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Joe Mauer Wins Gold Glove

Courtesy of Joe C. at the Strib online:

Joe Mauer won his first Rawlings Gold Glove Award today, becoming the first Twins catcher to win the award since Earl Battey in 1962.

That's a long time coming, but it's hard to find a reason why Joe Mauer doesn't deserve this award.  There have been some complaints about the number of passed balls he allows, but there's no doubt he's a talented force behind the plate as well as standing next to it.

I think it's getting easier to look at modern defensive metrics to get a better-than-superficial look at an individual's abilities in the field, but for catchers it's still a little more difficult.  While I really don't like using ERA as a stat for catchers, because it's a worse judge of their talents than it is for a pitcher, there are a few useful metrics available.  There will never be a substitute for watching how a catcher deals with his pitchers, the relationship they have and the game he calls, but we can measure his tools to see how effective he is against base runners, how confident teams are in running on him and how he comes out against the average catcher.

I've compiled a list of 14 American League catchers, using an arbitrary cutoff of 700 innings logged behind the plate.  This means no Miguel Olivo, no Mike Napoli and, sadly, no Mike Redmond.  But it should give us a comprehensive look at the league's primary catchers and how Joe Mauer and his first Gold Glove measure up.

The categories I've chosen are:  Innings, for durability at a position whose stresses put a larger toll on the body than any other except pitchers and their arms; Stolen Bases Attempted per Game, to give us an idea of how daring teams are on the basepaths when these 14 men are behind the plate; Caught Stealing Percentage, to see exactly how often runners are gunned down; Wild Pitches and Passed Balls per (nine inning) Game, which is sort of like WHIP; Win Shares (as a catcher only, no offense) to see contributions to the team in terms of victories; and Rate, which is like OPS+ except that it measures worth in terms of runs against average (for example, Joe's 104 rating means he's four runs better than an "average" catcher per 100 games).

Name Innings SBA/G CS% WP+PB/G WS Rate
Kurt Suzuki 1215.0 0.53 22.5 .207 11.0 104
Joe Mauer 1203.0 0.52 26.1 .329 9.2 104
A.J. Pierzynski 1134.1 0.84 9.4 .341 3.7 95
Jason Varitek 1041.1 0.60 18.8 .233 7.9 106
Ramon Hernandez 1039.1 1.04 17.5 .485 4.5 90
Dioner Navarro 1011.1 0.62 35.7 .365 7.3 118
John Buck 950.1 0.63 10.6 .436 4.9 92
Ivan Rodriguez 930.0 1.05 23.1 .322 9.4 100
Kelly Shoppach 872.2 0.48 21.3 .392 4.4 97
Kenji Johjima 833.1 0.77 26.8 .335 5.7 113
Jeff Mathis 793.1 0.83 21.9 .272 4.3 108
Rod Barajas 785.1 0.68 28.8 .264 6.9 113
Gerald Laird 753.0 0.87 27.4 .430 2.6 99
Jose Molina 737.0 0.90 43.2 .440 9.1 119

Across the board, Joe comes in looking pretty good.

*  He was the second most dependable in terms of time spent behind the plate, which is great to see after all the concern over his knees and legs.  I'm not sure the questions about playing time, fatigue and changing positions will every go away, but years like this should put a few qualms to rest.

*  Mauer had fewer attempts on his arm than all but Kelly Shoppach, with roughly just one stolen bases attempted every other game.  Let me just check my good meter here and....yes, that's good.

*  This year he caught just 26.1% of runners, which is far lower than the 47.5% mark he posted last season, but is also lower than the third he cut down from '04 - '06.  Caught Stealing percentages can vary pretty widely from year-to-year, but it's still worth mentioning that his sixth-best performance in the American League is also his career worst mark to date.  It should be noted that a number of things go into a catcher's success rate:  defensive ability of shortstops and second basemen and how they apply their tags or get into position, velocity of pitchers, how closly and when a first baseman holds his runners and, finally, how quick or slow a pitcher is to the plate and how closely they track their base runners.  Something positive I take out of this is the fact that, while his mark in this category is the lowest of his five-year career, there weren't significantly more attempts made to steal bases on his watch.

*  Joe also comes in sixth in the American League in the catcher's WHIP:  wild pitches plus passed balls per (nine inning) game.  At one stretch this year it seemed like every other game a ball was getting by Joe, and as a community that doesn't let much slip by them there were a number of comments on the dubious streak.  Indeed, on more than one occasion he tried to back hand a ball when he should have simply gotten in front of it, but the easy answer for me is that these things just happen, particularly over the course of a six month season where you're playing six days a week.  Good and bad streaks come and go, and knowing Mauer's apparent dedication to mental and physical discipline I have to believe that these sort of lapses won't continue.

*  Joe Mauer clearly kicks ass as a hitter, and most of his value will always come from the offensive facets of his game, but he clearly is a credit to his team behind the plate as well.  His 9.2 win shares are good for third in the American League.

*  Finally, his 104 Rate isn't the best of his career, but he still comes in safely above average.

After researching catcher's defensive metrics for the better part of my evening, and after looking at Mauer's history specifically, it's clear this wasn't his best season defensively.  Whether this was due to his playing time, was a by-product of a younger and more inexperienced pitching staff or whether it was just one of those years, there's only one thing that's clear to me:  if Joe Mauer was good enough to win the Gold Glove this season, then he was good enough to win it in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Dioner Navarro could have been a candidate for this award, but isn't as fundamentally sound or consistent as Mauer.  Kurt Suzuki is fundamentally sound, and is a pretty good catcher period, but he doesn't have much of a reputation after finishing his second season with major league playing time at the age of 24.  He also isn't half the offensive unity, which shouldn't make a difference to who wins a Gold Glove but, strangely enough, does.  Finally, Jose Molina is a fantastic catcher in terms of tools, but a lot of balls got away from him this year and, more importantly, he only played 100 games this season.  It wouldn't matter if he threw out every batter (and really, for catchers, 43.2% is almost as good), that's just not enough playing time to win this award.

Congratulations to you, Joe Mauer!  You make Minnesota proud, and somewhere Earl Battey has a smile on his face.  Just 26 with two batting titles under his belt, he now has to make room for a Gold Glove.  That's just awesome.