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....