The Best Player in the American League

September 25, 2008

The best player in the American League plays in relative anonymity, far from the maddening crowds in the northeast. He plays half of his games in an environment so toxically sterile that the game he plays seems a poor imitation of the real thing; lacking the grass and dusk light. He copes with a fan base more appreciative of an ex-teammates prone to making dramatic outfield catches, writers who view his contributions as second-best on the team, and an organization that is still waiting for him to hit for power. Despite all of this, Joe Mauer, the best player in the American League, endures. 

Catchers: a Historical Retrospective

How many catchers have won MVP awards? How many are in the Hall of Fame? How long did they have to wait to enter the Hall of Fame? 

The first catcher to win the MVP award was Bob O’Ferrall of the 1926 St. Louis Cardinals. He hit .293 for the World Series champs, with 7 homeruns and 69 RBI’s. It was a low-power league: Hack Wilson led the NL with 21 homeruns. Still, offense was important: the average team scored 4.54 runs per game, which is almost exactly the same number of runs NL teams scored in 2008 (4.53). They had a lot fewer homers in 1926, but more singles. 

Mickey Cochrane was the second backstop to win the MVP, and the first great catcher to win the award. He won the award in 1934, and it certainly helped his case that in 1928 former winners weren’t eligible for the award. Thus his .293 average and 10 homeruns didn’t face Ruth’s .323 average and 54 homeruns. Cochrane won the award again in 1934, when he posted a .320 line with 2 homeruns. Lou Gehrig, who won the American League Triple Crown with a .363 batting average and 49 homeruns, came in a distant fifth. 

Let’s consider that for a moment: Mickey Cochrane caught 129 games for the Tigers, hitting two homeruns. Lou Gehrig won the Triple Crown. Yet Cochrane won the award (he was, it should be said, the manager of that team, as well as the catcher). This started a trend of catchers as MVP’s: Cochrane was followed in short order by Gabby Harnett in 1935, and Ernie Lombardi in 1938. 

Then the MVP forgot about catchers for a solid decade, until the 1950’s rolled around. These were the glory years for catchers: between 1951-1955 ten MVP awards went out. Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella each won three. 

Elston Howard won an MVP in 1963. Johnny Bench won in 1970 and 1972. Munson won in 1976. Then the catchers when through a fallow period in the eyes of the voters. Between 1976 and 1999, no catcher won an MVP award. This despite the prime years of Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, and Mike Piazza, not to mention players like Tony Pena. In 1999 Ivan Rodriguez won the award, in what was considered a surprising vote. 

151 men have won MVP awards. Only ten of those players were catchers. In the last three decades only one catcher has won an MVP. The players who occupy the most important position on the diamond, the players who’s bodies suffer the most physical toil, who’s job is the most taxing, are almost forgotten about. 

How many are in the Hall of Fame? Sixteen. Of those how many of them had the bulk of their careers in after World War II? Five. Berra, Campanella, Bench, Fisk, and Carter. 

(People often cite third base as the most underrepresented position in the HOF, but there are seven post-WW2 third basemen in the HOF: Boggs, Brett, Mathews, Robinson, George Kell, Schmidt, and Paul Molitor.) 

And catchers sure seem to have to wait a while. Gary Carter was the best catcher of his generation (okay, him or Fisk). Carter was clockwork: he’d get 25-30 homers, 80-100 RBI’s, a good average, good work behind the plate. It took him six years on the ballot to get in. Six

Ernie Lombardi, the last catcher to win a batting title, retired in 1947. He was elected to the Hall in 1986. 

Bottom line: catchers don’t get no respect. 

Your #1 Draft Pick…

People see a big guy and think he should hit home runs. I see a guy catching and leading the league in hitting.  - Ron Gardenhire, Twins Manager

Joe Mauer has never fulfilled his promise as a major league player. 

This has as much to do with perception as it does with ability. When we think about catchers, we tend to think about heavy-set guys who hit a few homeruns, and block the plate from runners. And Mauer is big: he’s 6-5, 230 pounds. But the knock on Mauer, the topic of most of the articles written about him, is his lack of power. The expectation was that he would develop into a power hitter, a guy who hits 20-30 homers a year. He hasn’t. He’s actually getting worse at hitting homeruns:

 

AB per HR

2004

17.8

2005

54.3

2006

40.1

2007

58.0

2008

57.0

This year, Mauer didn’t hit his first homerun in 2008 until June 2. That was his 51st game of the season. 

But to look at Joe Mauer’s record and see only his failure to hit homeruns is sort of like visiting the Mona Lisa and only seeing her nose. Joe Mauer does everything else very well. He is the only American League catcher to ever lead the league in batting average (and he’s about to do it again). Among qualified catchers he’s third to only Jason Kendall and Dioner Navarro in throwing out base-stealers. He is fourth in fielding Win Shares and second in fielding percentage in the majors. He is an excellent baserunner, rating a +19 for this year alone (according to the baserunning analysis on this site), and has stolen 30 bases in 36 attempts, for a fine 83% success rate. He is second in the league in Win Shares, one behind Justin Morneau. Finally, he’s been absolutely amazing in crucial situations: in 2008 he’s posted a .383/.500/.550 line in 60 at-bats, and has carried the Twins on their run to the postseason. 

So yeah, he hasn’t hit homeruns. So what? Let’s show some sophistication, people. Some taste. 

Should Joe Mauer Be the 2008 MVP?

I think so, yes. 

He leads the majors in Win Probability Added and is second in Win Shares. He plays a crucial defensive position on a surprise team, and has been an integral part of that team’s success. 

Dustin Pedroia will probably win the AL MVP. I’m fine with that, but Pedroia is second on his team in Win Shares (behind Kevin Youkilis), and second among American League 2B’s behind Ian Kinsler. Mauer, playing a far more demanding defensive position, on a less talented team, and he’s been far and away the best catcher in baseball.  

I don’t think Mauer will win an MVP, not until he reaches benchmarks like 20 homeruns or 100 RBI’s. And I think, someday, he’ll start reaching those benchmarks. But he’s the best player in the American League this year, as he was in 2006. 

His Place in History

Joe Mauer is already one of the great young catchers in baseball history. A look at his Win Share numbers, alongside other catchers: 

 

Cochrane

Berra

Bench

Carter

I-Rod

Mauer

Age 19

0

0

2

0

6

0

Age 20

0

0

23

2

13

0

Age 21

0

2

28

18

15

6

Age 22

16

11

34

6

15

22

Age 23

14

18

19

25

16

30

Age 24

23

21

37

22

23

21

Age 25

22

32

26

28

26

28

Total

75

84

167

101

108

107

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Absent from this list are Fisk and Piazza, mostly because they started later than these other guys (Fisk notched 33 Win Shares at Age 24, his first full season in the majors, while Piazza notched 31 during his Rookie-of-the-Year season). Absent, too, is Roy Campanella, who didn’t reach the majors until he was 26, and Josh Gibson, who didn’t reach the majors at all. 

Against this company Mauer does well: only Bench had more seasons of sustained excellence than Mauer has at his age.

Of all the catchers, Mauer is most similar to Cochrane, and to Jason Kendall. All three men posted high batting averages and high on-base percentages, with little power. Mauer isn’t as fast as Kendall was, but he’s faster than Cochrane, and he strikes out less than Kendall. 

Do I think Mauer has a chance to one of the all-time greats? I do. He has a chance to be a top-10 catcher, maybe a top-5. He’s already behind Bench, and Yogi’s going to give him some competition over the next few years. But Joe Mauer’s done a lot of remarkable things: he had two batting titles in five years, and a career on-base percentage of .400. He’s a remarkable player: the best player in the American League.  

 
 

COMMENTS (17 Comments, most recent shown first)

ventboys
Now that Texiera has signed with the Yankees, he has to be added to the argument. In my fantasy baseball league, his poit total was higher than anyone in the AL last year, though it was split between leagues. We have a good point system, with almost no fluky point totals, though there is no defensive adjustments.

Tex versus Mauer has the same problems as Mauer versus Arod, but he's easily comparable to Justin Morneau. Personally, I expect that this argument will be Mauer versus Longoria in a year or 2, anyway.
12:47 PM Dec 26th
 
ventboys
Oops, I kinda got off the track there. Going into 2008, the best player in the American League was, virtually by acclimation, Alex Rodriguez. Others that get support would be Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, Joe Mauer, Vlad Guerrero, Manny Ramirez (maybe, he had an off year in 2007), who else?

Jeter, in my mind, is cooked as an all star. He's been a great player, and you never know, but he has regressed dramatically in the last 2 years. Ortiz is one dimensional, getting old for his type, and was not all that great in 2008. Manny you probably heard about, he's currently not even in the league though, so we'll wait on that. Vladdie was injured, is getting older and wasn't really up to Arod's standards even at his peak.

Mauer, I will concede, is possibly the ONLY player that could be argued for over Arod at this writing, and the apples and oranges nature of the comparison makes for an interesting argument. I am a big Mauer fan.
6:46 PM Dec 19th
 
ventboys
It was a weird year in the AL. All of the established superstars, or virtually all, had injuries, regression, or both. Looking at the top 8 playersr in the 2007 MVP vote, along with a couple of others of note:

Alex Rodriquez- 35-103 in 138 games, his team disappointed, he missed 24 games, and his percentage stats dropped off some from his career year in 2007.

Magglio Ordonez- His numbers came back to earth. He remains what he was before and after his huge 2007: A good, all star caliber player, but not really an MVP candidate.

Vlad Guerrero- Injury issues led to an off year, though a closing rush got him to .303-27-91, good but well below his previous levels.

David Ortiz- Season pretty much wrecked by injuries.

Mike Lowell- Fluke season in 2007, not normally a serous MVP candidate. He hit almost exactly his career norms in 2008, and didn't get a vote.

Jorge Posada- Fluke batting average in 2007, injury issues in 2008.

Victor Martinez- Major injury issues in 2008, team underachieved as well.

Ichiro Suzuki- BA dropped 40 points, peripherals dropped about the same, and his team stunk up the joint.

Picking Mauer as the #1 player in the AL right now might be correct, I won't argue that strongly against it. I'd still pick Arod, though. This reminds me of an article Bill did in his last Abstract, called "Rain Delay". He ended up picking Wade Boggs as the best in the game, misled partly by his power surge in 1987, and partly by a horsebleep, injury year from Rickey Henderson. Order was restored in 1988 and beyond, and Bill was moved to correct himself later in another book, not that he had to. It's not like Wade Boggs wasn't terrific, and it isn't that Joe Mauer isn't, either.

Arod is 33, will be 34 in July, which is old for a player (even an all time great) to still be at the very top of the league. Joe Mauer might be passing him as we speak, but I am not sure that he's there yet. He might want to get a move on, though. Evan Longoria might be gaining....
6:36 PM Dec 19th
 
DaveFleming
I am happy to report that Joe Mauer has won the Bill James Online 2008 AL MVP.
10:22 PM Dec 6th
 
evanecurb
I like the disussion about the defensive importance of the catcher position and I keep coming back to it. Catcher is a necessary position that requires a unique set of skills. As Dave and birtlecom point out, catchers' average and replacement level offensive production are lower than that of other positions on the field. This is catchers who produce a lot offensively are so valuable. It is not that they create a lot of extra outs with their defense; it is instead that they produce from a spot in the lineup that ordinarily is not productive. So catching is not the most important position defensively, but it is a necessary position requiring a unique set of skills.
3:27 PM Sep 29th
 
THBR
To Ralph C: Touche! I deserved that. It was just as bad in my grade school days as it is now. LOL
2:05 PM Sep 29th
 
nettles9
From "THBR": "As I say, those are minor criticisms. It sure DOES look like catchers don't get no respect. I'm impressed by the Win Shares table; it's good to have this argument put in a capsule form. You may have a point there."

I have one minor criticism of your reply to this article: 1) "Don't get no respect" means that they DO get respect. If you meant they get no respect, you should have typed "don't get any respect" or "do get no respect". I suspect this isn't a typo on your part because many people say this type of thing on a regular basis, so I'm going to assume you meant that as you typed it. Example: "He don't know nothing" when they mean a person doesn't know anything. "He don't know nothing" means he knows something. One should say or type "He doesn't know anything" or "He does know nothing".

What happened to grade school teachers, indeed.
2:20 AM Sep 28th
 
birtelcom
Well, one thing we do know (see b-ref's league splits) is that the MLB-wide OPS for all catchers this season is .716, for SS it's .717, for 2B it's .747, for CF its .755, for 3B its .775, for corner OF its in the .790s, and for 1B its .819. That at least gives one a general comparative sense of what differing levels of offensiove performance a team would have to fall back to if it did not have a Mauer at catcher, a Pedroia at second, or for comparison say, a Morneau at first.
2:52 PM Sep 27th
 
macthomason
Well, you have two of of three full seasons of VORP going to McCann, so at least it's not clear-cut. I'm biased, admittedly, but I'll take the guy with the power. Also, it's fairly ridiculous to complain about Mauer getting too little attention with McCann performing at least a comparable level and getting about a quarter the attention.
1:12 PM Sep 26th
 
DaveFleming
Because a few people brought McCann up:

Win Shares (by age)
Age 21: Mauer 6, McCann 6
Age 22: Mauer 22, McCann 22
Age 23: Mauer 30, McCann 15
Age 24: Mauer 21, McCann 18
Age 25: Mauer 29, McCann ??

At Age 24 Mauer is ahead 79 to 61. The hitting split is close: Mauer 50, McCann 46. As defensive players, Mauer nets a big edge, 28 to 16.

A glance at VORP (an offense-only stat):
Age 21: Mauer 12.6, McCann 7.6
Age 22: Mauer 34.2, McCann 54.8
Age 23: Mauer 66.9, McCann 22.8
Age 24: Mauer 30.2, McCann 50.8
Age 25: Mauer 54.5, McCann ??

Sorry, Mac T: I'll stick with Mauer as the best catcher in baseball.

And fine points, Richie and Evan, on catcher defense. I guess what I was fumbling my way towards was the astonishing truth that catchers have to almost constantly make decisions during a game. It's not really a 'defense' thing, I suppose, so much as a managerial thing.
10:42 AM Sep 26th
 
evanecurb
I think the notion that catcher is the most important defensive position on the field might come from any or all of the following notions: (1) the catcher has a tremendous impact on the performance of the pitching staff. Research thus far has concluded this not to be true. (2) the catcher is the emotional and spiritual leader of the team, e.g. Varitek. I don't think this can be proven one way or the other, but it seems to me to be brought up only in cases of guys like Varitek or Rick Dempsey and is conveniently ignored in cases where the catcher is not an "emotional leader" but the team is good nonetheless. (3) In amateur baseball, excellent defensive catchers are very hard to find, and adequate ones are scarce enough to be valuable. Aa catcher who can handle pitchers, throw well, and prevent ild pitches is an extremely valuable asset. This is not true in the big leagues, as the degree of separation between best and average is not as great as it is at lower levels. However, many of our impressions are formed at early ages when we ourselves are playing. Those notions are hard to dispel once they become ingrained.


10:08 AM Sep 26th
 
macthomason
He might be the best player in the AL, but he's not the best catcher in baseball - Brian McCann is. And McCann is a year younger.
12:26 AM Sep 26th
 
THBR
Interesting proposal, well-written and thought-provoking. I have two minor criticisms: #1 (and this is shared by almost everyone under 40 -- what the hell has HAPPENED to grade-school teachers?) the word you're looking for is "whose", as in "whose bodies suffer ... whose job is". Once is a typo, two is ... well, NOT a typo. #2 Blocking the plate is AGAINST THE RULES. I really don't care how many catchers do it how often, it is AGAINST THR RULES, and I wish the freakin' umpires would do that part of their job a little more often.

As I say, those are minor criticisms. It sure DOES look like catchers don't get no respect. I'm impressed by the Win Shares table; it's good to have this argument put in a capsule form. You may have a point there.
11:08 PM Sep 25th
 
Richie
I don't at all see how catching involves the "widest range of skills". Ernie Lombardi didn't catch because he was any good at it. He caught because that's where they figured he'd do the least amount of defensive damage. Piazza, too??

Clearly centerfield is the most important OF position, and shortstop the most important IF position. Given that catchers don't even have a 'zone rating' (do they? what could it entail?), and have been pretty-much proven to have little effect on pitcher performance, I just can't see how they could be as important as shortstops and centerfielders. 'Physically difficult' and 'valuable' certainly aren't identical, and don't necessarily even have to intersect.

Given which, I still perhaps would vote Mauer for this year's AL MVP.
6:54 PM Sep 25th
 
markj111
McCann has more Win Shares than Cochrane or Berra through their age 24 seasons.
6:17 PM Sep 25th
 
DaveFleming
Dear Evan,

Thanks, again, for the kind words. Catcher is certainly most physically demanding position on the field: the catcher has to wear all that gear, squat down and stand up pitch after pitch, take hits from baserunners and foul tips, and throw a ball hard and accurate to second or third base. It's a physically exhausting position. It's also mentally taxing: you're involved with every pitch: you gotta call signs, figure out where the pitchers strengths and weaknesses are that day, what pitches are working...all that stuff. I don't know if Mauer calls games to all the Twins pitchers, but it's a young staff.

Is it the most important position? I don't know. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, I guess it depends on your definition of 'important' is. But it's the defensive position that requires the widest range of skills, the position that has most components to it.

It's an interesting question, and I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on it.




4:36 PM Sep 25th
 
evanecurb
Thought provoking piece and I think Mauer is a good choice, though I personally would vote for Sizemore. One criticism: you make the statement that catcher is the most important position on the field, and in another place you say it is more demanding than second base. In what sense is this true? I agree that it goes without saying that catching is a more physically demanding position, but I don't think it's a more important position defensively than shortstop or second base. Is there some research that demonstrates otherwise?
3:19 PM Sep 25th
 
 
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