Joe Mauer, First-Tier First Baseman

One of the most remarkable things about the Internet is the speed with which news finds its way to updated Wikipedia pages. Even during the MLB playoffs, you can usually find notes about player achievements or umpire errors within a matter of minutes. MLB.com does not operate like Wikipedia, in that not just anyone can go in and change things around. But there is one similarity, in that here’s a screenshot of part of the Twins’ official roster from earlier Monday:

twins1

Somebody’s conspicuously absent. Let’s scroll down just a bit:

twins2

Monday, the Twins announced that Joe Mauer will be transitioning from catcher to first base full-time. The statement is effective immediately, and it took no time at all for the Twins’ site to update itself, with Mauer joining a new group of peers. Depending on how you feel about Josmil Pinto, the Twins are now in real need of finding some help behind the plate, but this isn’t a decision founded upon short-term team need. This is a blend, of what’s best for the Twins, and of what’s best for Joe Mauer.

Mauer, as you can see right there, is officially 6-foot-5. This puts him in a tie for the tallest catcher in big-league history, and for that reason there’s been talk of him not remaining behind the plate since before he even got drafted. Many have expressed skepticism that tall catchers can deal with the physical responsibilities and rigors of catching, and Mauer himself has been through his share of injury scares. Now he’s moving permanently before his 31st birthday. But Mauer has caught 8,000 innings in the majors. He remained a catcher for a while, and he was a pretty good one. This is less validation for skeptics, and more a response to a concussion that could’ve happened to anybody.

Just for fun, here’s a Mauer note from 2001:

“And he should stay behind the plate for a long time. But if he ever moves to first base, he’s a Gold Glove first baseman. That’s how talented he is.”

Joe Sheehan touched on the possibility of Mauer moving back in 2004. There was always a chance. Mauer did well to put it off for this long. Had it not been for some foul tips this past summer, Mauer would probably be preparing to catch another full season. As is, Mauer and the Twins are being simultaneously reactive and proactive.

When Mauer was diagnosed with a concussion, the Twins talked about the chance that he’d have to move. He does have an additional track record of some lower-body problems, so it’s not like the concussion was the first blemish. What led to this decision:

Mauer, a six-time All-Star as a catcher, decided to make the change after consulting with doctors from both the team and the Mayo Clinic. It’s a change from his earlier stance, as he maintained at the end of the season that he wanted to remain behind the plate.

But after weighing the risks, Mauer, who is currently symptom-free from the concussion, determined that it would be in the best interests of both him and the Twins for a position change.

From just a life-wellness perspective, there’s a reduced concussion risk at first base, so Mauer won’t have to worry so much about his brain. Which, in turn, means he won’t have to worry so much about his ability to live a normal life following the conclusion of his playing career. To say nothing of the benefits for his knees and back. You can still get yourself hurt anywhere at any position, but it’s fair for Mauer to think about the next 50 years of his life, instead of just the next five.

And from a baseball perspective, this goes beyond just pointing out the position adjustment between catcher and first. Obviously, a catcher who can hit like Mauer is more valuable than a first baseman who can hit like Mauer. Catchers who can hit like Mauer was incredibly rare. But that, in effect, is looking backwards. Mauer has accrued a lot of his career value to date from catching. That’s no longer what’s pertinent. Mauer has five years left on his long-term contract in Minnesota, and the question is whether Mauer projects better as a first baseman or as a backstop. Better in terms of ability, better in terms of performance, and better in terms of health.

History doesn’t tell us a whole lot — over the past 50 years, only Mike Napoli and Scott Hatteberg have transitioned from regular catchers to first basemen between consecutive seasons in the bigs. Both, for whatever it’s worth, hit better in their first seasons. Both looked excellent at first base according to UZR. The history is sufficiently limited, though, that we’ll have to try to figure this out just based on what Mauer has done.

We know he’s had some issues staying on the field, and he’s not getting younger, so if Mauer were to remain a catcher, you’d have to project him for less playing time than he’d get as a first baseman. Now, nothing’s been wrong with his bat. He just posted a 144 wRC+, a year after posting a 139 wRC+. Over the last three years, Mauer ranks fifth in baseball in OBP, between David Ortiz and Prince Fielder. It’s hard to imagine that giving up catching could help Mauer hit even more, since it seems like he’s just about maximized his skillset, but it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest Mauer might not decline so fast playing another, easier position. As a catcher, maybe he’d lose some of his ability to square the ball up and hit it on a line. He’d probably be playing through a lot more discomfort. Moving to first might make Mauer’s offensive projection not so much better as less worse over time.

Defensively, you’d think that Mauer should be just fine. He’s already gained some experience at first, doing well over 500 innings. Being a recent catcher, he possesses a broader defensive skillset than most first basemen, and now he’ll be able to practice without having to worry about all the extra responsibilities that come along with being a backstop. Mauer won’t have to go over game plans, he won’t have to study opposing hitters, he won’t have to catch bullpens or give signs or perfect pitch sequences. Playing first isn’t easy, but catching poses the greatest challenge. Mauer should make an easy defensive transition, and shedding those extra responsibilities could also help his bat a little.

The argument has always been that Joe Mauer is more valuable as a catcher than as a first baseman. Through 2013, Mauer and the Twins always agreed. They were, presumably, always right. But the future isn’t the past, and now Mauer’s older, with a concussion on his record and a decline phase to think about. A position change should keep him on the field, and in theory it should help him sustain his level of performance, given that he’ll have to worry about less. By position-adjustment alone, moving reduces Mauer’s value rather considerably. This is offset, in part, by differences in projected games played. This is offset, in part, by differences in projected wOBA. And this is offset, in part, by Mauer just not wanting to risk another brain injury. Maybe you could say they’re all being a little too cautious in moving Mauer now, after one accident. But you only get one brain, and Mauer’s pretty fond of the one that he’s got. A win here and there is hardly what’s really important.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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bookbook
Guest
bookbook
2 years 9 months ago

Has there ever been any consideration of moving him to third–the more traditional path for ex-catchers?

dose17
Member
dose17
2 years 9 months ago

Terry Ryan did mention something about his athleticism possibly being enough to go there, but then stated he wanted him at 1B as he likes his skill set. There has been a clamoring for his move to 3B or RF among a faction of Twins fans, including myself however. Why move him all the way down the defensive hierarchy when he could probably handle a tougher position, making him theoretically more valuable than he will be at 1B.

Ryan
Guest
Ryan
2 years 9 months ago

RF is something I could have a conversation about, but not 3B with Sano climbing the minor leagues.

frightwig
Guest
frightwig
2 years 9 months ago

There’s been some talk that Sano isn’t a particularly good fielder (although his Fielding Pct. did improve a lot this year), and now he’s been shut down for the winter to rest a strained UCL in his elbow. Whether a tender elbow will be a problem for him going forward, who knows, but these things make me wonder whether he’ll be able to spend his career at 3B. It wouldn’t surprise me too much if Mauer and Sano swap positions, eventually, if only because Sano has to be moved. Why not move Mauer to 3rd, where his bat + defensive skill would have more value, and move the young slugger to 1B, now?

JimNYC
Guest
JimNYC
2 years 9 months ago

So… catchers who’ve won batting titles…

Deacon White in 1875… Bubbles Hargrave in 1926… Ernie Lombardi in 1938 and 1942… and Joe Mauer. I’m not crediting Buster Posey just because Melky Cabrera decided the rules didn’t apply to him.

Not a bad list.

GiantNut
Guest
GiantNut
2 years 9 months ago

Actually, Mauer is the only one on that list. I’m not crediting White, Hargrave and Lombardi just because Major League Baseball decided treating all humans equally didn’t apply to them.

TKDC
Guest
TKDC
2 years 9 months ago

You know, you aren’t required to respond to stupid comments with a stupid comment of your own.

Jason B
Guest
Jason B
2 years 9 months ago

I’m not crediting Hargrave because no man should be called “Bubbles”.

However if it was a monkey made to wear a baseball uniform, I am DEFINITELY counting that.

And if it was the chick from the Jabberjaws cartoon, I am undecided.

EricR
Guest
EricR
2 years 9 months ago

Bubbles would have made a solid Laff-A-Lympics teammate if she was ever given the chance.

d_i
Member
Member
d_i
2 years 9 months ago

Selfishly – I wanted him to stay at catcher on the chance that he might stay somewhat healthy for another 3-4 years. If he would have done that and maintained something of the pace he’s on, he would have had a solid argument as the best catcher of all time.

As it is, his catching career probably isn’t long enough to stake that claim, but his sustained peak is right there with the best of them. He’s more likely to accumulate the years/counting stats at 1B.

skippyballer486
Member
skippyballer486
2 years 9 months ago

http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?players=1000826,1857,1275,1002015

I don’t think he had any real chance of ever being considered better than Bench. 2nd-best ever would have been pretty tough, but possible.

Matthew
Member
Member
2 years 9 months ago

I would either still have him part time behind the plate or possible give him a shot at 3rd. Mauer might be too big, but so will Sano. If Mauer can catch at that size, he probably can play 1st. Plouffe is awful.

After ignoring concussions, I think we could be overacting at this point, I played hockey a got a few concussions. In fact I think the majority of use have have gotten a concussion or 2. But I don’t really worry about. Joe Mauer has one concussion over his career so far. And you are going to overact to it?

If I had one concussion from high school through college and was drafted into the NHL or NFL, but decided not to play because my concussion. People would think you were an idiot.

dustin
Guest
dustin
2 years 9 months ago

> In fact I think the majority of use have have gotten a concussion or 2. But I don’t really worry about.

With sentences like these, you might want to start worrying.

Matthew
Member
Member
2 years 9 months ago

That has more to do with my wireless keyboard cutting in and out.

rexneffect
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

There is definite cause for concern.

> If I had one concussion from high school through college and was drafted into the NHL or NFL, but decided not to play because my concussion. People would think you were an idiot.

TheGrandslamwich
Member
TheGrandslamwich
2 years 9 months ago

When someone gets drafted it’s often the only real shot they get. I can understand the drive and desire to try play through it if it’s a potential career decision. It may not be the smartest move, but the feeling of necessity is not unreasonable.

Zen Madman
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

I think he was referring to the thought that if *I* didn’t play, people would think *you* were an idiot.

NRJyzr
Guest
NRJyzr
2 years 9 months ago

The concussion Mauer sustained during 2013, that ultimately ended his season, was not his first. There was a report locally that briefly mentioned him stating as such.

Canard
Guest
Canard
2 years 9 months ago

I used to be a straight A student. Was my high school valedictorian.

Got a concussion from playing flag football my junior year in college. It was an average concussion–neither severe nor mild. I didn’t notice any effects right away; but my GPA dropped a full point, I started showing signs of ADD, I wasn’t able to process as quickly, and eventually had to drop out of college.

It’s seven years later now, I’m finishing up, and my mental performance cap is now B+ instead of As. The problems never really went away, I just learned to cope better. I never really put one and one together until I realized the last time I was a top of the class student was just before my concussion.

Just because we may have minimized concussions in the past doesn’t mean we should do so today, when we know better.

ar
Guest
ar
2 years 9 months ago

I was the same as you, even though I had at least 3 concussions prior to HS graduation. Those 3 were diagnosed. Another 3-4 in college. Yup, it can screw up your brain. I can tell very easily that I don’t have what I once had upstairs.

NS
Guest
NS
2 years 9 months ago

Aside from the fact that n=1, there is all sorts of noise in that data.

TheGrandslamwich
Member
TheGrandslamwich
2 years 9 months ago

I’m just surprised they didn’t decide to give him a shot at 3rd especially when there are some questions on Sano being able to handle the position. Worst case scenario, he goes 1st and his bat plays anywhere. Best case scenario he’s an elite 3B and they would have more options with moving Sano around if they need to.

d_i
Member
Member
d_i
2 years 9 months ago

If there was more time, I think they might have given this a shot, but most think Sano will be up by June, so then you’d either have to move Mauer twice or jack around with your star prospect making his debut – neither ideal. Sano has the arm for RF.

TheGrandslamwich
Member
TheGrandslamwich
2 years 9 months ago

I generally agree, but since they aren’t in “win now” mode they can delay bringing up Sano as long as they deem necessary. If it were up to me I’d try out Mauer where he potentially could provide the most value (outside of catcher of course) and use 1B as a reliable fallback option.

wrong em
Guest
wrong em
2 years 9 months ago

Their whole development plan with Sano has been based on keeping him at 3B for several years in the minors.

If they had been able to predict with certainty the Mauer move happening a couple years ago, then maybe Sano would have gone to another position and Mauer would have tried 3B.

Also, although Mauer still has plenty of time left in his career and under contract with the Twins, Sano is in the early stages of his career and is most likely looking at many more years ahead than Mauer. It makes sense to not move him down the defensive spectrum earlier than necessary just because of another player’s injury.

TheGrandslamwich
Member
TheGrandslamwich
2 years 9 months ago

And Sano’s development hasn’t been the most confidence inducing. I’d rather maximize the value of a proven major league superstar than lower his value in order to provide a questionable opening for a prospect that isn’t a sure thing.

Cool WHIP
Member
Member
Cool WHIP
2 years 9 months ago

No prospect is a sure thing. Some are better bets than others.

Sano put up an OPS of .915 and led the league in ISO as a 20 year old, all the while improving his defense at the hot corner. Although his K rate might be a little high, he has shown improvement commanding the strike zone and still had a BB% of 13%. He is a consensus top 10 prospect next spring, without a doubt. He is the kind of player you play the arbitration game with and certainly the kind of player who you do not block at the ML level with someone who, although athletic, lacks any kind of experience at the position. The opening for Sano is anything but “questionable”.

Mauer probably has the athletic ability to play third, but given his experience at first and the presence of Sano, I agree with the decision. His bat still plays very well at 1B.

ar
Guest
ar
2 years 9 months ago

I think they believe they are “OK” with Plouffe over there for now, until Sano comes up. 3B is more physically demanding. Perhaps they’d rather see how things go, health-wise, at first. He’s not out of the woods yet. Everyone is assuming he’ll be symptom-free by Spring. That’s not a sure bet. And you can bet that he had previous concussions, playing catcher, QB and PG in high school.

Simon
Guest
Simon
2 years 9 months ago

Sano should not be up by June, even assuming he’s healthy to start the season. Given the rate he was striking out at AA, he’ll get carved up by major league pitching.

Joe
Guest
Joe
2 years 9 months ago

Well played, Mauer…

olerudshelmet
Member
olerudshelmet
2 years 9 months ago

As a bit of an aside, can we put a moratorium on the use of “he’s not getting any younger”?

Zen Madman
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

Only until Google comes up with something to make getting younger possible.

GiantNut
Guest
GiantNut
2 years 9 months ago

Should have put him at SS. I heard he once made a “Jeter in the hole” play at SS during the area code games.
On a serious note, during a 4th grade kickball match I took a ball to the dome after grooving a baby bouncer. Doc said I had a mild concussion and was lucky because it could have been worse. Long story short, because of the injury I gave up my all
-time pitcher status and moved to first. I can speak with experience when I say Mauer made the right decision here.

Antonio Bananas
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

A ground ball every other shortstop in the league would have made dribbled by his glove after he took two lathargic, lumbering steps and fell on his face “diving” for it?

Tim
Guest
Tim
2 years 9 months ago

Even if they did decide they had to make this decision now, why come out and tell everybody? Giving up the information isn’t exactly crippling in their approach to free agents and trade targets, but it is a disadvantage picked up for zero gain besides satisfying some annoying columnists.

Of course it’s the Twins, who like to advertise that they hate players (Kevin Slowey) and plan to nontender them (JJ Hardy) before trying to get value for them, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

Jason B
Guest
Jason B
2 years 9 months ago

What are they giving up exactly? I can’t wait to hear this…

Grammarboy
Guest
Grammarboy
2 years 9 months ago

Typo- “Catchers who can hit like Mauer was incredibly rare”

mch38
Member
mch38
2 years 9 months ago

I’d love to see Carlos Ruiz go to the Twins to be a stopgap for whatever they have in triple-a ball.

Antonio Bananas
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

McCann? He can DH as well.

Jim Price
Guest
Jim Price
2 years 9 months ago

These are the Twins….

Antonio Bananas
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

I thought they were getting more money from the stadium. Local tv deal, and now the national mlb deals? Sano, Buxton, Mauer, McCann is a pretty solid middle. Then again, I thought Smoak, Montero, Ackley would be too.

Twinsfantravis
Guest
Twinsfantravis
2 years 9 months ago

The answer to “whatever they have in AAA” or any other level for that matter at catcher is “nada” Pinto is it for a while.

Andrew
Guest
Andrew
2 years 9 months ago

Even though I’m all for increased concussion awareness and prevention of future concussion I have to admit I will be a little sad not seeing Mauer behind the plate. I’ve loved the catcher position ever since I played it in little league and Mauer was my favorite non-Cub player. Hopefully this means we get to see a few more years out of Joe.

Joel
Guest
Joel
2 years 9 months ago

Mike Stanley transitioned from catcher to first base in 1997.

wrong em
Guest
wrong em
2 years 9 months ago

“Moving to first might make Mauer’s offensive projection not so much better as less worse over time.”

One wild-card factor is that Mauer had one big power season in 2009. It’s clearly an outlier in his career up to now, but he’s still in his early 30s, and that season is some evidence that within his skill set is the potential to hit for more power.

Obviously we can’t know what effect playing 1B will have, but it’s possible that the eased physical demands of his position keep his hitting-related physical skills fresher. Time will tell, but we know that his skills and physical tools contained a nearly-30-homer season once and he’s not out of the average prime years for a hitter yet.

ralf
Guest
ralf
2 years 9 months ago

Concussions are not to be messed with. I’m sure a pro athlete would never admit this, but once you’ve dealt with a serious concussion, the fear of another one will change your life. I had a severe concussion in August of 2012 (at least my third, possibly my fourth or fifth) and I haven’t been able to work since. My doctors expect a full recovery but I have to give up a lot of things I love so as to avoid risking another knock on the head. I’m done playing baseball and softball, I’m done climbing, I have to go back to school because I can’t be a carpenter anymore. That all sucks but there’s no way I’m going to risk ending up with permanent post-concussion syndrome. Joe Mauer and the Twins are doing the right thing.

Also, as a Twins fan, I think this move will work out just fine. Mauer will get more PAs, more time to prepare for opposing pitchers, and less wear and tear on his lower body. That should all add up to some of his doubles turning into homers. He should be an above-average defensive 1B. No reason he can’t continue to be a 5+ WAR player.

Hitterish
Guest
Hitterish
2 years 9 months ago

“I thought they were getting more money from the stadium.”
The other thing they got from the new stadium is a team wide power drain. I’ve always lauded the Twins organization for consistently fielding a good teams in a smaller market but the “Hefty Bag” was a huge home field advantage and now they need to build a team tailored to the much different new stadium.
Mauer to 1B fits the park and, especially following Morneau’s decline then departure, the spot needed filling with a high average lefty bat. Certainly Buxton, with his speed/fielding prowess is ideal as well and the model to draft but they will need to come to realize that uber-prospect Sano and others will fail to match their projected power numbers due to playing in Death Tundra. These types will prove more valuable to the Twinkies as trade chips rather than players to build around. Draft and deal power for speed and cost controllable pitching seems like their formula for success. Or maybe Sano is that generational bat that can hit the ball out of the Grand Canyon—Minn better hope so because they play there now. Either way, good luck to Joe Mauer on this career extending move.

Tim
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

Pinto should be a decent catcher for the Twins, probably hit 12-18 HR, 60-75 RBI, and 265-275 AVG. As far as Twins fans hoping, praying and buying into the front office sales pitch on Sano as the savior of the Twins 3B play…that is laughable. As for current MLB 3B who could be considered average or better, Longoria spent 2 years in minors, was in the majors at 22…his strike out rate was under 19% at AA. Pedro Alvarez spent 2 1/2 years in minors, was in majors at 23…his strike out rate was under 23% at AA. Beltre was in majors at 21, never played in minors. Zimmerman was in majors at 21. Aramis Ramirez in majors at 19. Prado spent 2+ years in minors, in majors at 23, strike out rate under 13% in minors. To get an idea of who Sano will be if he ever sticks in the majors, look no further than Mark Reynolds. Sano has 4 years in the minors, will be 21 early into next season, just completed a half season at AA with a 29.3% strike out rate.

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