No catcher has quite been like Joe Mauer.
Since his first full season in the big leagues, he has easily been the best catcher in baseball. Between 2005 and 2010, he compiled a 32.7 WAR — Victor Martinez finished a distant second with 22.2 WAR. He was a solid defender; he routinely contended (and won) batting titles; he got on base at ridiculously high rates; and he even contributed stolen bases. Needless to say, he obliterated his catching competition. Mauer’s performances were truly unique.
And now that time might have come to a premature end.
With Mauer getting his first start at first base Thursday, it’s clear that the Minnesota Twins are willing to move the 28-year-old around the diamond to keep him healthy. But this creates an interesting conundrum since Mauer stands to lose a ton of value.
The Twins might have already tried out Mauer at first base, but many have speculated that a move to third — or one of the corner outfield spots — could also be legitimate possibilities for Mauer. To determine how Mauer would perform, we can look at the average performances of all players at those positions from this season and compare them to Mauer’s stats since 2005.
There’s one thing that immediately stands out when looking at the data — and it shouldn’t be surprising: Mauer is a phenomenal hitter. Despite the fact that he’s not perceived as a strong power hitter — his 2009 season excepted — Mauer is far better than his competition in slugging percentage and in OPS. Since Mauer’s average and on-base percentage would work at any position, it figures the Twins wouldn’t lose that much by moving him off catcher. Right?
That’s where things get a little tricky. Since offense has been down in past seasons, the baselines for offensive performance at each of the listed positions is lower than they have been in recent years — making Mauer’s stats looks stronger than usual. On top of that, these numbers assume that Mauer will return to form following his injuries. That could be a dangerous proposition.
As of now, we have no indication whether the old Mauer is coming back or Old Man Mauer is here to stay. If Mauer can’t return to form, and his offensive performance takes a dive, the Twins are going to have a much harder time extracting value by playing him at other positions.
If that’s the case, the Twins will be left to determine the most effective way to employ Mauer. While he would provide maximum value as a catcher, it looks more likely that he won’t hold up under a catcher’s workload. The Twins would then need to decide whether 100 games of Mauer at catcher is more valuable than 140 games of Mauer at another position.
And that’s just half of the equation. Defense certainly would play a role in the position switch. Jeff Zimmerman covered this issue in September. According to his research, catchers generally turned out to be pretty decent fielders — though they were slightly more valuable when converted to the outfield because of their strong throwing arms. Mauer is probably one of the more athletic catchers we’ve ever seen, so it’s plausible to think he’d have the range to effectively play third base or right field.
Unfortunately for the Twins, much of Mauer’s value is dependent on whether he can produce at his pre-injury level. There are reasons for optimism: Mauer still is young and his injuries haven’t been career-threatening. There’s no reason to expect a total offensive collapse. Moving Mauer around the field definitely takes away some of his value, but his bat is special enough to play anywhere.