Well Played, Mauer

A little over half way through the season, the Minnesota Twins, favored by many to win the American League Central relatively easily, are in third place. Their run differential indicates that they “should” be winning the division, something that will hopefully be noticed by Ron Gardenhire’s fan club (which includes some who should know better). Despite their inability to pull ahead in the division, the Twins have received great performances from Justin Morneau and Francisco Liriano, and perhaps most surprisingly, competence from Delmon Young. However, it is hard not to notice the relatively down offensive season from Joe Mauer, whose .345 wOBA at the break is equal to that of fellow All-Star John Buck.

A .345 wOBA from a catcher is very valuable, of course, and Mauer has already accumulated 2.1 Wins Above Replacement, meaning he’d be close to 4 WAR over the full season (if you buy into “on pace for” stats, which you shouldn’t). One shouldn’t pin the blame for the Twins failure to run away with the division on Mauer’s “bad” hitting. Still, one certainly expected more from Mauer at the plate after his .438 wOBA (.365/.444/.587) in 2009. While the best pre-season projections expected some regression, they were still extremely impressed: CHONE projected a .401 wOBA and ZiPS a .415.

The primary difference between 2009 and 2010 so far has been Mauer’s power, as has been discussed in detail by David Golebiewski. I substantially agree with that analysis, and have little to add to it. Mauer’s opposite field approach is a rarity among hitter, but usually works for him. With a 10% career HR/FB rate, one expected it to come back down from 20.4% in 2009. Little else stands out in Mauer’s peripheral numbers that would make one think something is “wrong.” His walk rate is slightly down, which is likely related to his higher percentage of pitches chased out of the zone, but the whole league is chasing more pitches this season. He’s actually making contact more frequently so far this season, and is hitting more line drives, but while Mauer has a tremendous gift for hitting singles and doubles, his 2009 BABIP was unsustainable.

Expectations for Mauer’s 2010 go beyond projected peformance, however, and were tied, fairly or not, to the eight-year, $184 million dollar “hometown premium” extension for 2011-2018 he signed during the off-season. That was properly analyzed to death at the time, so I won’t go over it myself in detail. Depending on how much you think the dollars per marginal win will be starting in 2010 and the average rate of inflation, I’d say the Twins paid for a 5.5-6 WAR player starting in 2011, assuming average decline in production and 7% salary inflation over the life of the contract.

With that in mind, it is understandable if Mauer’s 2 WAR through a little over a half a season might not be quite “good enough” in the eyes of some. While there are reasons to be concerned about Mauer’s production in relation to the big contract (and it is a 50/50 shot at best that it will “pay off,” given that it was pretty much a market deal), it is worth remembering that observed performance is not the same as true talent, that a player’s performance as he ages is rarely perfectly linear, and, perhaps most of all, that the best projection systems that have taken into account of Mauer’s offensive performance this season still see his true talent as far above his current performance: ZiPS Rest of Season projections spits out a .394 wOBA (.323/.404/.491), and CHONE’s July 1 update as a +36/150 hitter (.319/.397/.483). The BABIP and power are unlikely to return to 2009 levels, but he’s probably better than this. Expect better production from Mauer over the second half, given good health

For those still understandably concerned about Mauer’s current performance in relation to the future, consider one alternate possibility: Mauer’s Big New Contract doesn’t start until next season. He’s making “only” $12.5 million dollars this season, and even if he only has a .345 wOBA over the rest of 2010, he’ll easily be worth more than that if he stays healthy. Maybe, just maybe, he’s waiting to turn on the ~.400 wOBA production until he’s actually getting paid for it.

Well played, Mauer, indeed.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

28 Responses to “Well Played, Mauer”

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  1. Matt says:

    The post May Chicago White Sox

    They only win everything.

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  2. bowie says:

    When you see that his LD & FB rates are normal for him, but his BABIP and HR/FB rates are down, does that suggest he’s just not hitting the ball as hard as he used to?

    If so, maybe that is a sign of injury. He’s seeing the ball as well as ever, is able to square it up, just not generating as much bat speed, not driving the ball as well.

    Gardenhire and Mauer himself have both said he’s banged up.

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    • Jack Str says:

      Or, far more likely, last year was Mauer’s career year. He was 26, it was his 5th full year in the majors, and he put up numbers far, FAR beyond anything he’d ever done before. It’s extremely unlikely 2009 represented a new, sustainable level of performance for Mauer, and it’s unfortunate that the Twins felt they had to sign him to that deal.

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  3. Andy S says:

    It’s Ron Gardenhire, not Rod.

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  4. Tim says:

    From watching many Twins games, I believe the drop in BABIP drop is mostly due to the defensive shifts other teams are making. Mauer is not adjusting, his opponents are.

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  5. Dane says:

    I agree with Tim. The defense shifts have seemed to work really well against Mauer. I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but seems many times when he gets a decent hit on the ball, the defense is lined up in a pretty good position to get him out. Another reason is also Target Field. Balls have not been carrying as much as the Metrodome. A few of the balls he hit at Target field would have been easily homeruns at the homer dome.

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  6. Erik says:

    Both Tim and Dane make valid points on Mauer. Being a Twins fan, and having seen nearly every game so far this season, Mauer has definitely been on the short end of the stick as far as batted balls go.

    More teams are implementing defenses that have been successful versus Mauer – and frankly, Mauer has been a bit ‘unlucky’ so far this season. While his BABIP will not reach that of 2009, it should increase from the current .315 if his LD% and FB% continue to hover around their current marks.

    Also, looking deeper – should much be made about Mauer’s struggles versus the fastball this season? The numbers indicate that he has struggled a bit versus that pitch so far in 2010.

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    • FanGraphs Supporting Member

      I can’t speak too much to the shifts — that would be interesting if it were the case. “Bad luck” is probably still part of it.

      This might relate the this fastballs issue — those who have watched Mauer every game as Twins fans probably have more to add here about what he “looks like” against fastballs. It might be that he’s having trouble getting around them as well as he did the previous two years, but it also might be the factors discussed above — fastballs he makes contact with this season may be finding defenders more frequently than in the past, which would effect his pitch value results.

      Thanks for the comments.

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      • Erik says:

        Another interesting thing, and I touched on this in a blog post a little while ago – is that when looking at Mauer’s power (exclusively ISO), his 2010 number .131 is nearly right in line with his career figure when you exclude his ridiculous 2009 season.

        Most expected Mauer’s power to increase as he got older, and I still expect that to be the case – heck, he does have 24 doubles so far this season after hitting 30 all of last season…but his 2009 season should probably not act as a barometer when discussing his future.

        I would say that his 2006 season is probably closer to what one should expect from Mauer moving forward – assuming he remains healthy…which is still pretty damn good.

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  7. MC says:

    They’re playing Mauer very well. He’s got to start pulling the ball and driving it more for them to play him straight up or he’ll continue to scuffle a bit. They don’t respect his ability to pull the ball so they bust him in continually and he keeps trying to go the other way with it where they’re defending him. He’s rarely getting extended and therefor not driving it as well as he did last year… Anecdotally, when he does seem to drive it, he’s hitting it at em’ and not over the fence.

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    • Jack Str says:

      Except that other than his career year last year, his lucky year, Mauer was never much of a ‘hit em over the fence’ kind of guy. Prior to that the best he’d done was 13 HRs in 608 PAs. It’s remarkable to me, even on several stats-oriented websites, how many people take it for granted that Mauer’s 2009 season wasn’t a fluke, and instead use it as the most legitimate baseline from which to make assumptions.

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  8. MC says:

    And I really don’t know how to “prove” that with the data that’s out there, but that’s my general observation and it makes sense to me given all the data out there over the off season about how insane Mauer was last year at driving the ball the other way.

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  9. Mike Smithson says:

    He has hit a ton of balls to the warning track in left-center. He really does need to try and pull the ball more- the gain in power would far offset what I think would be a minimal drop in avg, if any.

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  10. Tom says:

    If mauer was Spanish, there would be 100 posts about how overrated he is and how terrible that contract will be.

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    • FanGraphs Supporting Member

      Yes, we really do go out of our way to criticize Pau Gasol here at FanGraphs.

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    • Jason B says:

      And Xavi. He sucks, too.

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    • Steve says:

      what a wierd comment.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I understand where you’re coming from and often speak up on Latin-related issues. But, I think the comment is misplaced in this situation.

      If anything, to me, the situation represents either [1] how valuable the catcher position is, or [2] how we over-value offense at the catcher position.

      If Mauer played LF, the situation would be drastically different.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      As an example, IMO, this site defends, perhaps too much, the performances of BJ Upton and Adrian Beltre, as compared to what the general fan thinks of them and says about them.

      The casual fan is much more negative, perhaps even borderline racist-sy, in some of their comments of Beltre and Upton.

      This site also does quite a bit of ridiculing the notion of “scrappy white player” such as Eckstein or any other player whgose most well-known attributes are [1] white, [2] undersized, [3] hustles.

      I think there are some worthwhile things to complain about in regards to how MLB and the casual fan views latin players (and takes advantage of their impoverished situation), but I have to say that this site has a pretty good track record at defending the numbers, wherever they may lead, and regardless of what color the player may be.

      LIke I said, the site in general seems to “oppose” the notion of the gritty, gutty, scrappy, white, veteran that the mainstream media worships, all the while defending the guys who are toolsy who may do things like defense, run bases well, and are often latin or “brown” descent, that the casual fan often ridicules for being lazy or “not as good as they should be”, etc.

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  11. CircleChange11 says:

    If I remember correctly, Mauer hits the ball in the air to lf and pulls the ball on the ground. That’s likely a result of his swing path and bat speed. Meaning he likely cannot just up and decide to pull the ball in the air more often. He’s more like Tony Gwynn in that regard.

    I’m not sure if he will have a power season like he did last year, perhaps ever again in his career.

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  12. The Sauce says:

    Interesting fact: Over essentially the same amount of plate appearances, Joe Mauer has been worth about 3 more wins above replacement than Chris Hoiles.

    I’m not really going anywhere with this as far as passing judgment on Mauer (or Hoiles for that matter), I just thought it was a fun little piece of information.

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  13. Sox27 says:

    “The Post May Chicago White Sox

    They only win everything”

    Minus 2005 when there was an AL Central Team that actually, ya know, managed to win A PLAYOFF GAME (something the Twins haven’t done in their last 9 attempts). How about that BLACKOUT in 2008?

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