When he was drafted #1 overall in 2001, a lot of people considered Joe Mauer to be an elite talent, but certainly behind Mark Prior. Fast forward to 2009 and Joe Mauer has two batting titles, should have a pair of MVP awards, and is one of the best players of the generation.
With Mauer’s return to the lineup, and subsequent power binge, it got me thinking: just where will Mauer’s place in history be?
What makes Mauer so special is that he plays the toughest position in the sport, and has a bat that will play anywhere. What’s more, he is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball and by far the best defender who plays regularly. So far in 2009 in just over a week of playing time, Mauer has already been worth over 1 WAR and has hit 6 homeruns, which is over half of his 2008 total of 9. Could his kidney and back problems have hindered his power for his entire big league career, and now Mauer will turn into a home run hitter? It’s possible, but more likely it is a case of a hot week and a half.
With 2010 being the last year of Mauer’s current deal, he could potentially break the bank, as many teams are queuing up to sign Mauer to a $100 million plus deal. Rather than forecast which team will end up signing him (please Twins, get a deal done now), I will attempt to take a look at Mauer’s place in history.
To help assist me with this endeavor, I asked some friends of mine to name the best catcher of all time.
One person tossed out Ivan Rodriguez. Pudge has certainly had a great career, but in 19 seasons has only had one OPS+ better than Mauer’s career high of 144 (which he could break this year), and Pudge has never even walked 60 times in a season, something Mauer has already done three times. Pudge is most known for his amazing throwing arm, but Mauer has been even better than Pudge defensively.
The next brought up name was Carlton Fisk. In Fisk’s 24 years of playing baseball he had a Win Probability Added of 15.96. In his career so far Mauer’s is 10.71. Fisk never walked more than he struck out in a full season, in fact he only came close in 1981. Mauer has already had two seasons in which he’s walked more than he’s struck out. Mauer already has two seasons in which is BB% is better than Fisk’s career high. Fisk did have the power edge on Mauer though, and his .422 wOBA might not ever be topped by Mauer, although if Mauer continues hitting homeruns, he might.
Johnny Bench is the gold standard for catchers, and it’s tough to argue against him. Bench’s career high in OPS+ was 166, set in 1972 the year he won the NL MVP for the second time. Bench had two seasons where he had a wOBA of .400, and for his career his bat was worth over 300 runs above average.
But let’s compare his age 21-25 seasons with Mauer’s:
wOBA : .371, .400, ..325, .400, .344 for Bench
.395, .344, .396, .354, .378 for Mauer.
Interestingly enough, Bench only has the edge in two of those seasons. Mauer’s wOBA was helped tremendously in 2006 by his career high 13 homers, which just goes to show you how good of a hitter he is that he can out wOBA Johnny Bench when Bench had over 40 homers in two of those 5 seasons.
Mauer also had much better plate discipline than Bench. Using a crude estimation (BB% – K%), Mauer comes out on top again, with 5 year totals of -3.8, -2, 2.8, -.3 and 4.2 to Bench’s -7.8, -8.7, -6.8, .1 and -1.9.
This isn’t totally predictive, as it’s certainly possible that Mauer’s injury problems could catch up to him, or he could lose some of his defensive prowess or be forced to move off the position. But it is not inconceivable that when he retires, Joe Mauer could do so as the best catcher of all time.