December 28, 2012

Offseason outlook: Joe Mauer

Joe Mauer's uncertain health status caused the Twins to look for insurance behind the plate last offseason and they found a perfect fit in Ryan Doumit. Doumit was available cheaply as a free agent because, like Mauer, he was coming off an injury wrecked season, but by essentially using both players as part-time catchers and part-time designated hitters the Twins found a pairing that worked well for everyone involved.

Mauer made 72 starts at catcher and 42 at DH, plus 30 at first base. Doumit made 56 starts at catcher and 48 at DH, plus 22 in the outfield. And they both stayed healthy to set career-highs in games. Mauer got off to a slow start, but hit .337 in his final 110 games and took advantage of the reduced catching workload to hit .356 in September. Not bad for a guy who was regularly booed by a not insignificant portion of the home crowd at Target Field during the first half.

While those people were harping on last season's injury Mauer led the Twins in games and plate appearances. While those people were blaming the Twins' ineptitude on his $23 million salary Mauer's performance was worth $22.5 million according to Fan Graphs. While those people were focusing on his lack of power and supposed lack of clutch, Mauer nearly won his fourth batting title, led the league in on-base percentage, and hit .352 in "high-leverage" situations.

He'll forever be under-appreciated by people who still think homers and RBIs are the best way to judge a hitter, but Mauer's incredible ability to get on base enabled Josh Willingham (and Justin Morneau before him) to rack up huge RBI totals hitting behind him. And when Mauer came to the plate with runners on base he hit .346, including .372 with runners in scoring position, .397 with two outs and runners in scoring position, and .500 with the bases loaded.

Win Probability Added measures the actual in-game impact of hits and awards more value for, say, a game-tying solo homer in the ninth inning than a grand slam in a blowout. Mauer ranked seventh among AL hitters in Win Probability Added and Mike Trout was the only guy ahead of him who also played an up-the-middle position defensively. Mauer's singles, doubles, and walks made a huge impact based on actual game situations.

Mauer's lack of power certainly plays a part in his modest RBI totals, but he drove in 18.1 percent of the runners on base for his plate appearances. Not only did that rank eighth-highest in the entire league, it topped Willingham's mark of 16.3 percent. Mauer converted a higher percentage of his RBI chances than Willingham, but Willingham had 45 more runners on base in 26 fewer plate appearances because Mauer was on constantly in front of him.

Outs are an offense's most precious commodity and having runners on base drives scoring more than anything else, and Mauer is spectacular at avoiding outs and getting on base. If someone is unwilling or unable to recognize the value in those skills despite endless amounts of supporting research ... well, then that's on them at this point. It's time to stop placating the "yeah, but he doesn't hit homers!" subset and start appreciating Mauer for what he does so well.

Mauer has always walked a ton, but this season he walked more than ever before to rank fifth among AL hitters in walk rate. That's pretty remarkable considering Mauer saw the eighth-most fastballs in the league and hit just 10 homers, and speaks to his great eye and amazing patience. He swung at a lower percentage of pitches than anyone in the league and when he did swing only nine hitters made more contact. And only two hitters saw more pitches per plate appearance.

He also walked more than he struck out for the sixth time in seven seasons and was one of only two hitters in the league with more walks than strikeouts. And yet despite striking out less often than all but 20 hitters in the league Mauer's strikeout rate of 13.7 percent was a career-high and solidly above his lifetime mark of 10.7 percent. That could represent a change in approach due to aging or an attempt to add power, or it could just be a one-season fluctuation.

For the first time in his career Mauer pulled more than the half the balls he put in play, which would seemingly lend credence to the change in approach theory, although his line-drive rate, ground-ball rate, batting average on balls in play, and isolated power were all right around his norms. And his overall .319/.416/.446 line was very close to his .323/.403/.471 career mark even though offense was down across baseball. His adjusted OPS+ was seventh in the league.

Things weren't so pretty defensively, as Mauer struggled to throw out runners all season and finished with an abysmal caught-stealing rate of 14 percent. That's below the MLB average of 25 percent and miles from Mauer's career rate of 33 percent. Doumit and the normally impossible-to-run-on Drew Butera were also below average, so the pitching staff shares a big part of the blame, but Mauer threw out at least 26 percent in each of his first eight seasons.

Of course, the difference between 14 percent and 25 percent amounted to a grand total of seven extra steals under Mauer's watch. He also had lower passed ball and wild pitch rates than Doumit and Butera, so while Mauer's defense certainly wasn't good and definitely cost the Twins runs it only made a small dent in his overall contributions. Mauer ranked ninth among AL hitters in Wins Above Replacement, which factors in offense, defense, and positions played.

Mauer needs only to duplicate his 2012 performance to be worth his annual salary to the Twins and while that's no sure thing as he approaches age 30 he's produced at least $20 million in value in five of the past seven seasons. By re-signing Doumit the Twins can put together a similar catcher/DH split in 2013, although if his defense bounces back and he avoids the disabled list it wouldn't be surprising to see Mauer's workload behind the plate expand.

Other "offseason outlook" write-ups: Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe, Ryan Doumit

This week's blog content is sponsored by Paul Bennett, an Independent Certified Financial Planner Practitioner. Discover what he can do for you at PaulMBennett.com. And please support him for supporting AG.com.

  • jmpeltier

    Wow. Great article with a seeming endless supply of stats that back up your point. I didn’t quite understand the booing that Mauer received last season, and this article does a great job of illustrating why people should do their research rather than following the crowd. I always hear the argument that because he gets paid so much, he should be able to hit more home runs. Based on your summation, he is clearly more valuable than just as a home run hitter.

  • Dave T

    Thanks very much Aaron. I didn’t mind the booing by fans that much — people still boo Pierzynski when he comes to town. I do mind when knowledgeable observers boo Mauer in their blogs and comments. Your writeup does a good job of illuminating his value to the Twins.

  • al

    What was Morneau’s “huge” rbi total again? I think around 75.

  • Joe

    Al – pretty sure he was referring to previous years. Not sure if you remember, but Morneau used to consistently drive in over 100 runs per year.

  • Mike

    This sounds like AG is ready to replace Mila Kunis with Mauer.

  • Ben

    I agree with your argument that Mauer will be under-appreciated by many fans, and was worth his 23m/yr salary this last year, but that’s absent team context. The Twins are a team that needs to extract surplus value from players, not pay market-price for players, even if they are worth it. It makes sense to pay market for a player if they put you into contention, but Mauer doesn’t put the Twins in contention. Instead, the Twins’ payroll is to a large extent ossified for the near future because of Mauer’s (and others’) contracts. It’s no Vernon Wells situation, like some Twins fans will mistakenly think, but even if Mauer is worth the contract for the duration, is it actually worth it? Then again, I’m not sure I trust our front office to spend 23 million dollars better anyway, so maybe it’s a moot point?

  • Steve L.

    Just an FYI, while Mauer was being booed early in the season, some of those same stats you identify as being great at the end of the season were abysmal, as well as some others such as late in games, behind on scoreboard, and several situational hitting categories. It was a “what have you done for me lately thing” at that time coming off his season before. I wrote about it with the intent that because of Mauer’s history, he would end the season as he did with great numbers, but many didn’t take it that way. Best number I pulled was “late & close” from Baseball-Reference.com, which is plate appearances in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck. His OPS near the end of April (when those boos were prominent) in those situations was .397. Again, that was his OPS (and yes I realize the small sample size distinction, point is, the boo-birds did not and these #’s were the reason for it). At the time, he just wasn’t coming through when he was the exact player that needed to. Of course it all evened out over the rest of the season, but in Mauer’s case, people tend to magnify their reactions when he’s bad because of his profile here.

  • http://ScottHarrisArt.com scotharr

    Excellent article, but I don’t know how they’re going to fit it all on his HOF plaque.

  • Matt

    There are statues of Mauer around town and he’s not even retired. How many other players get appreciated that much?

  • al

    Joe, check the context. I am pretty sure Aaron was referring to 2012; if I am wrong about the intent, I certainly agree that Morneau was very good for several years.

  • Steve V

    The Twins had tons of problems last year, but Mauer sure wasn’t one of them—despite the bad press.

    He likely wont be the problem next year either.

    Steve V

  • mike wants wins

    If you set a budget of $80MM, a $23MM player is a problem for the team. I’m not sure people were booing Mauer, or the team’s use of their money. It’s not like Terry Ryan and Bill Smith walk out there every game…..but then, I didn’t go to a game and ask people why they were booing, maybe they were actually booing Mauer. Also, some games he did not get a hit. In the context of that game, I can see people booing him for the performance in that game. I doubt people generally cheer or boo based on year long stats. I think it is much more situational than that.

  • J.T.

    Aaron, I read tons of baseball articles and blogs these days and yours are easily my favorite. I generally agree with you and even when I don’t, I love the way you write.

  • ewen21

    I don’t dispute Mauer is a uniquely talented hitter, but he does have weaknesses which are readily observable and easily supported with data and anecdotal records. I think lack of home runs is a symptom of his approach to hitting. Even with the sparkly batting average, RISP numbers and league leading OBP he still was barely able to scrape the top 200 in home runs in an injury free season. One would think a guy with Mauer’s size, legendary eye and amazing talents can find a pitch in a hitter’s count to his liking and blast it to kingdom come every so often. This is not to say he needs to be a power hitter. Exactly 100 players hit 18 or more homers in the league last season. Mauer should at least be able to penetrate the bottom of that list by accident in most seasons. As it is he ranked 180 in homers. Aaron says he’s pulling the ball about half the time, but that’s half the story. Almost everything he pulled last season was on the ground and virtually nothing was driven into right field with authority. My claim is he isn’t ‘using the whole field’ anymore–he’s now using only parts of the field. This should be obvious to anyone who watches the games but if you need statistics or anecdotal records go look at his spray chart from last year over at Texas Leaguers.com and feel free to check his play log over at fan graphs.com. With regards to his ISO power Aaron says he was ‘around his norm’ but is that actually a good thing? Mauer’s percentage of extra base hits to hits last season was firmly entrenched in the below average range. In fact, his ISO ranked 114th out of 143 hitters qualifying. It wouldn’t be problematic if he were a speedster but he isn’t. Aaron also lumped ground ball % in as being ’around his norm’ but he failed to acknowledge the five season trend. The percentage of balls hit on the ground from ’08 to ’12 was as follows: 49.2, 47.8, 46.8, 55.4, 52.6–there’s actually pretty significant spike up these last two years. And again, we can see this with simple observation. Facts are stubborn things people. No sense attempting to conceal them.

  • aweb

    I’m surprised you are using CS% as a proxy for Mauer’s defensive contribution. I’m not sure how Mauer rates in other aspects, but you did note that fewer balls got by him. CS% is a small part of catcher defense, it just happens to be the one that has been available for 100 years. Mauer seemed to rank OK here: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=17623

  • Josh

    Yep, I think this pretty well encapsulates Mauer’s season and current prospects. A few small notes that I’d add: Mauer grounded into too many double plays again (23), which is really the only major hole in his out-avoidance. If he could increase his power production a bit next season (I’m looking at 2006 as a reasonable level) it would make a big difference.

    Mauer’s value to the team is actually higher than Fan Graphs’s allocation, because he has greater value off the field to the Twins than any other team. Despite the ripping he gets from certain local media outlets (Dan Barreiro, are your ears burning?) and booing from a sector of fans early in the season, Mauer has a PR value to the team that is a significant bonus above his value on the field.

    Joe’s an amazing player on a HoF trajectory for his career. I will enjoy watching him again this year.

    One thing missing from this article that I’d love to see addressed: would the Twins (and perhaps even Mauer) be better off if he hit 2nd, rather than 3rd? He seems very well suited to the role, taking lots of pitches, ridiculous OBP, lower power and lack of another suitable candidate on the team.

  • Nic Cage

    @ewen21

    Mauer’s Batted Balls, when Pulled:

    LD/GB/FB

    2012: 11.5/85.1/3.4
    2010: 12.5/79.2/8.3
    2009: 14.5/77.6/7.9
    2006: 20.0/73.3/6.7 (his best year)
    Career: 14.7/78.3/7.0

    This isn’t exactly a new thing. The overwhelming majority of Mauer’s pulled balls have been on the ground. Sure, it spiked last season at 85.1, and that’s a number we’d all like to see come down, but that was based on 101 ABs. That’s when you’ve got to ask whether that’s a small-sample fluke, or a real indication of his skill. As of now, that question is inconclusive.

    Anyway, the point of what I’m saying is that your only criticisms of Mauer aren’t anything new (lack of power, pulls a lot of balls on the ground), and are flaws that have (largely) always been present and (largely) always been overcome by him to be a great (if not elite) player.

  • Sean

    @ Josh: Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols, among others, have led the league in GIDP over the last couple of years. Mauer hits third. It comes with the territory.

    I do think he should hit leadoff or second, however, and I think the fans would be more willing to accept his 10 homerun/year average if that was the case. Perhaps the problem with accepting Mauer for his talents starts with Twins management, not the Twins’ fan base.

  • ewen21

    Nic Cage–thanks for that. You are correct, that particular flaw has always been present. Simple observation is enough for me to know this, but it’s my concern he is trending in the wrong direction in a number of categories when it comes to where he’s hitting batted balls. I’m hoping he’s actually doing some different kind of program for the offseason to get himself better prepared. It seems to me he could stand to be physically stronger. I think part of the problem with Mauer is that he’s not properly conditioned and that he doesn’t utilize the offseason well. As time goes by this will become more and more of an issue if it isn’t addressed. This is why I feel his longevity is very questionable and it’s also why I find it absurd to start having HOF discussions about him at this juncture.

  • ThePuck

    Fantastic article! Great job as always. Of course, religious Mauer haters will discard the info and continue to slam Mauer, often in condescending ways as if they are the smartest people in the room, which they rarely, if ever, are.

  • ThePuck

    Of course, there are legitimate gripes with Mauer’s game, as there is with practically every player in the history of the game; however, instead of looking at the overall picture of his game, which this article does a great job of doing, some just want to focus on all the negative. They refuse to see the greatness in front of them. It’s sad for them.

  • Drew

    “The Twins are a team that needs to extract surplus value from players, not pay market-price for players, even if they are worth it.”

    Which is why they need to hire Gandalf as their GM.

  • MC

    I’d argue that if the Twins are getting anywhere near $23 million dollars in production, the Twins are getting lots of surplus value in the marketing department. It was an absolute must sign and they did what they had to do.

    Now, the rest of the roster has not held together a competitive team so they’re scaling back payroll because they don’t believe they have a competitive team and because they haven’t for two years, the fans don’t so they’re spending to their anticipated payrolls. The challenge I have with that all is that they likely could get more wins if resources were spent wisely but I think they’re doing the right moves this off season with the exception of Coria. I’d have liked them to bring back Baker but I think they misjudged the market on pitchers. He’s clearly worth more than Pelfrey and if the idea is they want to be able to keep some of their talent, a one year premium for Baker would have been good will with the other players. To me it’s an opportunity lost to see what he had and whether they want him around for longer. I think Baker is a top 60 pitcher when healthy and the Twins don’t have a guy on the 40 man I think you can say would be a top 60 in 2013 or 2014.

  • rachel

    I didn’t comment on this the first time I read it, but did forward it to a few people and made the mental note to re-read it sometime in April or May. Saw it again in the Friday links and wanted to say thanks – great piece and some good insights as to who he is as a player. Sometimes our emotions can cloud those.