Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I Was Promised Superstar

And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.
- Matthew 13:57

I gotta admit - I love quoting Jesus whenever I'm going to do a story on Joe Mauer. I think I'm going to do it from here on. I can't help it.

On one of my favorite national baseball bulletin boards, a debate broke out about Mauer and his injury. And it was between two of my favorite local contributors. (I'll be paraphrasing a little...)

F: Except for being made of glass and no power, Mauer's a heckuva superstar.

H: Man, the guy is 25 years old and has won 2 batting titles, and people in this town ride him like a rented mule. He's a GREAT defensive catcher, works like a dog, and is a hell of a teammate, according to everything I've heard. If I was him, I'd play out my contract, sign a mega deal, and tell everyone in this town to kiss my ass.

And BTW, the last four years his at bats were 489, 521, 406, and 536. So he was basicly healthy for 3 of those seasons, and played most of the other.

F: I was promised superstar.

H: And you got just don't appreciate it...

And here you have the dueling local views of Joe Mauer wrapped up quite nicely. 'H' reflects on what Mauer has done. While 'F' looks at what he hasn't...

F: He's a nice allstar but I'd have a real hard time spending Yankee/Red Sox money on a guy who might have peaked at 23. I admit it, I expected more.

H: You're buying into that Barreiro "Baby Jesus" crap. The kid is 25, he's one of only 3 catchers in history to win a batting title, and he's won two of them. The other guys who won (Ernie Lombardi who won 1 during the war years, and Bubbles Hargrave) didn't even have the 3.1 per game at bats that's required today. He's had 2 OBP's of over .400 in the last 3 years, and as I already said, he's a great defensive catcher.

You may think that he's already peaked, but you really have nothing to base that on...what did you expect out of the kid anyway?

F: Expect? Improvement, not regression. If he didn't peak in 2006 then he's due for a damn nice season soon because the last two have been clearly a step down from 06'. And now with injury concerns already for 2009 he'll be lucky to not give back the slight improvement from 07'.

Considering I would have chosen Mauer as the MVP last year, I'm a little surprised to see that 'F' is right - Mauer's rate stats from 2008 weren't as good as his rate stats in 2006. But what is really driving the doubters is, of course, the power....

F: Even Baseball Prospectus dropped the hint this year that he's got some work to do to avoid being a lefthanded Jason Kendall. Through age 25 they are basically the same guy with a bat. It's inconclusive as to what direction Mauer goes from here.

H: F, take a look at Kendall's career. Saying a guy was basically the same as him through age 25 is actually not a bad thing at all, in fact it's a pretty awesome thing. Hitting about .320/.400/.475 or so as a catcher is pretty rare. Of course maybe you were expecting Piazza II, but then Mauer can actually catch.

F: Agreed. I think the point though is that expectations of "greatness" might have to be replaced with expectations of very good (plus premature cratering like Kendall the longer he catches). And you're right, I think some of "us" expected Piazza-ish seasons at some point. Another test subject to help prove that darn few players actually develop power just because they project to have it down the road.

It's mostly about the power, or lack therof. As a guy who lost a meal when Mauer failed to hit double-digit home runs last year (and plans to make the same bet this year), I'm on record as believing it will come. Critics will point at a ground ball rate that will make power impossible. I'll point to a plate presence and swing that is so confident that I can't imagine him not being able to do anything he wants to.

But, of course, that's part of the frustration. It sure seems like Mauer should be able to hit for power, leaving critics to wonder if it just isn't a priority. I'll admit, that bothers me, even as a complete Mauer bobo. I'd love to see him try being more aggressive early in the count, even if it might cost a couple points of batting average and maybe another Silver Slugger.

But if the power doesn't come, one doesn't need to look too far into the past to find a superstar who also never developed the requisite power. Tony Gwynn averaged less than seven home runs during his playing career, but finished with enough raw stats and hardware to be a first ballot Hall-of-Famer.

Looking at their career rate stats, Gwynn has a higher batting average, but Mauer gets on base more, and their slugging is almost identical. When Gwynn was 25 he had been mentioned on MVP ballots twice, but so has Mauer, and Mauer has placed higher. At 25, Gwynn had won one Silver Slugger, but Mauer has two. Both are know as classy, pleasant guys who love the game. And Mauer certainly adds a tremendous amount of defensive value that Gwynn never could claim.

Gwynn won six batting titles, compiled 3141 hits, finished one year batting .394, and played his whole career with one team. Those are the key elements that gave him his HOF ticket and superstar status. Mauer may do none of those, but alternately none appear out of reach. Even if nagging injuries eventually force him to stop catching, it's not like he can't play a less crucial defensive position. Like, say, right field, where Gwynn played for twenty years.

But even if he does, I wonder if the debate will subside. I suspect not, or at least not as long as he continues to play in this market. After all, you know what they say about a prophet in his own land....


Anonymous said...

Obviously you cannot look at just the raw stats to get an idea of value...

According to Rally's WAR historical database, Kendall's best season for his whole career was 5.7 Wins above replacement. Mauer was 9 WAR in 2008 and 7.1 in 2006 (4.7 in 2007, which is still very good).

For reference, Piazza's best season was 9.2. His second best was 6.7. Ivan Rodriguez's best season was 6.8.

Mauer is a superstar (value-wise) and one of the most valuable commodities in all of baseball.

Kyle Eliason said...

I'll win that bet this year, too. You wrote (emphasis mine):

"It's mostly about the power, or lack therof. As a guy who lost a meal when Mauer failed to hit double-digit home runs last year (and plans to make the same bet this year), I'm on record as believing it will come. Critics will point at a ground ball rate that will make power impossible. I'll point to a plate presence and swing that is so confident that I can't imagine him not being able to do anything he wants to."

As you mentioned (career lines):

GB/FB: 1.87

LD%: 22.4
GB%: 50.5
FB%: 27.0

And what really compounds the above...

HR/FB: 8.9%


So all that is working against Mauer's power from the getgo. Mauer stays back on the ball a really, really long time. He can do this because he has such a great eye and a quick bat, and it pays benefits in the form of AVG and OBP.

But Mauer does not turn his hips over enough to hit for power. He doesn't transfer his weight as agressively as he'd need to to even approach 20 homeruns in a season. Hell, he tends only to hit between 25 and 35 doubles a season. This isn't a player smacking 40+ doubles a season who, as he fills out, it's expected that some of those doubles will turn into homeruns.

The question I pose to you, is why would Mauer significantly change his approach at the plate (which he will need to do to hit for power)? There will certainly be no pressure from the Twins organization for him to do so. Ron Garden has no qualms with hitting him third in the order, career ISO of .140 included.

John said...

Great points Kyle. Maybe I'm just in denial. But, of course, that's your gain, right?

So what is the PECOTA projection that we're betting on this year?

Paul said...

The funny thing is that you're ignoring the most important point about Mauer, while he would be a solid-to-great offensive contributor in any other position, power outage notwithstanding, he's a CATCHER. Getting that kind of offensive production out of a catcher, and a spectacular defensive catcher at that, is where his value really lies. Comparing him to players in other positions just isn't fair (although the fact that he compares favorably should be illuminating). Compare him to the rest of the catchers in the league, and he's head-and-shoulders above. Compare him to historical catchers, and there are literally only a couple names that match up favorably, and one of them's Yogi.

Anonymous said...

Getting that kind of offensive production out of a catcher, and a spectacular defensive catcher at that, is where his value really lies.

Looking at his value in relative to position, though, denies the truth that the Twins only spend so much money on talent. I think when many people say things like "I'd have a real hard time spending Yankee/Red Sox money on a guy who..." they're acknowledging that the Twins only have so much money to throw around, and they'd rather have Derek Jeter, Mark Tex and Jose Molina than Mauer, Punto and Morneau. Or something similar.

In other words, they refuse to see that the statistical gap between Molina and Mauer is much more valuable than the gap between Jeter and Punto/Delmon Young and Jason Bay/Joe Crede and A-Rod. And that the Red Sox and Yankees often spend quite a bit of money on players who aren't anywhere near as good as Mauer.

David Wintheiser said...

Um, Paul? You might want to do a bit more homework before gushing over Mauer.

Compare him to the rest of the catchers in the league, and he's head-and-shoulders above.

Not particularly. He's good, but not that far ahead of the pack. Consider the following four catchers:

A - .301/896, 134 OPS+, 93 SB/27 CS
B - .305/853, 130 OPS+, 96 SB/29 CS
C - .328/864, 137 OPS+, 51 SB/29 CS
D - .321/871, 120 OPS+, 38 SB/49 CS

Offensively, they're all pretty close with A and C looking better in the context of their leagues and parks, while defensively, C and D have marked advantages, with C's being significantly smaller than D's.

Player A is Brian McCann in his age-24 season in Atlanta. Player B is Victor Martinez in his age-26 season in Cleveland. Player C is Mauer in his age-25 season. Player D is Ivan Rodriguez, in his age-26 season in Texas. None of these guys is being shown during his best offensive season.

So sure, Mauer's good, but to say he's 'head and shoulders' among these other guys, all of whom are still playing, is a bit disingenuous (though I'll admit, you probably weren't thinking of guys like Rodriguez and Posada, at an age-appropriate level, as being Mauer's 'peers' for this comparison).

Compare him to historical catchers, and there are literally only a couple names that match up favorably, and one of them's Yogi.

Again, better to look at some numbers before simply making this pronouncement. Here are six historical catchers, most of them through their age-25 seasons in the majors:

A - .268/815, 128 OPS+, 179 HR
B - .300/839, 132 OPS+, 112 HR
C - .298/794, 120 OPS+, 77 HR
D - .301/846, 123 OPS+, 75 HR
E - .317/856, 128 OPS+, 44 HR
F - .312/850, 120 OPS+, 31 HR

The raw numbers for players E & F look better then their OPS+ ratings, since they're clearly playing in a more offensive-minded era. I'd rate the list as A & B being comparable, C & D being comparable but a bit farther down the list, and E & F being comparable but again still farther down the list, but just slightly, because of their era.

Player A is Johnny Bench. Player B is Joe Torre (who hadn't moved off catcher by age 25). Player C is Ted Simmons. Player D is Yogi Berra. Player E is Mauer. Player F is...yes, Jason Kendall.

Bench and Mauer may look as though they have the same offensive value based on OPS+, but Bench, with his already obvious power, is clearly going to end up more valuable offensively down the road, since he'll still have his power when his batting average starts to fade further -- meanwhile, once Mauer's quick bat begins to slow, he won't have the same advantages to fall back on. Plus, you want defensive value? By the end of his age-25 season, Bench had thrown out 203 our of 408 attempted base stealers; Mauer, playing in an era where speed is far less prevalent, has thrown out 105 out of 255.

This is not to say that Mauer's a bad player; just to be able to be compared to these guys and not be embarrassed is a major accomplishment. But just because he's in this company at age-25 doesn't mean he'll stay there; it would take just one injury-troubled season to drop Mauer from this range of comparables to the range of guys like Lance Parrish, Darrell Porter, and Rich Gedman -- solid-to-good catchers whom nobody thinks of as Hall of Famers or superstars.

Anonymous said...

It's this kind of thoughtful writing & responses that keep me coming back to this site year in & year out! I just hope I never have to read about "The Break-up" ever again.

Thanks John & Co.


Anonymous said...

I think Joe is a great athlete and an exceptional baseball player that can hit and catch with the best of them. I love to see Joe throw out those potential base stealer's and who knows how many base runners just don't try to steal because Mauer is behind the plate. Having said that, I think the Twins should maximize their return on Mauer by moving him to another position once they have someone else in place to be the every day catcher. The wear and tear of everyday catching takes its toll and will short Joe's career by several years. Joe will never hit 30 home runs but he can be an even more valuable hitter if he does not have to wear the tools of ignorance his entire career. The Twins have to start thinking long term about what is best for Mauer and the team and moving Joe to another position in the next year or two.

Paul said...

Wow David, good numbers, and I certainly may have exaggerated some (as I am wont to do) but I do have some quibbles with certain claims that you make.

In the first group of catchers, while "head and shoulders above" may be a bit of hyperbole, I think that Joe is at least the clear-cut choice here. One-by-one:

Brian McCann, Age 24 - .301/896, 134 OPS+, 93 SB/27 CS

Mauer had better production offensively, and threw out runners at a vastly better rate.

Victor Martinez, Age 26 - .305/853, 130 OPS+, 96 SB/29 CS

Again, better production by a slightly wider margin, and vastly better throwout %.

Ivan Rodriguez, Age 26 - .321/871, 120 OPS+, 38 SB/49 CS

Substantial gap in offensive production, but this time the defensive edge goes to Pudge, but I think that Mauer is still the clear choice here.

Also, as you point out, I was talking more specifically about performance last year, but these are all above-average seasons from some of the best catchers playing the game today, and Mauer's stats from last year stack up favorably. (Also, that WAS Victor Martinez' best offensive year)

Now, moving to the historical comparisons. First, it's not entirely fair comparing counting stats through age 25 with the first 3 players on your list, as in a different age they all debuted in the majors as teenagers, whereas Mauer only played 35 games at age 21, so the HR discrepancies are something of a misnomer.

Second, as has been pointed out by others in this thread (and as seems to be the consensus amongst many commentators), the fact that Mauer hasn't exhibited power thus-far doesn't mean he doesn't have power potential. Most people seem to agree that he could probably sacrifice 30-40 points of BA and hit home runs. Plus discipline at the plate doesn't fade like bat speed does - so I'm not sure I buy your argument that Mauer will age worse than these other examples simply for his "lack of power".

Also, the defensive comparison is somewhat disingenuous. These days, it is true that there are less steals than historically, but that's not because speed used to be more common, it's because running did. People just used to try to steal more often. Historically, if I'm not mistaken, I think that caught stealing rates were actually higher than they are now (I tried to find statistics on this, I feel like it's something I've read before, but can't find again, if I'm wrong here, please let me know and give me some citations). Comparing against modern catchers though, Mauer is consistently in the top quartile (or better) of catchers in throwing out runners. Also, let's not gloss over the fact that Mauer has substantially better throw-out rates than Simmons and Kendall did.

Now, comparing simply the rate statistics, Mauer falls in the top three for OPS+ (tied for second). Presenting HR in addition is a little bit disingenuous also. The value of those home runs has been already included - to some extent at least - in the OPS+ calculation. You just happened to choose the stat where Mauer is most deficient, why not include OPS+ and OBP? That would make Mauer look much better than the rest of the players you list. Fact is, I think your rankings are unfair, and I would still put him in the top half of those on this list.

Finally, I think that Mauer falls in the top half of this group in spite of the fact that he has at least something of a disadvantage in comparing rate stats, in that one of his four full seasons he played hobbled (while still putting up an OPS+ >100). Certainly this season shouldn't be completely discounted - it happened, and cherry-picking stats isn't fair, it's just something to keep in mind.

The one thing that you say, however, that I can agree with unequivocally is that being in good standing now doesn't mean he'll finish in the same elite company. I'm by no means commissioning his plaque for Cooperstown yet. That being said, I still think that if you take Mauer's first 4 seasons in the majors and compare them to just about any historical catcher, he's at least right about even, and comparing him to all other catchers last year, he's the clear-cut best in the game, and if not head-and-shoulders above the competition, he's certainly leaps and bounds above the average. (Much more above the average catcher than say, Morneau is above the average 1B, or A-Rod is above the average 3B)

Kyle Eliason said...

"So what is the PECOTA projection that we're betting on this year?"

75th projectile is 11 dingers, so that'd be the push. You'll need 12 to collect.