The Joe Mauer Show

Can Joe Mauer hit .400?

That’s suddenly a very popular question among Twins fans. Actually, if you’ve watched Mauer over the past month you might think .400 is selling him short. You see, when Mauer woke up in Milwaukee on the morning of May 19, he was hitting .307. He went 3-for-5 against the Brewers that night, beginning the following incredible stretch (H = hits; BB = walks; OB = times on base):

DATE     H    BB    OB          DATE     H    BB    OB
5/19     3     0     3          6/1      2     0     2
5/20     4     1     5          6/2      0     0     0
5/21     2     0     2          6/3      2     0     2
5/23     1     1     2          6/4      1     0     1
5/26     1     1     2          6/6      4     0     4
5/27     2     0     2          6/7      2     2     4
5/28     3     0     3          6/8      3     1     4
5/29     1     1     2          6/9      3     1     4
5/30     2     0     2          6/10     2     2     4
 5/31     3     0     3          6/11     1     0     1

Mauer collected 22 hits in 10 games to finish May, raising his batting average from .307 to .359. During the first 10 games of June, Mauer collected 20 more hits to raise his batting average from .359 to .386. Over that 20-game stretch, Mauer hit .506 (42-for-83) and got on base a total of 52 times. Yes, five-oh-six and fifty-two times.

Mauer reached base safely in all but one of those 20 games and got on base at least twice in all but three of them. He reached base at least three times in nine of the 20 games, got on base at least four times in six games, and even had a four-hit, one-walk game on May 20. Mauer went 1-for-4 yesterday, and in doing so snapped a streak of five straight games of getting on base at least four times.

On June 6 he had four hits. On June 7 he had two hits and two walks. On June 8 he had three hits and a walk. On June 9 he had three hits and a walk. On June 10 he had two hits and two walks. At first glance that appears to be a fairly impressive accomplishment, but it’s a lot more than that. In fact, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Mauer was the first player in the history of baseball to reach base at least four times in five straight games.

By going 2-for-3 with two walks against the Orioles on Saturday, Mauer reportedly broke a four-way tie with Barry Bonds (2001), Babe Ruth (1930), and Milt Stock (1925). Further research shows that Mauer likely only tied the MLB record and the presence of Stock made that somewhat odd company anyway—it’s like bragging that the only three women you’ve dated are Jessica Alba, Elisha Cuthbert, and Star Jones—but it’s still an amazing feat.

Mauer is hitting .386/.448/.538 on the year, including .391 against righties and .375 against lefties. So, can he hit .400? While the technical answer is yes, the real answer is no. Batting .386 on June 12 is spectacular in any other context except in regard to batting .400 for an entire season. In that context it just means that as good as Mauer was for the first six weeks and as extraordinary as he’s been over the past three weeks, he’s still not even there. And that’s with 100 games left to play.

It would be fun to watch him chase a .400 batting average deep into the season, but even that seems unlikely. Why? Because catchers just don’t do that. In the entire history of baseball only two catchers have won a batting title and no catcher has ever hit above .370 while coming to the plate at least 500 times in a season. In fact, only two catchers in the sport’s history—Mike Piazza in 1997 and Mickey Cochrane in 1930—have managed to hit above .350.

However, even with a .400 batting average being a relative pipe dream, Mauer has a chance to put together one of the great catching seasons of all time. Here’s where his current pace ranks among the all-time single-season catching leaders in batting average and on-base percentage:

                    YEAR      AVG                          YEAR      OBP
JOE MAUER           2006     .386      Mickey Cochrane     1933     .459
Mike Piazza         1997     .362      Mickey Cochrane     1935     .452
Mickey Cochrane     1930     .357      JOE MAUER           2006     .448
Spud Davis          1933     .349      Mike Piazza         1997     .431
Mickey Cochrane     1931     .349      Wally Schang        1921     .428
Ernie Lombardi      1938     .342      Mickey Cochrane     1934     .428
Gabby Hartnett      1930     .339      Dick Dietz          1970     .426
Mickey Cochrane     1927     .338      Mickey Cochrane     1930     .424
Mike Piazza         1996     .336      Mickey Cochrane     1931     .423
 Deacon McGuire      1895     .336      Mike Piazza         1996     .422

Of the 18 non-Mauer seasons listed above, only five occurred after 1940, and of those only one came from someone other than Piazza. There are a number of potential reasons for that, one of which is that Cochrane’s career spanned from 1925-1937 and he owns eight of the seasons. Another reason is that the 1930s—when 10 of those 18 above seasons took place—was a good time for batting averages and on-base percentages across baseball.

Despite the old-time catchers holding a potential advantage in the comparison, Mauer is still blowing away the rest of the competition in batting average and sits slightly behind two of Cochrane’s seasons for the top spot in on-base percentage. And while Mauer’s home-run power is limited at this stage in his career, his .538 slugging percentage ranks tied with Carlton Fisk‘s 1972 season for 30th all time among catchers.

In addition to all of that (plus great sideburns and a girlfriend who looks like this), Mauer’s pace of 211 hits would break Joe Torre‘s record of 203 from 1970, and his pace of 45 doubles would rank second only to Ivan Rodriguez‘s record 47 two-baggers in 1996. Add it all up and here’s where Mauer’s current pace ranks among the all-time single-season catching leaders in OPS and Runs Created:

                    YEAR      OPS                          YEAR      RC
Mike Piazza         1997    1.070      Mike Piazza         1997     149
Gabby Hartnett      1930    1.034      Bill Dickey         1937     132
Mike Piazza         2000    1.012      Gabby Hartnett      1930     128
Roy Campanella      1953    1.006      Roy Campanella      1953     127
Chris Hoiles        1993    1.001      JOE MAUER           2006     126
Rudy York           1938     .995      Mike Piazza         1996     123
Bill Dickey         1937     .987      Yogi Berra          1950     123
JOE MAUER           2006     .986      Mike Piazza         1998     122
Mike Piazza         1996     .985      Johnny Bench        1970     120
 Roy Campanella      1951     .983      Mickey Cochrane     1932     118

By just about any measure, Mauer is in the middle of one of the greatest offensive seasons ever by a catcher. What makes him so special is that in addition to the huge numbers at the plate, Mauer is excellent behind the plate as well. After throwing out 43%of would-be basestealers last season, Mauer has gunned down 37%of runners this year.

If not for the Twins’ horrible record and the voters’ tendency to discount great seasons from players on losing teams, Mauer would be one of the early favorites for AL MVP. In fact, if you’re more interested in who has actually been the most valuable player rather than who the voters will end up giving the award to, Mauer is probably your guy. Here’s where he ranks among AL players in Value Over Replacement Player and Runs Created Above Average:

VORP RCAA Travis Hafner 35.5 Travis Hafner 31 Miguel Tejada 34.1 Jason Giambi 30 JOE MAUER 34.0 Jim Thome 29 Vernon Wells 32.1 Ichiro Suzuki 25 Grady Sizemore 31.9 Manny Ramirez 24 Jim Thome 28.9 JOE MAUER 23 Ichiro Suzuki 28.7 Jermaine Dye 23 Derek Jeter 28.0 Grady Sizemore 22 Jason Giambi 27.9 Vernon Wells 22 Jermaine Dye 25.2 Kevin Youkilis 22

Neither stat takes defensive contributions into account, which is why both lists are dominated by first basemen, designated hitters, and corner outfielders. Once a rough estimate of defensive value is thrown in—advanced defensive metrics are iffy enough without trying to use them midseason—guys like Travis Hafner, Jim Thome, Jason Giambi, and Manny Ramirez would slide down the rankings.

That leaves fellow up-the-middle defenders Grady Sizemore, Miguel Tejada, and Vernon Wells as Mauer’s primary early-season competition. And sure enough Wins Above Replacement Player, which attempts to combine both offense and defense, has Mauer’s 4.2 WARP leading the league just ahead of Sizemore (4.1), Hafner (3.8), and Tejada (3.6).

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

Let’s recap, shall we? Mauer just completed one of the greatest weeks of all time, is hitting over .500 during his last 20 games and .386 overall, is on pace to turn in one of the top handful of seasons by a catcher in baseball history while becoming the first catcher in over 60 years to win a batting title, and has arguably been the most valuable player in the league thus far. Oh, and here’s the kicker: Mauer turned 23 years old in April.

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