The Greatness Of Joe Mauer

On the front page, over there on the right hand side, you’ll see some top five leaderboards for our win based statistics that we track on the site – WAR and WPA. If you look at the top of the list for batters in WAR, you’ll notice Joe Mauer has ascended to the pinnacle, as his 3.8 wins above replacement to date leads all major league position players.

Now, to rack up a +3.8 win value through mid-June is impressive enough on its own. Our fair value salary estimate suggests that Mauer has already played well enough to justify a $17 million contract for 2009, and we’re still a few weeks away from the all-star game. Even more amazing, of course, is that Mauer missed the first few month of the season with a back injury that landed him on the DL. Mauer has racked up his 3.8 WAR in just 43 games, totaling 190 plate appearances.

If we prorated Mauer’s performance out over a full catcher season, plus giving him some time at DH, we’d be looking at a +12 WAR season. The only guy to put up 12+ WAR in a single season since ’02 (as far as our numbers go back) is Barry Bonds, and we’ll just say that there’s a wee bit of controversy surrounding that guy.

So, there’s no doubt, Mauer’s having an incredible season. Playing a +12 win level, even for just a few months, is pretty remarkable. But, here’s the thing – our version of WAR probably underrates Mauer, because we don’t try to quantify the defensive value of each catcher. Because of the problems in evaluating catcher defense, for right now, we just assume they’re all average for the purposes of calculating win values. Of course, they aren’t all average – some are demonstrably better than others.

Mauer is one of those better than average guys. Baseball-Reference tracks “runners bases advanced” and “runner kills”, which quantifies how many bases opposing runners are able to take with a certain catcher behind the dish (whether via SB, PB, or WP) and how many times a catcher is able to gun down a runner on the bases. Mauer’s allowed 27 baserunner advancements and has seven runner kills, for a 3.91 rate of advances-to-kills. The league average is 4.96. This isn’t new, either – his career rate is 3.47.

We don’t have a good way of evaluating the other stuff catchers do, or how their responsibilities behind the plate translate into the batter/pitcher match-up. But, there’s certainly not any evidence that Mauer is below average at that stuff, either – the Twins have their highest BB/K rate and lowest opposing BA, OBP, and SLG when he’s behind the plate of any of their three catchers. Despite having a rotation full of guys with fairly pedestrian stuff, the Twins pitchers keep outperforming expectations, and some of that credit has to go Mauer’s way.

If we knew how to evaluate catcher defense well, odds are pretty good we’d be adjusting Mauer’s win value up even higher than it is now, likely pushing him over the +4 win plateau. He’s played 43 games, and he’s already had a full, all-star worthy season.

Right now, Joe Mauer is the most valuable player in the American League, and it isn’t particularly close.




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


27 Responses to “The Greatness Of Joe Mauer”

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  1. Josh says:

    So, the real question: what is Mauer’s base line anymore? He’s not going to stay THIS good, but do we even know what to expect from him at this point?

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  2. Mark says:

    Josh:

    Dave (I think) had a nice article about Mauer’s power surge in his first month back from injury and noted that the majority of his homeruns were a) to left field and b) not landing too far over the fence which probably means that there was at least some luck involved and not a big fundamental change in Mauer’s approach or bat speed that would predict a big HR surge to continue.

    I think the day of the article he pulled a moon shot into the right field bleachers, but nevertheless, I don’t think we can expect to see the HR’s continue at any pace like this. Also, his BABIP will not stay as high as it is, even though he’s crushing the ball right now and has always been a line drive gap to gap player.

    I’d be interested to see Dave’s second half projection for Mauer, if he’s willing to take a guess.

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    • Daniel says:

      If you take a look at Hit Tracker, he’s still appearing to get pretty lucky, since a substantial portion of his homeruns are classified as “Just Enough” (5 or of 13) and only 4 going more than 400 feet. Compared against, say, Teixeira, that’s a pretty substantial portion of “Just Enough”, since the NYY 1B has only 3 of 20 considered “lucky” or “just enough” (with 10-12 of his homers going 400 feet or more)

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      • R M says:

        Michael Cuddyer has the longest average homerun in the AL in 2009. That hit tracker homerun rating thing seems kind of stupid.

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      • R M says:

        *second longest.

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      • R M says:

        A more pertinent stat would be his HR/FB %, which is 2.6 times his career average. Unless he got really angry and turned into The Incredible Barry Bonds, that is bound to come down a good bit, even if he has improved his underlying power.

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  3. Davidceisen says:

    “It wouldn’t be that controversial to call Longoria the best young player in the American League. I’m here to say we can take the word young out of the previous sentence. Evan Longoria is the best player in the American League.”

    “Right now, Joe Mauer is the most valuable player in the American League, and it isn’t particularly close.”

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    • Mark says:

      Two comments about that paradox in Dave’s writing you pointed out:

      1) The Longoria comment was written six weeks ago – a lot of games have been played since then.

      2) Dave can be saying that Mauer is the best player this year, but that Longoria projects to be more valuable in the future once Mauer’s luck starts to change . . . In other words, the best player isn’t always going to play the best (according to WAR stats) due to all of the luck involved in baseball and all of the infinite variables that come into play that can cloud the statistics used to value players.

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    • Bill says:

      Yeah, this is pretty much the worst attempted burn I’ve ever seen. Mauer had played 8 games in 2009 when Dave wrote that about Longoria, and he was pretty much the best player in the AL last year, too, but Longoria was already close, and it seemed quite a bit more than safe to assume that between a year of experience for Longoria and a month-long injury for Mauer, there wasn’t a whole lot of competition there anymore.

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      • Lawrence says:

        Which is why you don’t draw those type of conclusions in the first place, because you will inevitably end up sounding ridiculous.

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      • BIP says:

        Um, no. You’ll only sound ridiculous to people with terrible reading comprehension.

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    • q says:

      There’s nothing ridiculous about calling Longoria the “best player” in the AL six weeks ago (or even today) and Mauer “the most valuable player [right now.]” Longoria’s assessment was clearly based on his historical performance up to that date while Mauer’s assessment is based only his performance this year up to today, prorated to a full year without injury. It would hardly be ridiculous to say Mauer has been more valuable than Pujols this year, but that Pujols is the better player.

      It’s sad how some of you have nothing better to do than play “gotcha” with Cameron’s statements. Pathetic, really.

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        You sure got me. Why should anyone expect the best player in the AL to actually perform the best? What an excellent point. Longoria has been in the league now two seasons. Last year he player 122 games and was 5.3 WAR, which is, obviously, amazing. He was, however, 8th in the league. This year Longoria is in a three way tie for first, though as Dave mentioned Mauer is disadvantaged as the catcher position’s WAR does not include defensive information. (which is interesting because if you assume that Mauer is 10 runs better than average at the position he would have been the best player in the AL last year and the second best in 06).

        There still remains no reason to believe that Longoria is the best player in the AL. It is similar to putting forth the argument that Elijah Dukes is the best player on the Nationals.

        As far a Pujols, when a player has been in the top two WAR 4 times from 2002-2008, they get a little more leeway.

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  4. Joe says:

    Dave,

    What do you think about Mauer being fed more fastballs this season? It is up to 66%. I suggested that they get that number down a tad, because this clearly is not working, with the current approach. If you click my name you can actually see my post, short and sweet. This is not trolling. I actually do want to hear your opinion, and whether or not fewer fastballs might bring his average down to say .350 :)

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    • Bill says:

      You’ve got to figure that part of that comes from Mauer’s eye and patience. If you throw him a breaking ball with less than two strikes, he’s probably going to take it. If you throw him a breaking ball with two strikes that isn’t a strike, he’ll probably take that too. So (a) he’s hitting bad fastballs in counts when he knows fastballs are coming, and (b) the only breaking balls or offspeed pitches he bothers swinging at are good pitches when he’s behind in the count.

      Just a guess, but it seems like a reasonable one. Another thing is that throwing him fewer fastballs -> more walks, and with Morneau going the way he has been, nobody wants to do that either. I’m not saying that’s a sound decision or anything, but I think that for whatever reason teams are still more scared of Morneau.

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  5. Joe says:

    Thanks for your input Bill. Morneau is a scary hitter, but not quite as scary as Mauer right now :) Mauer is the guy everyone should emulate. That patience you mentioned is awesome to watch whenever I get the chance. Not to mention he is much better then say, Jeremy Giambi, at swinging the bat as well.

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  6. Blackadder says:

    This doesn’t affect the main point, but the Bonds comparison is not quite fair. The issue is that we are looking at the best 42 game stretch of Mauer’s career, which you are comparing to Bonds’ performance over a whole season. If you can pick a 42 game stretch, Bonds definitely had some where he performed much better than a 12 win pace. For instance, from August 6 to September 26, 2004, Bonds started 42 games and had 191 PA, hitting 416/664/982, which average defense is a lot better than 12 win pace. Adrian Beltre, over roughly the same time frame was pretty comparable in value to Mauer (from August 8 to September 27, he hit 376/446/735 with world-beating defense.)

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  7. Joe says:

    Right now it seems that Mauer and Morneau is actually like Rice and Evans. Except obviously a little different. Morneau is great but not as great as Mauer, yet people still “fear” Morneau much more. And the MVP voters basically ignore defense, or at least did in 2006, when Mauer was probably the better all around player.

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    • Aaron/YYZ says:

      It’s arguable that at no point in his playing career has Justin Morneau even been the best player on his own team let alone the best player in the league.

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      • Mike I. says:

        It’s beyond arguable; it’s just so obviously true. If you want to go strictly by WAR, 2008 was the first year in which Morneau was even the 2nd most valuable on the team, and even then he was just barely ahead of Scott Baker. Yet almost everyone in the national or local media seems to think Morneau is more “valuable.” Most of the Twins fans believe it too, and even the players and people in the game think the same way. It’s gotten to be a little frustrating.

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    • Joe R says:

      It’s typical for 1B’s to be overrated; they have the best offensive stats normally, people don’t naturally take into account position.

      Utley v. Howard, too, for example.

      At least now Mauer is going to get the respect he really deserves.

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  8. Bodhizefa says:

    Great stuff, Dave. Any chance we’ll see a best and worst WAR for each position article by the All-Star break?

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  9. Jacob Jackson says:

    Mauer is going to get a $200M, eight year offer to play for either the Yankees or the Red Sox after next year. And he may get that offer from both.

    And intelligent articles like this one hopefully will show people that, despite his injury risk, it isn’t ridiculous for those two teams to offer him that much.

    Varitek will will certainly be done after 2010, and Posada will probably be ready to DH the majority of the time in the final year of his deal in 2011.

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    • drivlikejehu says:

      The Twins will re-sign Mauer this off-season. Not because they want to pay him, but because they have to. The loss of attendance and good will with the new stadium opening, in the midst of financial crisis and huge government deficits, would outweigh the costs of retaining him (when you also consider the monetary value of his production).

      He wouldn’t get $200 million from anyone- catchers involve too much risk, especially over the long term. His extension will probably involve something like a $10-15 million signing bonus, 5-6 years, and an average value just south of $20 million a year.

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      • Jacob Jackson says:

        The Yankees have to give their money to someone. The way they are constructed, they will basically clear $40M-plus in veteran payroll every year. And their new stadium allows them to sustain $200M payrolls into perpetuity.

        If you study the free agent market two years out, there isn’t much elite offensive talent to speak of in Mauer’s FA class. Given J.J. Hardy’s curious season, I’d argue Mauer is the only 4+ win player in that FA class.

        The Yanks will bid on him, in the same way they successfully bid on all three of the best players in this past year’s FA class.

        The Yankees are perhaps the only team who could shoulder the risk of 8/200M for Mauer. Hell, the AAV is less than 1/8 of their annual payroll. For the Twins, 25M per would probably be more than a third of theirs. Hard to justify, even for a great player.

        Mauer would probably have to agree to leave $70M or more on the table if he agrees to remain a Twin. Sure, he might do it…but not many players would.

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      • drivlikejehu says:

        If Mauer hits the free agent market, you would definitely be correct. But he will be extended with a year left on his current contract; that additional security takes a bit off the top in terms of what it will take. Add in a slight home-town discount and it’s definitely doable.

        There is no question it will require a higher payroll for the Twins, which they always claimed would come in the event of a new stadium. After all, Minnesota is not really a small market- it’s at least average, if not above, based on demographics, media, etc.

        The Twins would probably have preferred to keep that on the DL, but in their desperation for a new stadium they had to admit that the Metrodome was the only reason for their marginal revenues. A $100+ million payroll is no problem financially, though of course it would mean a bit less profit for the Pohlad family.

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  10. Dane says:

    I love Baby Jesus! (Nickname that MN has basically given him)

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