.com
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  4. joker says:

    Someone forward this to the BBWAA email list.

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  5. fetch says:

    The Twins don’t even deserve Joe Mauer. It’s too bad really.

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  6. Kris says:

    Can we limit our comments to something other than blatant advertisements — it’s really damn annoying. There’s a nice little spot for your url that many people seem to have figured out.

    Either way, Mauer has been destroying the ball and it blows my mind. I would only imagine that offensive stats would trend downward in the last month of the season.

    If someone could look that up, that’d be great. It’d be interesting to know overall catching statistics on a Games 1-50, Games 50-100, Games 100-150 type split. Maybe more specific, split into quartiles or something.

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    • rizzo says:

      I didn’t break his catching games down as specific as you mention. But, even with the sample size caveat, it appears that Super Joe doesn’t wear down:

      In 2008 he caught 137 games and hit .335/.418/.457 while catching. In September he hit .365/.414/.490

      In 2006 he caught 120 games and hit .333/.415/.486 while catching. In September he hit .337/.439/.517

      Full disclosure – he did fade badly in Sept. ’05, but he was only 22 years old. I think (hope?) that ’06 and ’08 suggest he’ll keep on trucking along

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  7. Scottwood says:

    Is Sean Smith’s catcher defense formula available online somewhere?

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  8. aweb says:

    Do you (Dave, other fan graphs writers) have a rough ballpark for what catcher defense would add to a WAR total? What would a +10 catcher add to his WAR total during a season? +1, +2?

    The obvious question is asked because WAR is one of the most featured stats on this website, and a threshold of 9-10 WAR would seem to be a historically great season for any position, and it would be great to be able to rate Mauer on the same scale. As it is, he might approach that on the hitting alone.

    It is stunning seeing anyone, let alone a catcher, raise his average 30 points in August, up from .353. Hitting over .500 for two weeks is a crazy hot streak. I can’t be the only one who figured Ichiro was going to win the batting title once he was 10 points up on August 2nd, but to fall 18 points behind while raising his own average to .365? Unthinkable.

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  9. Antonio says:

    It’s funny Dave. Eno sent us around a roundtable discussion for the rotoexperts forum and I couldn’t but bring up in my response how Mauer is pulling past Piazza’s 1997 campaign. Good stuff, man.

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  10. Derek says:

    It will be a crying shame if he doesn’t win the MVP. If they give it to Teixera I will crap my pants. He isn’t event he best player on his team (Jeter) and he isn’t the best 1B on a contending team (Youkilis). I just don’t get all the Teixera hype.

    Can someone smack the writers across the face?

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    • Joe R says:

      Flowchart for you.

      Yankees aren’t good in 2008 -> Yankees sign Teixeira -> Teixeira plays well -> Yankees are good in 2009.

      This is essentially the simpletonism of the Teixeira for MVP “debate”, while not even giving service to Jeter’s great year, Damon, Cano, and Cabrera’s 2009 rebound, the acquisitions of Burnett, Sabathia, and Swisher, and of course the 6 game “luck margin” over their pythagorean W-L that makes the Yankees seem a lot more ordinary vs. the pack than their record suggests (still the best team though). Like I said before, I can’t understand why it’s such a novel concept to people that a player who only gets 12% of a team’s plate appearances can only help an offense so much and that Teixeira wouldn’t make the Royals a 90 win team through clutchy magic.

      The irony of sportswriters bashing “geeks” is that we both use stats. Difference is, the stats many of them tend to love are the ones tied more to team performance and luck over actual skill. I would harp on Teixeira’s road split, too, but by now everyone knows about it.

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      • joser says:

        Not to mention the utter stupidity of so many who require an MVP to be on a contending team. Because if you are a player having a historically great season but the ace pitcher on your team blows out his shoulder and your team falls out of the pennant race, somehow that makes you less “valuable”. But I guess that is consistent with the over-valuing of stats like RBI and ERA that don’t isolate individual player value/skill, as you say.

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      • Matt says:

        The Yankees are good this year because their entire team kills the ball and they have way better pitching than last year. Plain and simple.

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  11. SM says:

    Piazza had nearly all his plate apperances while at C. Mauer is getting some at DH. How would this translate?

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    • Sky says:

      Apply the position adjustment listed on this site.

      Every game at DH instead of catcher costs about 1/162 * 25 runs or about 1/6 of a run. That’s without including the lost opportunity of contributing defensively beyond the level of an average catcher.

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  12. David A says:

    At least Mauer is a hitter. According to this site Greinke still leads him by half a win in WAR. Assuming that Greinke maintains that lead: what do you think the odds are that the writers will vote for Greinke for AL MVP? That’s right, about zero. Heck, he might not even win the Cy Young.

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  13. Evan says:

    What are you talking about. Catchers often hit like a DH… as long as Jose Vidro is your standard for DH.

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  14. Mike says:

    How come no one ever mentions the fact that Mauer’s HR/FB is like 2.5x his career norm and his BABIP is through the roof?

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    • Big Red Machine says:

      because regardless of how high his BABIP and HR/FB rates are, it doesn’t change the fact that he is having one of the best offensive seasons ever for a catcher; its not counterfeited by a high BABIP or something… piazza’s 1997 was carried by a career high .367 BABIP by the way…

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      • Joe R says:

        I hate when people try to use luck stats as a trump card for this high level of performance.

        (Almost) every MVP season has been accompanied by some sort of flukishly high level of performance. When Ted Williams hit .406, his BABIP was .378. His career BABIP? .329. That diminish Williams’ accomplishment? Not at all in my opinion.

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    • Matt says:

      You look at those stats and discrepancies when you’re trying to determine the player’s underlying skill. They’re useful for projecting future performance.

      You don’t need to project past performance — it already happened. We don’t look back at a season and say, “Player A had a better season than Player B, because A is more skilled.” We look at what they actually did. And what Mauer has actually done this season has been incredible.

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    • Pete says:

      Those stats are used for predicting future performance. If someone has a BABIP of .372 you can realistically expect he won’t maintain that high level indefinately. However, this doesn’t change the fact that what he has already done is impressive.

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  15. Alireza says:

    To be fair to Piazza, his 1997 pitching staff was absolutely awful at holding runners on. Cecil Fielder could have stolen almost at will off Hideo Nomo. Piazza, who caught a disproportionate number of no hitters at a time where catchers still called most of the game, was always underrated for his non-throwing related defense.

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    • DavidRF says:

      Plus, who cared about holding baserunners in 1997? It wasn’t exactly a large portion of the league’s offense.

      This whole argument was manufactured by Pudge fans in the whole I-Rod vs. Piazza debates of the mid-to-late nineties. As much credit as Pudge got for throwing out runners, it was usually pretty easy to beat the Rangers playing station-to-station against their usually-terrible pitching staffs.

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  16. PhillyPhantastico says:

    How long will/should Mauer remain a catcher? Isn’t his bat too valuable to risk in the catcher’s spot long term?

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    • Matt Harms says:

      No, his bat is precisely why you keep him at catcher as long as possible. If you park him at 1B, you lose a lot by way of opportunity costs. Namely, Mauer’s gain over the previous 1B would be dwarfed by the loss in production between Mauer and the replacement C.

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      • Matt says:

        Theoretically, his WAR should remain the same whether he plays C or 1B. That’s why we have the adjustments.

        So if he’s providing the same value above replacement regardless of where he’s playing, shouldn’t you put him somewhere where you think you can keep him healthy longer?

        There’s no opportunity cost here. 1 WAR is 1 WAR, whether it comes at 1B or C or CF or any other position. And in theory, it should cost the same on the market.

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      • Matt Harms says:

        I know this argument has been hashed out here before, but the value of WAR isn’t/shouldn’t be linear as you go from 0-1 WAR to 1-2 WAR, etc. IE, 2 players at +2 WAR don’t cost the same as a single +4 WAR player because of scarcity. There aren’t nearly as many +4 WAR players out there as there are +2. And ultimately, it’s much easier to find a +X WAR player who can play at 1B than it is to find one who can play C.

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      • Joe R says:

        The assumption on that theory is that he’d be a +15-20 defender at 1st base (I add some runs because of his defensive reputation). Tall task.

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      • Matt says:

        Matt Harms, can you please direct me to where this has been hashed out? Everything I have read on this site has led me to believe that there is no premium for a player as his WAR increases, and that in fact teams pay linearly for player value.

        Joe R, that is exactly the assumption one makes if one accepts positional adjustments.

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      • Matt Harms says:

        The discussion on linear vs. non-linear WAR payments been done in the comments to various posts in the past. But what some readers have said (and I tend to agree) is that as you go from a 3 WAR player to a 4 WAR player to a 5 WAR player, scarcity demands that each successive unit of WAR would demand a higher value than the previous unit of WAR.

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      • B says:

        “Theoretically, his WAR should remain the same whether he plays C or 1B. That’s why we have the adjustments.”

        I’m not sure I follow or believe this. Mauer moving to first will greatly decrease his positional adjustment value (about 25 runs or so I think off the top of my head). Why is it assumed he will make up for that in other ways (it would have to be defense, right)? Furthermore, why is it assumed that a player of production X will be worth the same WAR no matter what position he plays, I don’t see any reason replacement players at different positions should form an equal baseline (which would have to be true for WAR to be equal). Unless I’m missing something here, I don’t think that’s supposed to hold true…

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      • joser says:

        Positional adjustments help you compare players. They don’t help you create rosters.

        Positional adjustments allow us to trade off offense and defense (runs scored vs runs prevented, though the latter is a little iffy for catchers) and to make comparisons between players at different positions. And they allow us to estimate the theoretical merit of moving a player to a different position. But having moved that player in the real world, we have a hole to fill. That hole has to be filled by somebody. And in the case of moving Mauer from catcher, that somebody almost certainly will be less valuable than Mauer is, You have to look at the total value of the entire roster with Mauer in each of those two positions, and with the substitutes in the others.

        Put another way: suppose you were assembling an all-world team, and you could put Mauer behind the plate and Pujols at first. Or you could put Mauer at first and leave Pujols off the team, because Pujols can’t be a catcher. There’s a much bigger pool of replacement players for any position other than catcher. Just about anybody can play first base; any player that can swing a bat can DH. But catchers are scarce, and that scarcity matters when you’re trying to put together a team.

        Now, should the Twins try to preserve Mauer’s health by moving him to another position? Why do that before it is necessary? Catchers don’t spontaneously combust or turn into pumpkins. You move him to another position when he can’t catch any longer. Why do it sooner? You’re making the team worse by moving him before you have to, and to what end? To forestall the day when… what, you make the team worse by moving him? You’ve already done that!

        Yes, there’s probably a case to be made for having him DH more once the Twins are out of the postseason hunt, to increase the odds of having him around in a season when the team actually is in the hunt. But moving him prematurely just reduces the chance of being in the hunt in the first place. And while the Twins might be lengthening his career, what certainty do they have that those extra years would be ones he plays in a Twins uniform?

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      • Joe R says:

        You can’t assume Mauer would be as valuable at first. It’s not like he’d move there and magically become a way above average 1B. While it is an “easy” position, there’s still a skill set attached to it, one that is different from catching. For all we know, he could be a run of the mill 1B and crush his value.

        Positional adjustments are meant to compare apples to oranges, or position to position. They’re not designed to tell you what kind of 3rd baseman a center fielder would be.

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  17. jb says:

    matt- you have to look at who he is replacing. i don’t think you would argue that moving mauer to first, giving morneau the boot, and making mike redmond the everyday catcher would be a good move. it’s not about his WAR, it’s about the WAR of the guy he is replacing vs. the guy that is replacing him.

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    • Matt Harms says:

      Exactly.

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      • Matt says:

        My point was that the actual value that Joe Mauer provides is the same (again, in theory) regardless of what position he plays. If the Twins already have a good 1B that they can’t realistically move, then put him at 3rd, or the outfield. The argument is the same. There is no inherent value added because of opportunity costs or anything else due to his being a catcher. All of it has (again, in theory) been accounted for in WAR.

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      • Matt Harms says:

        You’re not understanding what we’re saying. While Mauer’s value stays the same, you also need to look at the values of the 1B Mauer is forcing to the bench as well as the new catcher. That’s the opportunity cost.

        Mauer is so far ahead of every other catcher in the game, that you’d lose that positional advantage when he shifts to 1B, because some POS catcher is probably going to be forced to take his place.

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      • Matt says:

        I am understanding what you’re saying, and I’m agreeing that it’s obvious that Mauer would never force Morneau to the bench.

        A replacement level player is a replacement level player (about 2 wins below average), whether he’s at catcher, first, third, the outfield, whatever. He should cost the same and be as easy to find no matter what position you need him to play. And the same with 1 WAR player, or a 2 WAR player, and so on.

        While a team always has to consider what pieces they already have in place, there is nothing *inherent* about changing Mauer’s position that would cost the team value. You’re implying that, supposing Morneau just disappeared tomorrow, it would be harder to find value at catcher than at first, so Mauer should stay at catcher. I disagree for all of the reasons I’ve already stated.

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      • P says:

        Matt: Wouldn’t the positional adjustment of WAR come into play? If you have a replacement level catcher and a replacement level first baseman that Mauer can replace, then Mauer is worth more at catcher because of the positional adjustment his WAR numbers would get. His hitting WAR would be the same, unadjusted, but that’s why the positional adjustments are there.

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      • B says:

        So I’ve been looking hard for an explanation, and I still don’t see why a player moving positions should have an equal WAR. Not only does the math not seem to work out, but the theoretical reason for it doesn’t make any sense to me, either. Essentially the talent level at each position has to be equal for this to be true (so the replacement level baseline is the same), and I don’t see any reason why it should be equal. Pretty much everyone can play 1B. Not that many people can play SS. Their overall talent should not only be different in terms of relative skills (how good they are offensively vs. defensively), but it should sum up to something different. Can someone who believes a players value stays the same when they move positions please explain why they think this should be true? I still don’t see any reason for this.

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    • John says:

      There are 15 1b with 3+ WAR. There are 4 catchers. You can find almost anyone to play a decent 1b, only a handful of teams can find just a simply good catcher.

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  18. terry nau says:

    I nominate Bill Dickey’s 1936 season when he hit .362 for the Yankees with all kinds of other gaudy numbers. The 1930s were certainly a hitters’ era but Dickey raked and he was great behind the plate. Had a 1.045 OPS in 1936 with 22 HRs and 107 RBI in 112 games. .428 OBP and .617 slugging pct. Like Mauer, he was a little bit injury-prone during his career.

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  19. Alex says:

    Mauer is on pace right now to break the modern catchers record in BA, SLG, OPS, OPS+, and I assume wOBA as well. He’s also playing gold glove defense. His WAR, not even including his great defense behind the plate, is tops in the big leagues, despite missing a month. I’ll take this year over any other.

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  20. Ben says:

    No love for Johnny Bench? Bench 1972 seems to be clearly above any season by Piazza or Mauer.

    Baseball Prospectus has Bench 1972 as 13.7 WARP3, which is far above either Piazza 1997 (10.7) or Joe Mauer 2009 (10.8). Bench’s hitting was slightly inferior but his fielding was off the charts.

    Looking at the FRAA stats on Baseball Prospectus, the fielding difference between Bench and Mauer is larger than the difference between Mauer and Piazza.

    No runs, no drips, no errors.

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    • Joe R says:

      Any legitimacy to the point that FRAA (and UZR for that matter) can be affected as much by your own talent as the quality of players around you? I know back in 1972, teams loved running their way out of innings (to a tune of 37.24% caught stealing in the NL), and that the defensive value of catchers now is higher than 37 years ago, hurting Mauer’s defensive rate stat vs. Bench’s?

      Just a thought.

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  21. 1972 Bench is the standard, not the short-porch flukey Dickey 1936 season. JB’s 40 HR and 125 RBI came in a season in which runs were quite scarce. If you check out Adjusted OPS+ it is obvious that Bench was about as effective as Dickey and not just a better defender. Plus Dickey hit 67% of his dingers at home. Take Dickey away from Yankee Stadium and he was comparatively ordinary. Bench hit exactly one more homer at home versus on the road.

    Piazza was of course of great value for his bat but was never a particularly useful defensive catcher, unlike Bench. Pudge has been close to Bench defensively but his batting average-dependent offense was never as effective. Rodriguez played much of his career in a run-rich hitter’s paradise. Offense and defense are leveling back out now.

    Mauer is finally a catcher who truly is worth comparing to Bench. He is early in his career and a dominant offensive force, just as Bench was albeit in differing categories early in Johnny’s career. Mauer may well surpass Yogi Berra as the best AL catcher of all time when all is said and done. He is off to a great start.

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  22. Wha whaa whaAa says:

    Well I didn’t make it through all the comments so I don’t know if this point has been brought up. But Tex stats are close to his last year, minus more HRs in the Yankee jet streams. I guess the argument is he played for two different teams so he was ineligible. Tex< Mauer

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  23. bob gould says:

    Mauer definitely deserves to be MVP. But his is not the best season by a catcher. Someone else mentioned Johnny Bench. Let me add Roy Campanella who hit .312 w 41 home runs and 142 rbis in 1953. Unlike Piazza, he was regarded as one of the best defensive catchers there was.

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    • JP says:

      These are the DT slash stats for some of these seasons

      Campy 1953: .296 / .377 / .617 (+15 FRAA)
      Mauer 2009: .381 / .454 / .669 (+5 FRAA)
      Bench 1972: .298 / .410 / .664 (+27 FRAA)
      Piazza 1997: .372 / .441 / .707 (-7 FRAA)
      Dickey 1936: .321 / .382 / .617 (+3 FRAA)

      Campy isn’t within 50 pts. on any of the slash-stats.
      I think that Bench’s edge in D washes with Mauer’s edge in OBP.
      Based on this, I’d rank the five seasons:

      T1 – Bench 1972 and Mauer 2009
      3 – Piazza 1997
      4 – Campy 1953
      5 – Dickey 1936

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  24. JP says:

    To lose a playoff spot, the Yankees would need to drop below Boston and Texas. They are 8 games ahead of Texas. Teixeira has a WAR of 3.9. The alternative would be moving Swisher to first and having an outfield of Damon, Cabrera, Gardner, with Hairston as the fourth OF. I can’t see how this configuration would cost the Yankees over 3-4 wins over the season.

    EVEN WITHOUT TEIXEIRA, THE YANKEES ARE EASILY IN THE PLAYOFFS!!!!

    So, with neither Mauer (cuz the rest of his team isn’t good enough) or Teixeira (cuz the rest of his team could get to the playoffs without him) having any real impact on a playoff race, how can ANYONE justify Teixeira as MVP???

    IF the BBWAA chooses Teixeira, it will be the biggest joke since Jesse Haines got into the Hall of Fame!

    and i’m a yankee fan

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    • Don says:

      Im a stad head myself, but if you think Teix has only been worth 3.9 extra wins to the Yankees, then you havent been watching close enough.

      Stats give us a lot of details, but they don’t make up for what you see with your eyes. Mauer started his season on May 1st yes, and what he has accomplished is impressive however…

      The fact is the Twins were 0.5 game out of 1st place on April 30th and are 4 games under .500 since Mauer returned. Is it a direct correlation, no it isnt, but it also means that Mauer is the difference between the Twins being 4 under .500 and 10 under .500.

      Either way, the Twinkies are not making the playoffs.

      My vote is for Derek Jeter. He shall not be denied by an undeserving Twinkie again ala Justin Morneau in 2006.

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      • Ben says:

        I listen to almost every Yankee game on the radio. You routinely hear Sterling (Yankees announcer) say stuff like, “Oh, he makes a fantastic play every night! He has saved at least 10 wins with his glove alone this year. His presence in the infield has transformed the team.”

        What flows from this:
        I think a big part of the reason Yankee followers are so hepped up on Teixeira is due to a) the perceived value of his defense and b) the intangible “leadership” qualities that flow from being the new captain of the diamond on defense. I believe that most of (a) comes from the relative comparison to Giambi (-18 FRAA in 2008). In comparison to Giambi, Teixeira really does look like a defensive god. Add in the fact that many people, like Sterling, tend to dramatically overestimate the impact of defense at first base.

        So combine the overweighting of Teixeira’s defensive prowess (puffed up by relative comparisons to Giambi), pretty offensive counting stats, an All-American image, and you get the the magic winning combo for MVP, deserving or not.

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  25. Kris says:

    Some of the arguments are amusing, quite amusing.

    Whenever we deal with statistics, we lose something. We try our best to quantify everything as best as we can, but we’ll never understand certain dynamics within baseball.

    I’m not saying the Baseball Writers of America have any better idea of these dynamics, but there’s no doubting that they have access to more information. They have access to all the statistics that you and I do, plus all of the first-hand information that beat writers have access to. Of course, a large percentage of ‘em don’t use the information but rather abide by the “I know a good baseball player when I see one” mantra.

    Either way, when you say most valuable it’s so subjective that anyone could win it. Making the playoffs is incredibly valuable, but how much does that count?

    There are just too many variables, half of which we cannot even attempt to measure.

    I think it’d be interesting to do a calculation for who’s worth the most money based on home ticket sales, home jersey sales, season income, playoff income, road ticket sales, etc etc.

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