Saturday, April 16, 2011

Joe Mauer is a Catcher

Ever since Joe Mauer had the cartilage in his knee replaced with "fake cartilage" during the 2004 season, it seems everyone and their mother has wondered aloud when Joe Mauer would switch positions. At the time, it was a perfectly understandable reaction; Mauer was one of the first players to get the fake cartilage inserted in his knee, and the assumption was that eventually that fake cartilage would wear down and Mauer would no longer be able to catch.

Now, two weeks into the 2011 season, the Twins have been forced to place Mauer on the DL for something called "bilateral leg weakness." So, naturally, the articles wondering when Mauer will be moved to a different position have sprung up again.

The main argument for moving Mauer to a different position seems to be that he simply gets beat up too much behind the plate and paying him $23MM a year for the next seven years (after this one) is extremely risky if he's going to continue to get hurt.

Unfortunately, paying Mauer $23MM a year really only makes sense if he continues to play a premium defensive position. As great as Mauer's 2009 season was in which he hit .365/.444/.587, at this point it looks like an outlier rather than a sign of things to come. Mauer's career line of .326/.406/.479 is probably a better predictor of the future, and while that slash line is impressive the fact is an .885 OPS from, say, a corner outfielder just isn't as impressive as it is from a catcher.

The league average OPS for catchers last year was .686, which was the league's second worst OPS by position, ahead of only shortstops (.669). If Mauer moves to third base, which seems to be the most suggested position, he would still be well above average. The league average OPS for third baseman last year was .729, so Mauer's .885 OPS would be about 15% above the league average. A few people have suggested over the last few days that Mauer is more likely to move to one of the corner outfield spots, because both Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer are free agents and Delmon Young is likely going to make more than $7MM a year next year in arbitration.

The average left-fielder last year posted a .768 OPS, and the average right-fielder posted a .791 OPS, so Mauer would be about 10% above the league average if he moved to a corner outfield position. That's obviously good production, but is it worth paying someone $23MM a year for 7 years to out-produce the league average by only 10%?

One may argue that Mauer would actually be more valuable in left field, because the assumption is that he would play more as a LF than he does as a catcher. While that is true, because left fielders play more games in a 162 game season than catchers, the assumption that Mauer misses more games than an average catcher is simply wrong.

Since 2005, Mauer has played in 130 games or more in five of six seasons, and played in 109 the lone season he failed to reach the 130 game threshold. He's averaged 134 games per season over that time frame.

For comparison's sake, Brian McCann is largely considered one of the elite catchers in baseball. I don't recall reading anything over the last few years about McCann needing to switch positions. Since 2006, when McCann became the Braves full-time catcher, he's averaged 139 games a season, never playing more than 145 games in any one season.

Despite Mauer's seemingly constant injuries, the fact is he's played in nearly as many games over the last five years as most catchers in baseball. As a catcher performing 20% over the league average with gold-glove caliber defense, Mauer is absolutely worth $23MM a year. It's likely that Mauer's knees will force him to switch positions eventually, but for the Twins to get fair value out of the $184MM contract, he'll likely need to spend at least four or five more years behind the plate.

Until Mauer suffers an injury that literally does not allow him to catch on a consistent basis, though, can we please stop all of this discussion about him switching positions? He's the best catcher in baseball and he has a chance to go down in history as one of the top three catchers in the history of the game. This most recent injury is definitely worrisome, but not enough to start the talk of switching his position. Joe Mauer is a catcher, plain and simple.


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