Ode to Joe


April 08, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer (7) looks down field against the Kansas City Royals during the fourth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

I thought about writing a poem about Joe Mauer, but ultimately decided that his game is poetic enough for me.  Joe Mauer is in the middle of a Hall of Fame career.  I have no doubt that if Mauer plays as he has for another five or so seasons, this will not even be a debate.  How good is Joe Mauer?  How much reverence should we give to him?  Just how historical is Mauer’s career, up to this point?

Normally, I use Baseball Reference’s play index to do silly things like find random Twins records, look for Three True Outcomes games and just screw around aimlessly.  However, I thought it might be useful to use the play index to help put Mauer’s career into historical perspective.

Warning:  Stats ahead!  Buckle up and settle in.

Here are some Joe Mauer facts:

  • Mauer is a catcher
  • Mauer debuted in 2004 at the age of 20
  • Mauer is 30 and in his tenth season
  • Mauer doesn’t seem to be slowing down as a hitter
  • Mauer is not a home run hitter
  • Mauer doesn’t catch as much as he used to, but is still catching more than half-time
  • Mauer has played 857 games at catcher in his career

How does Mauer compare to his contemporaries at catcher?  There are 47 catchers who have caught at least 400 games since 2004.   Mauer ranks first in hits, walks, runs scored, OBP, OPS and batting average.  He ranks second in doubles, third in RBI, fifth in slugging percentage and twelfth in home runs.  So, yeah, he’s an amazing offensive catcher and probably the best from the past ten years.

But Joe Mauer doesn’t play enough games at catcher!  His widdle wegs are too sore and he needs a day off and his blankie.

Wrong!  Only nine other catchers have caught as many or more games than Mauer since 2004.  Since 1961, only 55 total catchers have caught 850 or more games in their first 10 seasons.  Joe Mauer has the second highest OPS+ and batting average in that group (only Mike Piazza‘s are higher) and has the highest OBP of them all.  Other catchers may catch more in given seasons, but Mauer’s longevity is pretty rare.  When that longevity is combined with his offensive production, he is nearly unmatched.

How does Mauer compare to Hall of Fame catchers?  His career is still in progress, so the best way to compare is using their first ten seasons.  Twelve catchers played their whole career between 1901 and today and then entered the Hall of Fame.   Mauer would have the highest batting average and OPS+ of them all.  He would be second in OBP, third in doubles, and fourth in hits, walks and runs.  He fares worse in the power categories, but isn’t last in any, and we’re talking about Hall of Fame players here.  Many of these players were good long past their first ten seasons, so Mauer still needs to keep hitting.  Of course, there is no sign that states that he won’t, at least not for a long while.

So what?  He’s a catcher, good for him.  There are other positions and he wouldn’t be impressive at another position.  

Beautiful swing. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I disagree.  Mauer is a great hitter, no matter where he plays.  How does Mauer compare with players at all positions?  Here is a sample of players I generated:  From 1961 to 2013, From 1st season to 10th season, (requiring At least 1000 games), sorted by greatest Adjusted OPS+.  This sample resulted in a list of 643 players.  Here is a nice bullet list with Mauer’s ranks:

  • Batting Average – 8th
  • OBP – 12th
  • OPS+ – tied for 51st
  • OPS – 62nd
  • Fewest Strikeouts – 22nd
  • Walks – 82nd
  • Hits – 81st
  • Doubles – 75th
  • Runs – 128th
  • RBI – 151st
  • Home Runs – 186th
  • Games played – 161st
  • WAR – 67th

What does this mean?  Mauer holds his own with all players from the past 50 years, and he is quite a bit younger than many of these players were after ten seasons.  He has also played far fewer games than many of these players.  He’s tall.

He was tied with David DeJesus in runs.  These are just “any men” and not the true elites.  

Here comes the thunder.  To see if Mauer is truly elite, we have to compare him to the cream of the crop.  How does Mauer compare to Hall of Fame players, after their first ten seasons.  I used the same criteria, but filtered so only Hall of Fame players were included.  There are only 29 players and here is another bullet list, with where Mauer would rank:

Hall of Fame smile too. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Tremendous.  Look at those names, and look at how Mauer compares.  Tremendous.

Mauer is unlikely to hit any major milestones and he isn’t going to rack up huge counting stats.  He’ll likely pass 2000 hits, 1000 runs and 1000 RBI.  He’ll flirt with 200 home runs, 1000 walks and 500 doubles, but will might fall short of each of those numbers.  He probably won’t be even a half-time catcher for much longer, possibly just for 2-3 more seasons.  In addition, he is very unlikely to ever put up huge power numbers again.

Where Mauer will always rank highly is in rate stats like batting average, OBP and OPS+. Advanced stats will be his friend as well.  His career WAR is approaching the level of some Hall of Fame catchers.  His wOBA and wRC+ should continue to be in the top ten for all-time catchers.  Plus, he will likely have the distinction as one of the best catchers of his era.  All this adds up to a Hall of Fame career, so long as his career progresses as we all expect it will.

I have enjoyed watching Joe Mauer play baseball.  If he isn’t elected into the Hall of Fame, that enjoyment won’t retroactively fade away.  However, I certainly feel that I have been watching one of the best players of my lifetime and that type of player deserves to be discussed and deserves to be immortalized.  The fact that we get to watch him play for many years to come only makes it sweeter.  We’re watching a Hall of Fame player every day, and that isn’t something that every fan base gets to enjoy.