I was in the shower the other day when I began considering Joe Mauer’s Hall of Fame case. Indeed, these are the things I think about during life’s mundane tasks, such as grooming, taking out the garbage, and working at my day job.
It was a year or so ago that a writer, whose name I’ll withhold but let’s just say he and Mauer share a Christian name, suggested that our beloved Joe wasn’t necessarily on a Hall of Fame path. Or maybe it was that if he retired on that day, he wouldn’t be a Hall of Famer. I’m not really here to demolish any scarecrows; I’m just after the facts.
I want to know if Joe is truly on a Hall of Fame path. My gut tells me he is; he’s one of the best handful of catchers I’ve seen since I started watching baseball. In fact this year probably marks the first year I can say I’ve watched an ‘era’ of baseball -- 1993-2013 -- or maybe that’s even two. I don’t really know how these things work. But my gut isn’t always to be trusted; consider how many times it has led me to the Americanized Chinese food served two doors down from here. Yikes.
But we’re getting away from the task at hand. Is Mauer a Hall of Famer? Luckily, over at FanGraphs, there are ways of pushing a few handy dandy buttons to get a better glimpse.
We must consider Mauer in the vein of catchers who have completed their age-29 seasons. With Mauer’s birthday falling in April, it’s a pretty convenient way to make sure his season ages are divided quite nicely.
So let’s journey to FanGraphs. We get to the batting leaderboard, and we’re daunted by the sheer amount of numbers and raw statistics at our fingertips. At least I know I am. So we begin to fiddle with the filters. Set position to catcher, time period from 1871 through last season, and we begin to get a clearer picture of where Mauer stands. Now we set the age filters from 14 -- thanks Joe Nuxhall -- to 29.
We want to see how Joe stacks up to other ‘qualified’ catchers in that age group. And I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t quite know what ‘qualified’ means. In layman’s terms, it would mean 3.1 plate appearances per team game played in any given season, but I’ve yet to get a firm answer from the higher-ups at FG about this. Nonetheless, we’re looking at a big sample of data, and really only worried about players who even have a snowball’s chance in Hades of making a Hall of Fame ballot. This doesn’t hamstring us too much, I don’t believe.
The first thing that strikes me is that Mauer is 17th among catchers in that time frame in games played. For someone with purported durability issues, it’s pretty wild to see him up there. Considering this list contains 400-plus catchers, that’d put Mauer somewhere in the 95th percentile, I believe. Assuming this math is correct -- with me, that’s no safe assumption -- maybe Mauer’s durability issues have been a bit overblown?
And I’ll readily admit there are a few issues with just looking at raw games played. Let’s first consider that at least a few of the catchers ahead of Mauer were playing 154 game seasons, like Ray Schalk, Al Lopez, Ted Simmons, and Tim McCarver early in his career. But let’s look into that a bit deeper. The most games Mauer has caught in a season is 139, and he’s never came particularly close to it since. Typically, Mauer would catch ~120 games in a season. A glance over these other players’ career marks show that catchers in those days also tended to catch that much (or more). So, I don’t know if it was because players were tougher, knowledge was limited, or what exactly, but it doesn’t appear that the eight game difference back then is a strike against Mauer. In fact, one has to consider that Mauer more or less missed at least a full season of games between his rookie season and his disastrous 2011. Besides that, Mauer has been about as durable as any modern era catcher. Only recently has Mauer done anything other than catch and DH, which I think bolsters his case.
But does durability really get one into the Hall? I tend to say no, and the record seems to agree. Of the 16 catchers ahead of Mauer on the list, only Lopez, Johnny Bench, Ivan Rodriguez, Gary Carter, and just maybe Yadier Molina figure to be Hall of Famers. With the way some of the guys wore down, maybe their early career durability in fact led to shortened careers with steep declines. Doggie Miller -- what a name -- was last effective at age 29, and disappeared completely by 32. Jason Kendall was last effective as a hitter at 30, and hung on for a VERY long time after. Frankie Hayes fell apart at age 31, Steve O’Neill at 32, and the list goes on.
So if durability alone isn’t enough, what of hitting? Mauer’s sixth in batting average among this same group. And while I’m the first to poo-poo batting average as a statistic, it’s certainly a bit more significant when we are looking among hitters with thousands of plate appearances. In fact, depending on the filter you’d prefer, Mauer might be the best pure hitting catcher in that group. He has the most plate appearances of anyone in the top 10, more than 200 more than closest comer Mickey Cochrane, and a full season’s worth of plate appearances over Bill Dickey. In fact, two of the catchers with better averages than Mauer have fewer than 2000 plate appearances before their age-30 seasons (Deacon White and Babe Phelps).
Another key element where Mauer compares favorably is OBP, where Mauer is third. Ahead of Mauer is Johnny Bassler (.414 in only 1944 PA) and Cochrane, whose .406 just barely edges Mauer’s .405. Again, it’s not hard to make the argument that Mauer is among the premier offensive catchers in this regard.
And while Mauer wouldn’t be expected to hang with the big boys slugging-wise, he slots in a respectable 20th. Flip the minimum PA dial to 2000 -- which is really only about four to five full seasons worth of PAs for a full-time catcher -- and Mauer jumps to 15th. At 3000, 12th. It’s truly hard to know what’s a fair barometer for age-29 catchers; some are late bloomers who hang on late into careers. Others, like Rodriguez, debut at age 19 and rack up a pile of plate appearances unparalleled by anyone in his era. As a result, one can see why I use the floating PA limit. It’s the only true way to be fair to everyone.
For me, 3000 plate appearances seems to separate the men from the boys behind the plate. We’ve filtered out any Art Wilsons, Mike Gradys, Cliff Johnsons, and Butch Henlines, and we truly get down to the all-timers behind the dish. The Roger Bresnahans, Gabby Hartnetts, and Buck Ewings, if you will.
At 3000 plate appearances, Mauer finishes eight in wOBA. In wRC+, fourth. As a hitter, Mauer’s modern day excellence is matched, and in fact exceeded considerably by only Mike Piazza. And quite frankly, that’s where the comparison between the two stops. Or does it?
Mauer and Piazza both check in between 40 and 41 fWAR after their age-29 season -- Mauer at 40.1, Piazza slightly better at 40.4. Both leave something to be desired defensively -- Mauer perhaps less so as a young pup -- but each has their benefits, as Piazza has the power, and Mauer is probably the best modern era baserunner as a catcher.
I think you’d have found little argument at the time -- and probably even now -- that if Piazza had sustained a career-ending injury at age 30, he’d have gotten into the Hall based on his on-field accomplishments (and quite frankly I don’t care to dabble into if he used or not). Based on the evidence here, I think we’d have to draw the same conclusion with Mauer.
Not only do I think he’s on a Hall of Fame path, but I think he’s a member if he decided to retire today.