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The Best Player, Revisited

November 15, 2018
One of my first articles for this site was about Joe Mauer. It was titled ‘The Best Player in the American League.’ Among other points, I suggested that Mauer probably deserved the 2008 AL MVP award.
Then I attached this caveat:
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. 
It turned out Mauer was better the next year: he reached the twenty-homer benchmark with room to spare (28), and very nearly reached 100 RBI (96). More significantly, Mauer posting an on-base percentage of .444, the highest mark for a catcher since Mickey Cochrane. For his efforts, he won his third career batting title, and the AL MVP.
Mauer was one of my favorite players, at a time when I was just starting to figure out how to write convincingly about baseball. His career, and the perception of that career, shaped a lot of how I’d come to think about the game. Now that he’s calling it a career, I wanted to express my gratitude for that.
What drew me to Mauer? More than anything else, what interested me about Mauer was how much of an anomaly he was. He was a big guy who looked like he should hit for power, but he approached hitting like he wanted to be the second-coming of Tony Gwynn. He was a catcher who regularly paced the league in batting average, a feat that is absolutely freakish.
Here are the catchers who have won batting titles:
Bubbles Hargrove (1926)
Ernie Lombardi (1938, 1942)
Joe Mauer (2006, 2008, 2009)
Buster Posey (2012)
Except that’s not exactly doing service to how rare it is to have a catcher win a batting title. Bubbles Hargrove won in 1926…in a season where he had 366 plate appearances. Lombardi won his second title in a season where he made 347 plate appearances. Neither of those batting titles would stand up to modern standards.
So the ‘true’ list of batting champion catchers is more accurately:
Ernie Lombardi (1938)
Joe Mauer (2006, 2008, 2009)
                                           ​;     Buster Posey (2012)
Mauer came into baseball at the tail of the steroid era, and I think that one of the reasons I liked him was because his batting line wasn’t ridiculous. I became a baseball fan in the 1980’s, when a lot of teams had high average players like Gwynn and Boggs and Carew and Brett. The steroid era blew that up, of course, and there was a certain ‘bloat’ about the steroid era that wearied me. When players like Jermaine Dye and Brett Boone and Luis Gonzalez are putting up batting lines that make the best years of Mays and Aaron look disappointing, it gets a little tiresome. I think I latched onto Mauer’s career because he seems a harbinger away from the era of insane offensive production…a return to an era where a variety of strategies were going to come back into the fold.
That didn’t happen, of course. Offensive production declined, but baseball didn’t go back to figuring out how to generate offense without everyone swinging for the fences. I thought, ten years ago, that baseball was going to return to a game of competitive strategies, but it seems comfortable, for the time being, with throwing it’s lot in with an obsession over launch angles, and escalating strikeout rates. I guessed that the game was going to align to players like Mauer, but it went in another direction.
And Mauer eventually declined. Catching is a tough business, and a series of concussions combined with the usual wear-and-tear saw Mauer taking more breaks as the Twins designated hitter, before he moved over to first base full-time in 2014. His last season as a catcher was the last time he’d list as one of the elite hitters in baseball (.324 BA, .404 on-base percentage, 142 OPS+). Since putting down the mask, Mauer has played five years as a first basemen, all of them passable and none of them of much historic note.
Mauer’s career has shaped my skepticism on the subject of WAR. WAR is a fantastically useful metric, but it is not a measure of pure value: it is a measure of value related to position. As a metric, it is useful to measure one position (who is the best shortstop?), and it is mostly useful in measuring across positions (is this shortstop better than that centerfielder). But the metric fails catchers significantly.
Johnny Bench ranks first among catchers by FanGraphs’ version of WAR, clocking a tally of 74.8. That puts him about even with Paul Waner (74.7), the 19th-ranked outfielder. Yogi Berra has an fWAR of 63.7, which rates him about even with Sherry Magee (63.4). Both men played the same number of games, 2120 to 2087: are we really expected to believe that Yogi tallied the same ‘wins above replacement’ as Sherry Magee?
Mauer’s career also woke me up to the fact that there was a divide in baseball fandom, between those of us in the ‘know’ about the statistical revolution that was then gaining traction in baseball front offices and on websites like FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference and ESPN, and the older guard of journalists and experts who still thought that runs batted in were significant markers of value. Ten years ago, I don’t think it was a given that one side would win…but one side has won. Today’s awarding of the NL Cy Young to Jacob deGrom (10-9) is one more indication that baseball has moved away from a reliance on traditional metrics like wins, RBI, or batting average.
I liked Mauer because he was an unusual player, and I liked him because he was easy to root for. He was born and raised in Minnesota, and he seemed to relish the chance to play for his hometown team. He didn’t test the free agent marketplace, preferring to sign a long-term extension the spring after his 2009 MVP season instead of waiting to see what he could get on the open market. And while the Twins never won a playoff game with Mauer, the team’s fortunes seemed to rise and fall with his. The Twins won the division in 2006, 2009, and 2010, and came a game short of winning the division in 2008: those were Mauer’s four best season. Mauer had a nice a bounce-back in 2017, posting a .305 batting average and a .384 on-base percentage…and the Twins snuck into the Wild Card game. When Mauer was at his best, the Twins were a good team.
Is Mauer a Hall-of-Famer?
Well, who was like Mauer? What players can we reasonable compare him to?
In my opinion, there are only three players who are logical parallels to Mauer: Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, and Buster Posey. Buster’s still putting pen-to-page on his career, so let’s leave him out of the conversation for now. How does Mauer compare to Cochrane and Dickey?
These are the peak years of the three players, and there isn’t a needle of difference between them. Cochrane scored more runs and had a higher batting average, but he played in a higher offensive context. Dickey was the better power hitter, but he played in a home park that strongly favored left-handed hitters: Dickey hit twice as many dingers in his home park as he did on the road (135 to 67). The three players are extremely close to one another.
Cochrane gets extra credit because he was a player/manager for two full seasons (and parts of four other years). That’s massively important: I think there is a decent argument that Cochrane in 1934 and 1935 was one of the most valuable baseball players the game has ever seen.
But Mauer and Dickey had longer careers…they played more games. Mauer had three extra seasons as a passable first baseman for the Twins. Dickey was a platoon catcher for the Yankees for four more seasons, and he lost ‘44 and ‘45 to service in the war.
Mickey Cochrane was one of the greatest catchers of all-time. Bill Dickey, while perhaps not as great as Cochrane, is deserving of his plaque in Cooperstown. I think Mauer belongs in their company. He’s had a terrific career, one that I’ve enjoyed following for the last fifteen years, and he’d get my vote.
Dave Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at 

COMMENTS (16 Comments, most recent shown first)

Guy who never gets a shout out but should imo-Lance Parrish."

In Baltimore, they always had a TV camera that would see look at the batter from the side as they where getting ready to bat. Whenever I would see Parrish at plate with his arms gripping the bat he looked like Conan the Barbarian at the plate.
10:15 AM Nov 26th
Cochrane and Dickey's achievements were inflated further by the diluted talent pool they were a part of and competed against in the pre-integration era.
10:26 AM Nov 19th
Just out of curiosity, I looked at where Brett Butler stood on the all-time base-on-balls list: He's 74th (tied with Cal Ripken, who had 30% more plate appearances than Butler. (1129 W; Ripken had 12,883 PA to Butler's 9,545. I could not easily find a list of leaders in W/PA (Butler walked in 11.8% of his PA).
6:13 PM Nov 18th
Guy who never gets a shout out but should imo-Lance Parrish.
7:49 AM Nov 17th
A thing Cochrane & Dickey (and other lefties at that time) had going for them was a lack of left-handed pitching, and Good left-handed pitching. Plus, while with the A’s, Cochrane didn’t have to face Grove; and Dickey was not facing Gomez.
10:17 PM Nov 16th
When I saw the title, I thought this was going to be a revisiting of Trout-Betts!

Even though it isn't, this is a good place to say, great job on that article earlier this year, about how Betts was maybe emerging as Trout's main rival for this 'title.' I thought it was way premature to be suggesting it, and who can say it wasn't :-) .....but this much is for sure:
It's looking very much like it was right.

Let's put it this way: If any player except Trout were to come available on the open market, who would get the highest offers?

We don't know yet what Harper or Machado or anyone else will get (will be very interesting to see), but I feel very comfortable saying that Betts would get more than anybody but perhaps Trout.
And BTW I did feel in necessary to put the "perhaps" in there. I can't say I'm sure Betts would get any less than Trout.​
11:46 AM Nov 16th
Bubbles Hargrave, not Hargrove
11:20 AM Nov 16th
Isn't Bubbles a great nickname? I wonder how he got it.
9:51 AM Nov 16th
Thank you, great article.
9:02 AM Nov 16th
People forget about Brett Butler and his average baserunning, because he later became a stand-up comedian, starred in medium-hit working class sitcom and had a recurring drug addiction.
12:47 AM Nov 16th
I am sick and tired of you people slagging Bubbles Hargrove.
9:49 PM Nov 15th
Postseason-wise, Mauer isn't even in the running: one XBH and one ribbie in 44 plate appearances.
6:46 PM Nov 15th
Brett Butler WAS fun...I miss Davey Lopes too. And guys like Buckner.
5:02 PM Nov 15th
Something to keep in mind about Cochrane in Detroit: he platooned himself. That’s kind of remarkable, given that Mack hadn’t platooned him after making Jimmie Foxx the full-time first baseman on 13 June 1928.
4:49 PM Nov 15th
Oh god...Brett Butler was fun! What a fun player he was! Not a great baserunner, and no power, but he'd score 100 runs like clockwork.

Butler ranks third all-time in caught stealing, behind Henderson and Brock: he'd steal forty or fifty bases a year and get caught twenty or thirty times. He was a center fielder, but not a good one. A singular and strange player.
4:08 PM Nov 15th
I don't follow the Twins much but I've always been a Mauer fan. It's a shock to think he's been around 15 years. I'm not going to weigh in on the HOF discussion, but i would like to piggy-back on to a point you make, about competitive strategies. It would have been great for Mauer to have been the harbinger of more different kinds of hitters similar to what we had in the pre-steroid era. The game was a lot more entertaining when guys like Brett Butler still had prominent roles.
3:36 PM Nov 15th
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