One of the biggest challenges facing Twins interim-GM Terry Ryan this offseason will be the distribution of assets. Essentially, Ryan has a handful of guys who can play first base, another bunch that can play outfield, and then a handful of spare parts. I consider Ryan Doumit one of the former rather than the latter.
But one of the parts that can do those things and more is Joe Mauer. Mauer is about to enter his age-30 season, and has demonstrably slipped behind the plate, in my view. Since peaking at nabbing 53 percent of all opposing attempted base thieves back in 2007, Mauer has been on a continuous tumble, down to his present-day Pierzynskian 14 percent mark. Now there are certainly caveats that come with stolen base rate; it takes two to tango, and that means if a pitcher is slow to the plate, he’ll leave the catcher little chance to put away the baserunner. But even thinking relative to Mauer earlier in his career, I think it’s an apt assessment. The Twins have employed a fair share of guys who have been slow to the plate in Mauer’s tenure with the club, and he was simply much better back then. Similarly, Drew Butera was Carl Pavano's caddy, and Pavano was the slowest of all to home plate. Despite this, Drew has still managed to throw out 33 percent of baserunners over the past three seasons. Parker Hageman of TwinsCentric’s Twins Daily has a great post on the subject, chronicling how he wonders if Mauer’s knee woes have sapped him of some of his transfer efficiency from receiving the pitch to delivering the throw down. It’s well worth your time to read.
Now throwing out baserunners is obviously a small part in what makes a good catcher. As the field general the catcher is basically a pitching psychologist, as well as required to be omniscient regarding what all is going on in the field of play. Oftentimes Mauer has drawn raves about his receiving skills overall -- he’s won three gold gloves after all -- but of the things we can tangibly measure, he just isn’t at the same level he once was.
And that might be an unfair comparison, because players age and fade, but the Twins can’t simple let Mauer fade into obscurity. No, not this early into his mega deal.
A somewhat troubling development in Mauer’s work behind the plate is how he compares relative to his comrades in how well pitchers throwing to them fare. Now catchers’ receiving stats have been panned at times, but I think when comparing catching teammates, they’re a bit less flawed. After all Doumit, Mauer, and Butera have all been on the receiving end of a dazzling Francisco Liriano slider, as well as a 59-footer from Samuel Deduno. Until somewhat recently, Mauer trailed Doumit in catcher ERA -- ERA of the pitchers that the catcher was the receiver for -- though in the interim Mauer has surpassed Doumit by a slight margin.
The numbers are pretty much indiscriminate, however. One catcher has a 5.08 ERA, the other a 4.90 mark. One catcher has a pitcher’s opposing batting line of .284/.341/.462, and the other .279/.338/.454. Any guesses on who is who in that comparison? Mauer is the first ERA, and the latter batting line. So essentially, Doumit’s hitters were a little less lucky (.292 BABIP) than Mauer’s (.305). As for Butera? He carries a 4.09 ERA, and .248/.312/.385 batting line. As a result, there’s little wonder why Twins pitchers really enjoy throwing to him.
What’s particularly troubling though about Mauer’s relative similarity to Doumit is that the former Pirate was the worst catcher in all of baseball in a study put together by former colleague and current Houston Astros front office member Mike Fast. Essentially, over five years, Doumit was worth -66 runs defensively, and 14 full runs below the next-worst backstop, Gerald Laird. Essentially, if we assume the standard 10 runs per win, Doumit cost his Pirates teams nearly 7 games due to pitch framing alone. From the standpoint of where exactly pitch framing falls on the hierarchy of all the catcher’s duties, this is mind-blowingly bad. And when we start comparing Mauer in any fashion to Doumit, maybe it’s time to start worrying.
But if Mauer’s defense disappears, there’s still his bat, right? Well, maybe not. Over the past 20 years, catchers aged 24-29 as a whole hit .255/.320/.403, while catchers 30-35 (representing the remaining years the Twins have locked up in Mauer) hit .230/.319/.397. The overall picture suggests that surprisingly enough, catchers haven’t declined a whole lot between the two age groups. But these numbers aren’t in a vacuum either. If Mauer were to lose 25 points off his batting average -- as the figures suggest -- simply tacking on his ISOs from 24-29 gets him to an average triple-slash of .299/.382/.442. That’s still relatively impressive, though it’s unlikely that the slugging decrease would be so linear, even for a singles-heavy hitter such as Joe. Essentially, what Mauer could transform into is early-career Denard Span.
Now, is that a good player? Is that a valuable player? Oh absolutely. But Span is/was valuable because he also ran the bases rather well, and played very good defense. Bad defense behind the plate and a punchless batting line driven by OBP would probably still keep Mauer still in the lower-half of the upper echelon of catchers, though the worry of his career completely collapsing due to recurring knee woes has to be worrisome, contract status or not. Simply put: he's not paid to be among the upper echelon of catchers, he's supposed to define that group.
So what should be done about Mauer going forward? I think the revisionist’s answer is that the club should have experimented with him in skill positions as this season wound down. Can he handle third base? Second base? I think those are the first two positions to consider, as catchers have made those transitions in the past, and Mauer is no doubt as talented as they were in their careers at that point (Craig Biggio). A move to first base doesn’t make sense with Justin Morneau, Chris Parmelee, and Miguel Sano all in the same farm system, nor does a move to the outfield with the logjam the Twins may have in the near future out there.
Now if experimentation isn’t fair to a $20-plus million guy -- and it probably isn’t -- I think you have to head to spring training dead-set on teaching him third base. The time is now; Doumit inked an extension, and if one wants to look for oustide help Mike Napoli is slated to be a free agent this offseason. And while I know the Twins don’t really need to add a bat as much as a pitcher, I think $6-8 million buys a club a better bat than it does a comparable arm. I don’t think the Twins would have to choose, but moving Mauer to third could open up the potential to acquire a guy like Napoli, or deal for someone like Ryan Hanigan, whom I think the Reds will eventually ease out of the picture with Devin Mesoraco emerging. Hanigan appears to be a terrific defensive catcher.
And I do realize Trevor Plouffe is somewhat entrenched as the Twins’ third-sacker, but he still hasn’t really proven that he can stick there long-term. He can either be made a super utility type -- sort of an embarrassment of riches for a guy that might have hit 30 home runs had he stayed healthy -- or why not give him a run at second base. The team isn’t going to be so good next season that TR and company can’t take a couple of gambles. The bigger gamble is moving Mauer a season too late, and having his knees sapped so badly he can only play first base, and only hit like a healthy Daric Barton.