August 28, 2013

Does a concussion mean it’s time to move Joe Mauer away from catcher?

joe mauer first base

Talk of moving Joe Mauer from catcher to another position has been common since 2004 when his rookie season was ruined by knee surgery and got loudest when he spent half of 2011 on the disabled list, but recently he's been so healthy and productive that it's become little more than a whisper. Unfortunately the volume is rising again because Mauer is on the DL and out indefinitely after suffering a concussion while catching last week. It's a very complicated question.

Since coming back from his injury wrecked 2011 season Mauer has hit .321 with a .410 on-base percentage and .460 slugging percentage in 1,149 plate appearances. Among all catchers with at least 600 plate appearances during that two-year span Mauer leads MLB in on-base percentage, ranks second in batting average a few points behind Yadier Molina, and is tied with Molina for second in adjusted OPS+ behind Buster Posey.

However you slice it Mauer has been one of the three best-hitting catchers in baseball over the past two years and his combined .321/.410/.460 mark during that time is nearly identical to his .323/.405/.468 career line. And looking at his career totals paints Mauer in an even better light, because he's maintained his level of excellence for a decade. Here are the hitting leaders among active catchers with at least 1,000 career plate appearances:

BATTING AVERAGE            ON-BASE PERCENTAGE         SLUGGING PERCENTAGE
JOE MAUER         .323     JOE MAUER         .405     Buster Posey      .497
Buster Posey      .312     Buster Posey      .379     Brian McCann      .477
Yadier Molina     .285     Carlos Santana    .365     JOE MAUER         .468
A.J. Pierzynski   .284     John Jaso         .364     Carlos Santana    .446
Jonathan Lucroy   .281     Ryan Hanigan      .364     David Ross        .442

Mauer has the best batting average by 11 points over Posey and at least 38 points over everyone else. Mauer has the best on-base percentage by 26 points over Posey and at least 40 points over everyone else. And he ranks third in slugging percentage behind Posey and Brian McCann. Add it all up and here are the active catching leaders in overall offensive production according to OPS, adjusted OPS+, and weighted on-base average:

OPS                        ADJUSTED OPS+              WEIGHTED ON-BASE
Buster Posey      .876     Buster Posey       146     JOE MAUER         .377
JOE MAUER         .873     JOE MAUER          135     Buster Posey      .376
Brian McCann      .827     Carlos Santana     128     Brian McCann      .355
Carlos Santana    .811     Brian McCann       118     Carlos Santana    .353
Miguel Montero    .780     John Jaso          114     Miguel Montero    .340

In terms of career-long production Mauer and Posey are the players with an argument for being the best-hitting catcher in baseball and Molina enters the mix if the most recent two seasons are given more weight. Mauer has also been an asset defensively, throwing out 43 percent of steal attempts this season and 33 percent for his career compared to the MLB average of 25 percent. And for whatever value you choose to place in Gold Glove awards Mauer has three of them.

Whether you focus on recent performances or career-long track records Mauer stands out as one of the two or three best catchers in all of baseball and certainly has a strong argument for being the best catcher considering he's maintained elite status for much longer than Posey or Molina. However, if you take his 2012/2013 numbers and make those same comparisons to first basemen (and designated hitters) instead of catchers Mauer slides down the rankings a bit:

BATTING AVERAGE            ON-BASE PERCENTAGE         SLUGGING PERCENTAGE
Joey Votto        .324     Joey Votto        .451     David Ortiz       .589
JOE MAUER         .321     JOE MAUER         .410     Chris Davis       .585
David Ortiz       .318     David Ortiz       .406     Edwin Encarnacion .546
Allen Craig       .310     Prince Fielder    .383     Joey Votto        .533
Billy Butler      .303     Paul Goldschmidt  .378     Paul Goldschmidt  .518
                                                      ...
                                                      JOE MAUER         .460

If you compare Mauer to first basemen rather than catchers he falls behind Joey Votto as his position's king of batting average and on-base percentage, although Mauer still ranks second in both categories for 2012/2013. However, the big change is that while slugging .460 gets Mauer ranked among the top half-dozen catchers for 2012/2013 it would place just 20th among first basemen and designated hitters during that same time. Here's a look at overall production:

OPS                        ADJUSTED OPS+              WEIGHTED ON-BASE
David Ortiz       .995     David Ortiz        166     Joey Votto        .419
Joey Votto        .985     Joey Votto         163     David Ortiz       .415
Chris Davis       .941     Chris Davis        151     Chris Davis       .396
Edwin Encarnacion .922     Edwin Encarnacion  148     Edwin Encarnacion .391
Paul Goldschmidt  .896     Paul Goldschmidt   141     Paul Goldschmidt  .382
...                        ...                        ...
JOE MAUER         .870     JOE MAUER          140     JOE MAUER         .379

Mauer narrowly misses cracking the top-five first basemen in OPS, adjusted OPS+, and weighted on-base average for 2012/2013, ranking sixth in all three categories. Beyond focusing on where he'd stand relative to the truly elite players at each position, his place relative to the average at each position would also fall. Mauer has an .870 OPS for 2012/2013, which is 22 percent above average for a catcher versus 12 percent above average for a first baseman.

As a catcher Mauer is arguably the best at his position and no worse than the top three, producing 20-25 percent more offense than an average player. As a first baseman he'd have zero claim to being the best at his position and realistically slot somewhere in the 5-10 range, producing 10-15 percent more offense than an average player. Or, put another way: By moving from catcher to first base he'd go from elite to merely very good and All-Star spots might be hard to come by.

Of course, it's not as simple as looking at where his production would rank at a new position. By moving away from catcher and avoiding the daily physical toll Mauer should in theory be able to stay healthier, play more games, and increase his offensive output. So perhaps instead of being a top-three catcher for 135 games he'd be a top-eight first baseman for 155 games. And maybe he'd go from a top-eight first baseman to a top-five first baseman by not wearing down as much.

None of that is set in stone, however. For one thing simply playing first base or even designated hitter doesn't make someone immune to injuries and wearing down, as Justin Morneau has sadly demonstrated. There's also no guarantee that moving out from behind the plate will automatically increase Mauer's output at the plate. Mauer's odds of staying healthy and upping his production should be better at a position other than catcher, but it's impossible to know for certain.

Having a great-hitting catcher impacts a lineup a few ways, because in addition to being a strong bat his presence also keeps the team from having to use a weak-hitting catcher and leaves a spot open for another strong bat who doesn't have to be much of a defender at first base, an outfield corner, or designated hitter. If the Twins move Mauer they'd have to find a new catcher who'd be a sizable downgrade offensively and they'd have one less spot for a defensively challenged bat.

In terms of in-house options to replace Mauer at catcher Ryan Doumit is under contract for 2014, Chris Herrmann is holding his own as a rookie, and Josmil Pinto is a step away from the majors at Triple-A. Of course, Doumit catches like a designated hitter, Pinto might end up at designated hitter, and Herrmann is a 25-year-old with a .372 career slugging percentage in the minors. It's not a terrible set of options, but that mostly just speaks to the overall weakness of the position.

Another potential issue with a position switch is that assuming Mauer's production declines as he gets deeper into his thirties like the standard aging curve he'd remain an above-average catcher for much longer because the bar is so low at the position. First base is a much different story, as a decline-phase Mauer hitting, say, .285 with 10 homers and a .750 OPS, would drop to the bottom of the positional pile pretty quickly. He's signed through age 35, in 2018.

Ultimately, though, here's why the speculation about Mauer changing positions has started up again after being dormant for a while: Catching puts players at much higher risk for concussions and none of the above numbers will mean anything if Mauer's career is derailed by brain injuries like Morneau and Corey Koskie before him. Mauer is a great catcher and might "only" be a good first baseman, but a good first baseman is more valuable than a catcher disabled by brain trauma.

This is an impossible question to answer definitively, because brain injuries are so unpredictable that even MLB organizations with $100 million payrolls and doctors with high levels of expertise and decades of experience struggle to effectively diagnosis and treat concussions. In general the amount of Mauer's value that comes from being a catcher and in turn his all-around value are often undersold, but the "should Mauer change positions?" question is no longer just about value.

For a lengthy discussion about a potential Mauer position switch, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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  • Al Bethke

    It has nothing to do with the concussion to me, it has to do with the aging of an outstanding hitter. I would have done it when Ramos was ready, but now, with Morneau’s contract up, I’d love to see what he could do with 155 games at 1B…..350/400/.500?

  • frightwig

    I realize that moving Mauer to 3B would also decrease his value, but not as much as moving him to 1B. I wonder why this has never been discussed as a viable option. You’d think an agile catcher like Mauer should be able to play the hot corner, given some practice, better than most. And it’s not like anyone has locked down the position since Corey Koskie left.

    Not that moving Mauer should be the first preference, of course. But, if he has to be moved soon, why not 3rd base? And whenever Sano is ready to come up for good, what the hell, make HIM your next MOTO slugging 1st baseman.

    • Scott

      Completely agree. Aaron, why not 3b? Johnny Bench made the move, so did Joe Torre. There’s even an article within the last week asking the same about moving Posey to 3b. Again, why not 3b?

      • http://aarongleeman.com/ Aaron Gleeman

        Johnny Bench started more than 50 games at third base once in his entire career and was retired a year later.

        • Scott

          And Mauer hasn’t started more than 30 games at first base once in his entire career at 1b. But, okay, fine, Bench is not the best example but Torre is a good example. Heck, Inge, Zeile, Surhoff and Nevin each made the move. Yes, I know they don’t compare to Mauer as a player, but the move has been made by catchers before.

    • http://aarongleeman.com/ Aaron Gleeman

      Mauer has never played a single inning at third base during his 13-year professional career and the Twins have the best third base prospect in baseball essentially one step from the majors.

      • Scott

        And until 2011, Mauer had played a grand total of 14 innings at first base during his then 11 year professional career (when he was 19 and 20 years old in the lower minors) so the fact that he hasn’t played there doesn’t seem to be a reason. He’s athletic enough that he could play 3B and make the throws. Except for Sano (which is a big except), you haven’t actually offered any reason why Mauer hasn’t been considered for 3B at all.

        • http://aarongleeman.com/ Aaron Gleeman

          Not having played first base before and not having played third base before are very different things.

          • Scott

            Buster Posey has never played a single game at 3B yet even Bruce Bochy thinks he could make the transition. I’m just wondering why Posey is considered at 3B, but not Mauer.

          • http://aarongleeman.com/ Aaron Gleeman

            Buster Posey played shortstop in high school, college, and summer leagues.

          • Scott

            7 years ago. Fine.

            Torre made the transition to 3b at 29 years old and he never played a game at 3b from what I can see. Maybe he did in grade school so then he qualifies I suppose.

          • http://aarongleeman.com/ Aaron Gleeman

            I can’t tell if you’re just being argumentative or you legitimately don’t see the difference between first base and third base, or the difference between being a college shortstop and never playing an infield spot. Either way, you asked and I answered. Sorry you don’t like my answer.

          • Scott

            I guess I just sincerely believe Mauer could play third base. Yes, there’s a difference between the positions (1b & 3b), but since Joe is still athletic, has good reaction time, has a strong arm, understands the defensive portion of the game (footwork, positioning, etc Catchers deal with that every day), third base is not a stretch for him. Right now, Joe is a Hall of Famer and HOFers have the ability to adapt. So, yeah, I guess I don’t like your answer, but that’s okay, I like most of your articles. It’s probably moot though with, as you pointed out, Sano being so close.

            Re: Posey, yes he played shortstop exclusively when he was a freshman in college (and the following summer league) but he hasn’t played it since (hence 7 years ago). The best athlete on lots of teams played SS, doesn’t mean they were any good at the position. The first time he was drafted was as a catcher in 2008 (I believe), so I doubt he was a wizard at short. If he had been, he’d have been drafted (he had the numbers offensively) and wizards who hit like he did (Freshman All-American) usually get drafted. Maybe you have some insight into that (unsignable? his coach at FSU was a relative? he was a she at the time?)

            That’s all I’ve got. Done now.

          • Furney

            Actually, they aren’t that different. Slight differences in the footwork, and obviously the throw (which would be easy for Joe). However, Sano is on his way. No point in putting Joe at 3rd now.
            I’d like to see him stay at catcher where he retains the most value.

          • http://aarongleeman.com/ Aaron Gleeman

            Ah yes, first base and third base “aren’t that different” except for “slight differences in the footwork.” I’ll show myself out, thanks.

          • Furney

            As someone who spent a great deal of time playing baseball, and now spends time working camps and coaching, I can tell you, the differences between 1st and 3rd aren’t that great.
            Sure. If a third baseman struggles, he’ll get moved to first (or outfield, but usually first). But, an athletic first baseman can make the transition from first to third.
            Heck, even Don Mattingly played third a few times in the majors, and he throws left handed!

          • Fuzzy Gringo

            Okay, I’ll bite – please explain the great difference, since you seem to be the ultimate authority on it.

        • John Baranick

          Yup, that Joe Mauer, good athlete and all, but he’s no Michael Cuddyer….

          • http://aarongleeman.com/ Aaron Gleeman

            Michael Cuddyer was drafted as a shortstop and played 400 games at third base in the minor leagues.

          • Frank Reynolds

            I’m almost certain, since Aaron keeps dodging the question, that the sole reason he thinks there’s a difference between first and third is because one has a larger positional adjustment in WAR or something. It’s awkward watching him try to defend something he doesn’t quite understand by just spitting out unrelated numbers – like getting a recipe from someone who has never cooked.
            Not everything about baseball can be looked up on baseball reference or fangraphs.

          • John Baranick

            Aaron, please check to see if your sarcasm detector is firmly in the “on” position.

  • glAssJaw

    I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to switch defensive positions at the
    major league level after catching your entire life. That is insane. But players have done it and played at the same or better level. Josh Donaldson seemed to figure out how to do it and is having a career year after getting out from behind the dish. Brandon Inge had a couple of nice years after not primarily catching. Who knows. Logically speaking, if you asked a MLB player “would be more tired in the 7th inning if you caught the whole game or played RF the whole game?” 100% of the time they would say catching. That cannot be argued. That all being said, watching Mauer effortlessly throw seeds down to 2B at 94MPH is always fun to watch and I will miss it if/when they do move him.

  • Son of Shane Mack

    Really great article. It looks at all of the angles of this issue.

    I especially agreed with how moving Mauer out from behind the plate affects the lineup. While I don’t have a problem with him DH’s or playing 1B from time to time, it drove me crazy when people said he should play whatever other position because “it doesn’t matter.”

    Of course it matters.

    Even more irritating is how the Twins have often “wasted” these prime Mauer years. For 6-7 years the Twins have had an outstanding hitting and defensive catcher. It’s rare. It’s so rare.

    It’s an opportunity to build a truly formidable lineup. There’s few excuses for having dead spots in the order, because the spot that is almost always such is instead one of the pillars of the offense.

    Yet, all too often the Twins have taken this to mean that instead they’ll have dead spots several other places – often 3B, SS, or one of the OF spots. SS is, like catcher, a difficult position in which to get offense and defense, yet it has become more common in this era, except in Minnesota. So, instead of putting a lineup together that’s competent 1-9, which the Twins could actually do, unlike many teams (thanks to Mauer) they give ABs to folks like Punto, Valencia, Tolbert, Buscher, Casilla, etc.

    Back in 2001 or 2002 (or 2003), they lacked the kind of professional hitter that Mauer is, but they had a balanced lineup, full of capable players.

    Depressing.

  • SoCal Al

    Great article Aaron as always. Your article and comments reminded me of an interesting article about position change I read last year. http://disciplesofuecker.com/around-the-diamond-and-back/4690

  • twm

    The Royals just set their single-season record against an opponent with 15 wins against the Twins this year. Maybe someone with subscriber access to BR’s play index can put together a list of the Twins’ worst in-season records against a single opponent. Actually, I’d like to know how many other teams have come close to dominating another team as the Royals have done to the Twins.

  • ML

    Why not 3B? One word: Sano.