Joe Mauer: Catcher or Fetcher?

On a different website, I’ve made my opinions pretty clear: Joe Mauer should not catch much longer. But luckily for most fantasy owners — myself included — there seem to be no indications that the Twins will move Mauer off the backstop position anytime soon. This season, Mauer graded out as the third-best catcher at $17, trailing only NL stalwarts Buster Posey and Yadier Molina, who incidentally finished first and fourth respectively in the MVP balloting on the senior circuit.

And while it’s unclear, but almost certain that playing first base enabled Mauer to have one of the healthiest seasons in his career, if a full-time more were necessitated, first base may not be ideal. I do think the lessening of the taxation on his lower hinges would possibly make him a better hitter, but I don’t have scientific proof. My gut tells me he’d be something of an in-his-prime John Olerud; that is, maybe not the classic first sacker, but a damned good player to boot.

But why not move Mauer while he’s still in his prime? Why didn’t the Twins explore him in other positions en route to two terrible seasons both this year and last? In ways we can tangibly measure, Mauer’s performance behind the plate is declining. Parker Hageman, one of the finest bloggers the Twins universe can boast, has shown mechanically that Mauer just doesn’t quite have it behind the plate like he once did. His motion behind the plate isn’t as fluid, costing him precious milliseconds when it comes to nabbing attempted base thieves, and it’s shown. Mauer peaked in 2007 in terms of throwing out would-be base thieves at 53 percent; in 2012, he only threw out a Pierzynskian 14 percent. So do you let Mauer wither away behind the plate, with the possibility that each squat takes him past the place of no return, and costing him leg strength and durability he’s going to need to be even close to worth the $23 (redacted) million he’s owed through 2018 (age 35)? Don’t shoot the messenger.

Let’s break down Mauer’s 2012. Twins fans were especially rough on Mauer this season. Choruses of boos rang down from Target Field as Mauer ground into 23 double plays. Of course, these fans failed to realize Mauer is a ground ball hitter — 50.3 percent career rate — and that it takes two to tango. Would it be better if Mauer grounded out with no one on base? Apparently so.

But in all honesty, Mauer was downright terrific in 2012. You can obviously logically deduce that no American League catcher was better — I won’t insult your intelligence — but he also paced the AL in on-base percentage, walked more than he whiffed, and came to the plate over 600 times. All-told, it was a five-win season for Mr. Mauer, which essentially means he was exactly worth what his contract would dictate, give or take. But good luck telling that to the rubes.

As a brief aside, a fun/odd thing to see in Mauer’s batted-ball profile is how his splits are to each field. When Mauer pulls the ball, he’s simply OK (.306/.304/.415). When he shoots it up the middle, he hits .406/.404/.547, which is pretty much outstanding. But get this: Mauer hits .429/.426/.636 (!!!) to the opposite field. I haven’t studied batted-ball profiles for many hitters, but I have to believe Mauer is somewhat anomalous in this regard.

At this point, it seems Mauer is who he is. A shoot-the-gaps, go-the-other-way hitter who will never seem quite as good as he actually is. Even in today’s age, walks aren’t quite as sexy as they ought to be, and neither are singles. Mauer provides them wholesale. On the fantasy side, Mauer brings amazing batting averages — .323 career mark and STILL hit .287 in a brutal, injury-marred 2011 — plenty of walks (he really upped the ante in this respect in 2012), and will pop enough extra-base hits to keep his slugging percentage well above average. I fully expect, as long as he can remain healthy, that he can replicate his career triple-slash (.323/.405/.468) for at least another handful of years. Keeping him healthy will be key.

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In addition to Rotographs, Warne is a former Minnesota Twins beat writer for 1500 ESPN Twin Cities, and current sportswriter for Sports Data LLC in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com

8 Responses to “Joe Mauer: Catcher or Fetcher?”

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  1. Persona non grata says:

    I’ll never forget the game last year where Mauer had to be an emergency fill-in in RF because of the perfect storm of injuries and missed flights. He looked kinda awkward out there at first, but by the end of the game, I could see him roaming RF, and with the grass field now for Minnesota, that might not be such a bad idea.

    Heck, if Doumit can kinda pull it off, I’m sure Mauer, being the better athlete, can pull it off too.

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  2. Brian says:

    I’d agree that Mauer is past his catching prime, but still… as a slightly below average defensive catcher, he has more value there on a game-to-game basis than 1B or DH. I tend to think the Twins limited his games at catcher for a couple reasons. 1) Why tax his body in a lost season, and 2) the fact that they had a competently hitting backup in Doumit this year.

    I’d say you limit him to every other game at catcher, then maybe step it up a bit in Aug/Sept if you find yourself contending (insert laugh track here).

    He did for some reason hit much better as a catcher in 2012 than a 1B or DH, but I don’t know how much you’d want to read into that.

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  3. From a position scarcity point I get that, but I thing catching also exponentially increases the likelihood and severity of his decline.

    If you could make him a 4 win 1B for the rest of his deal, versus a 6-5-4-3-2-1 catcher, I think I’d prefer the former.

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  4. Eminor3rd says:

    I actually ended up using him at first almost all year because Berkman went down and I had Ruiz as my ‘backup’ C. I may end up doing the same thing this year.

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  5. Tim says:

    It’s kind of important that Mauer’s replacement at catcher is the worst hitter in the major leagues, and Fangraphs didn’t rate him as good defensively in 2012 either.

    When you have Mauer, one guy who can’t catch three days in a week without exploding, one guy who’s below replacement level, and one prospect who aspires to be replacement level, your primary catcher is Mauer. Unless you’re just as bad at some other position, which admittedly might be true of the Twins.

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  7. Greg says:

    I agree that the primary concern with Mauer is getting him as many PAs as possible, especially now that Butera isn’t filling in when Mauer starts at 1B/DH. But I’m not sure the Twins feel that part-time catching for Mauer is especially dangerous – and they can point to his “terrific” (no argument here) 2012 as evidence. I think they really like Mauer/Morneau/Doumit sharing C/1B/DH. Unless they can somehow pull off a trade where they dump salary and pick up pitching by moving Morneau, that’s how I expect them to proceed.

    Unless he can learn 3B, there is no reason to permanently move him as long as Morneau is on the roster – I expect it to happen in 2014.

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