After last night's 4-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox, the Minnesota Twins are an incredibly disappointing 51-64 and 11 games back with just 46 games to go. As I mentioned on Monday, that kind of deficit means the season is all but mathematically over.
There are a boatload of reasons as to why the team has struggled this season, but Twins fans seem to blame two people: Bill Smith and Joe Mauer. Bill Smith is responsible for all roster moves, and when a team deals with several injuries and has very little depth, the team's GM deserves criticism. I've been as critical of Smith as probably anyone, so I certainly understand the frustration of other fans. Joe Mauer is the team's highest paid player, and despite playing in 134 games a season from 2005-2010 (Brian McCann has averaged 139 games from 2006-2010 while being healthy) he has been labeled as an injury prone player who can't play through pain. So naturally, when Mauer went down with bilateral leg weakness in mid April, people were upset. How could the team pay $23MM a year for this guy?
We'll get to that, but first, let's talk about Mike Piazza.
Most baseball fans know the story of Mike Piazza. He was drafted in the 62nd round of the 1988 amateur draft, as a favor to Piazza's family because they were close with manager Tommy Lasorda. That was the last pick the Dodgers made in the 1988 amateur draft. Think about that for a second; the Dodgers drafted probably the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history with a 62nd round draft choice.
Generally, I think Piazza is accepted as the greatest offensive catcher in history. His career .308/.377/.545 line is best among catchers in MLB history by a rather large margin. His .922 OPS is 25 points higher than second place Mickey Cochrane, and the margin is actually much greater than it would appear. OPS+ is a great tool to compare players offensive numbers across different eras, because offensive numbers have varied greatly over the years. Defense isn't factored in, like it is with WAR, but for offensive comparisons it's a nice quick way to compare players. Piazza's OPS+ was 142, which is the best ever for a catcher, while Cochrane's was 128. Piazza played in the greatest offensive era in history, but as OPS+ shows, Cochrane also played in a fairly offensive time period. For comparison's sake, from 1969-1978, Johnny Bench hit .269/.348/.493 which is good for an OPS of .841, but because the era he played in was much less offensive than the era Cochrane played in, Bench's OPS+ over that time period was 132, 4 points higher than Cochrane's, despite putting up a worse overall slash line.
It's difficult sometimes to remember that following the 2009 season Joe Mauer was arguably the league's most valuable player. And I don't mean that in a "Hey, the baseball writers' association of America gave him the AL MVP award!" way, I mean it in a "Hey, if Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer were both free agents right now, Joe Mauer is going to get more money!" kind of way.
Joe Mauer missed the first month of the season in 2009, making his debut on May 1. Injury prone, unable to play through pain Joe Mauer missed the first 22 games of that season. He then played in an unbelievable, hard to fathom 138 games out of a possible 140. That would be an impressive accomplishment for even a regular position player, but factoring in that Mauer caught 109 games, it's remarkable. He DH'd 29 times, but DHing and getting a night off are not the same thing.
Despite missing the first month, Mauer still was among the league leaders in games caught. He finished with a ridiculous video game slash line of .365/.444/.587 with 28 home runs. His OPS+ of 170 that year ranks third all-time among catchers for a single season. Only one player in baseball history had a better offensive season while playing the majority of his games at catcher, and he did it twice.; Mike Piazza put up a 172 OPS+ in 1995 and a 185+ OPS in 1997. Of course, Mauer also was a gold-glove caliber defender, while Piazza was never considered even a league average catcher. I've said it before, but to me, Mauer's 2009 season is the greatest all-around season by a catcher in baseball history.
It's important to note that there's little doubt had Mauer tested free agency after the 2010 season, when his original contract was set to expire, he would have signed for 10 years and somewhere between $250-$300MM with either the Yankees or Red Sox. Both teams still have uncertain futures behind the plate, and with their endless supply of resources they would have certainly felt comfortable shoring up their catching position for at least the next five years, and possibly more.
The Twins, of course, re-signed Mauer before the 2010 season for 8 years and $184MM. This is the first year of that mammoth contract, and the Twins terrible record along with Mauer's injuries have upset Twins fans all season long. Mauer also hasn't been hitting like the Mauer we've grown accustomed too, although he's been much improved over the last month.
For the year, in 58 games, Mauer is hitting .288/.350/.344. For July, Mauer hit .356/.437/.413. His slugging percentage is incredibly low, which suggests he's playing with a fairly serious injury of some sort. Since the power didn't really return during his hot July, I think it's a foregone conclusion. He's had serious shoulder injuries in the past and there's been rumblings he's playing through a fairly serious shoulder injury again, which could potentially explain the lack of power. Mauer told ESPN1500's Phil Mackey that his legs are nowhere close to 100%, although that may be to hide other injuries as well. The weight he lost while on the DL, from a viral infection that Justin Morneau also had, could also be a major factor in his lack of power. Now, when I say power, I don't mean home runs necessarily. Mauer likely will never be a 28 home run player again; however, his career slugging percentage is 130 points higher than what he's done this season.
His struggles are definitely worth criticizing, because if a player is making $23MM a year he's fair game to be criticized by the people that are paying money to watch him on a daily basis. What bothers me about the criticism is that fans generally don't put up a good argument. I hear the same things everytime someone complains about Mauer; either he's "always hurt," "doesn't hit home runs," or "he can't catch anymore" which are either incorrect or unimportant. I already covered Mauer's games played since 2005, which is well above average. Him not hitting home runs means nothing, as long as he continues to put up the slash line he has over the course of his career.
Bill Smith and the front-office, though, shouldn't be criticized for the deal they offered and Mauer ultimately signed.
Mauer's career line of .325/.405/.471 is very good. His OPS is .876, and his OPS+ is 135, which ranks second currently behind Mike Piazza among catchers. Of course, he's in his prime, and his twilight years are likely going to drop that number below Mickey Cochrane (128 OPS+) and Johnny Bench (126 OPS+), but that's not a guarantee. Mauer also has won three consecutive gold gloves, and although those awards mean little, he's always been considered a plus defender behind the plate.
During Piazza's first 8 seasons, he hit .328/.391/.575, good for an OPS of .966 and an OPS+ of 156. He was clearly a better hitter, and as bad as his defense was portrayed, there's no way it could have been bad enough to make up for the offensive difference during those first 8 seasons between himself and Mauer.
Piazza was a better player over his first 8 seasons than Mauer, but not by a large margin. Prior to the 1999 season, Piazza had played seven seasons. He then signed a 7-year, $91MM contract extensions with the New York Mets. Before you throw something because Joe Mauer got almost $100MM more guaranteed than Piazza, it's important to look at how different MLB finances were even 12 years ago in 1999.
In 1999, the New York Yankees led baseball with the highest payroll, which was just over $88MM. The average payroll per team was just over $48MM. In 2010, when Mauer signed his extension, the Yankees again had the highest payroll, this time though it was much higher, coming in just north of $206MM. The average payroll per team was just over $88MM.
Piazza made an average of $13MM a year over those seven seasons, while Mauer is making $23MM. Piazza's $13MM salary represented 27% of the average team's payroll in 1999. Mauer's $23MM salary didn't kick in until 2011, and in 2011 the average payroll per team has increased to just above $90MM. That means Mauer's $23MM is just under 26% of the average team's payroll. As far as contracts go, that's pretty comparable, and considering Piazza was a slightly better all around player, he deserved a higher percentage of the average payroll.
Now, some of you are undoubtedly thinking it's much different with the Twins. The Mets are in New York. They are a huge market. Of course they can afford to pay an elite catcher more than the average team. If you're thinking that, you are absolutely correct, at least about the Mets being in a huge market. In 1999, the Mets payroll was just over $71MM, which ranked 7th in baseball. So yes, they did play in a large market and could afford it.
To the surprise of a lot of Twins fans, though, the Twins also now need to be considered a large market team. With Target Field opening in 2010, the team's payroll surpassed $100MM for the first time, thanks to the mid-season trade for Matt Capps. Their opening day payroll in 2010 was just over $97MM, which ranked them 11th in baseball. This season, the Twins payroll is just over $112MM, and ranks 9th. That's not much different than where the Mets ranked when they re-signed Piazza.
Signing the league's best catcher, coming off the third greatest season by a catcher in league history, to an 8-year $184MM contract actually was a fair deal. Factoring in that Twins fans likely would have burned Target Field to the ground if they had to endure Mauer signing with the Yankees or Red Sox, it was probably a deal that favored the Twins. It's definitely a high-risk signing, because when you give someone $184MM it's going to be risky no matter what, but as far as track record before the deal and expected future production, Mauer's signing was not as bad as fans have cried it is this season.
And when Joe Mauer comes back in 2012 and wins the AL MVP Award, I'm going to sit here and tell all of you Mauer-cynics that I was right. And I'm going to enjoy it.