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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.