September 24, 2007

Player X

Earlier this season Torii Hunter suggested publicly that Joe Mauer needed to be more willing to play through injuries despite the fact that Hunter himself had missed 103 games over the previous three seasons, with Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan later jumping on the bandwagon by first opining that Mauer should move to a less-demanding position defensively and then essentially accusing Mauer of inventing injuries.

Mauer has largely remained silent despite the various criticisms thrown his way, but Official Twins Beat Writer of LaVelle E. Neal III reported Sunday that he's been playing through a hernia since midseason and may require surgery. Along with the apparent hernia, Mauer was briefly shut down in spring training because of a stress reaction in his leg, missed a month with a strained quadriceps, and was sidelined for two weeks with a strained hamstring.

He's clearly been playing at less than 100 percent while gingerly jogging around the bases since returning from the hamstring injury earlier this month, but that doesn't seem to have done much to lessen the perception that he's fragile, injury prone, and lacks toughness. Meanwhile, Mauer has fought through the various injuries to log almost 800 innings at baseball's most physically demanding position after catching 1,000 innings in 2005 and 1,059 innings in 2006.

Mauer ranks 12th among AL catchers in innings behind the plate this season and combined over the past three years only 10 catchers in all of baseball have logged more innings defensively. During that three-year span, he's caught essentially the same number of innings as Yadier Molina, has been behind the plate more often than Bengie Molina, Ramon Hernandez, Johnny Estrada, Michael Barrett, John Buck, and Miguel Olivo, and is within about 100 innings of Jason Varitek and Brian Schneider.

Mauer ranks first in all of baseball with a 54.5 caught-stealing percentage this season and combined over the past three years has gunned down 44.2 percent of would-be base-stealers. He also ranks fourth among all MLB catchers in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) this season and combined over the past three years only Victor Martinez (154.4) and Jorge Posada (135.8) boast a higher VORP total than Mauer's 129.6.

Mauer suffers from ridiculously high expectations, a focus on the few things he can't do instead of the many things he thrives at, and a lack of understanding about the difference between catcher and other positions. He's been among the best handful of catchers in baseball this year despite the fact that his season is often treated as a huge disappointment and over the past three years he's logged nearly 3,000 innings behind the plate while arguably being the single most valuable catcher in all of baseball.

Part of Mauer's "problem" is that hitting .347 as a 23-year-old catcher tends to raise expectations to unreachable levels. It sounds absurd now, but at this time last year the comments section here held heated arguments about whether or not Mauer should be "expected" to hit .347 again. The notion is ridiculous and most people surely realize that now, but at the time there were a shocking number of people who felt that Mauer should be counted on to make history on an annual basis.

Instead, what he's done this season is essentially duplicate his 2005 campaign:

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG     IsoP     IsoD      BB%      SO%      BIP
2005 .294 .372 .411 .117 .078 8.8 11.6 .322
2007 .288 .378 .415 .127 .090 10.1 11.0 .315

Those seasons are amazingly similar, especially considering that they surround a year in which he hit .347. Mauer drew a non-intentional walk in 9.5 percent of his plate appearances while batting .347 in 2006, which fits between his 2005 and 2007 walk rates, but the big differences came in strikeouts and batting average on balls in play. In 2005 and 2007, Mauer struck out 11.3 percent of the time and batted .318 on balls in play. In 2006, Mauer struck out 8.8 percent of the time and batted .364 on balls in play.

When you put 20 percent more balls in play and see them fall for hits 15 percent more often, that adds up to a huge increase in batting average. Mauer also had 28 percent more power in 2006, but was far from a power hitter, so the big difference in performance came from making more contact and seeing an unsustainably high percentage of balls in play drop for hits. Not only was counting on a repeat of 2006 silly, a career filled with his 2005 and 2007 seasons would be Hall of Fame-caliber for a catcher.

One of my favorite stats to look at when comparing hitters from different points in baseball history is OPS+, which adjusts for the often sizable differences in ballparks, eras, and leagues. A hitter playing his home games at Coors Field in 2007 is compiling numbers in a significantly different environment for offense than a hitter playing his home games at Dodger Stadium in 1968, and OPS+ attempts to adjust for that so fair comparisons can be made.

An OPS+ of 100 is exactly average. For their careers, Neifi Perez is at 63 and Albert Pujols is at 169. As a 24-year-old catcher finishing up his fourth big-league season, Mauer has compiled an OPS+ of 124, which coincidentally is the same OPS+ that Kirby Puckett finished his career with. To put that in further context, here's a complete list of all the catchers in baseball history with at least 1,000 games behind the plate who can boast a career OPS+ equal to or better than Mauer's:

Mike Piazza 143
Mickey Cochrane 128
Bill Dickey 127
Johnny Bench 126
Gabby Hartnett 126
Jorge Posada 126
Yogi Berra 125
Ernie Lombardi 125
Roy Campanella 124

Mauer has a long way to go before he reaches 1,000 games at catcher, but that's impressive company given that he's still several seasons from his assumed prime. So far, few catchers in baseball history have been as good offensively as Mauer. If you're curious, the average MLB catcher has posted an 88 OPS+ this season, whereas the average third baseman and designated hitter are at 107 and 110. Lastly, take a look at the following comparison of two well-known players and their career numbers:

              AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
Player X .312 .393 .456 .849 124
Player Z .317 .388 .461 .849 123

Both guys are active players who man up-the-middle positions defensively, but they're perceived much differently. Player X gets picked apart by fans and criticized constantly by the local media, while Player Z is perhaps the most fawned-upon player in baseball and has national media members asserting that he's "the best player of my lifetime" and "the best baseball player I ever saw." Oh, and between the two mystery men, only Player X has won a batting title.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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