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Joe Mauer has earned every penny

As Mauer enters the final year of his contract with the Twins, let’s remind ourselves why great players actually deserve to be paid.

Minnesota Twins Photo Day Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

The 2018 season is sure to feature some on-the-field milestones — Byron Buxton getting his first steal of third, Kyle Gibson convincing fans he’s finally “taken the next step” for the eighth and ninth times, and Brian Dozier maintaining a diabolical commitment to his hair.

What kind of product do you use?

Off the field, there is one milestone that, particularly to a certain sect of Twins fans, will mark 2018 as a year to remember: the expiration of Joe Mauer’s 8-year, $184-million contract.

This milestone — or millstone, depending on how one views Mauer’s extension — provides a good opportunity to examine Mauer’s legacy in a year with a lot riding on it.

Early last October, Hall of Fame expert Jay Jaffe weighed in on Mauer’s Hall of Fame chances and had this to say (note: WAR7 is a players’ Wins Above Replacement during his seven-year peak; JAWS is Jaffe’s rank of where a player would fit compared to Hall of Famers at the same defensive position):

There were a few replies to the assertion that Mauer has a good chance to be a Hall of Famer, the most salient of which belonged to our own RandBall’s Stu:

Stu’s response elicited a sad chuckle from this Mauer fan. It’s funny because it’s true. A significant portion of Twins fans view Mauer not as one of the greatest Twins of all time, which he unquestionably is; instead, to many in Twins Territory, Joe Mauer is a punchline.

Given the level of tomfoolery evinced by your average professional athlete, Joe Mauer is a saint. (Or a skim-swilling square, depending on one’s outlook.) Joe Mauer has been a consummate professional. He never badmouths his teammates or the fans — literally anyone. He has never been remotely close to any type of controversy or bad behavior. He won Halloween last year.

Well now that’s heartwarming.

Let me just scroll down a bit, maybe check out some comments. I love Twitter comments because they, too, are usually heartwarming. I’m assuming that maybe at least the first comment will be really sweet, who knows what shows up lower down, but that first comment, at least, will really encapsulate just how tender and beautiful this whole moment was...

Screenshot via Twitter

Let’s all thank Andrew Krauter for his immeasurable contributions to the public discourse. This is why we can’t have nice things, Andrew.

There are two inextricably linked reasons that fans like @Kraut23 act like colossal misanthropes when it comes to Joseph Patrick Mauer: The Injuries and The Contract. (Worst Seinfeld episodes EVER.) But it really starts and ends with The Contract because if the Twins hadn’t signed Mauer to an 8-year/$184 million contract on March 20, 2010, no one would blame Mauer for the injuries. It’s because he’s rich that people blame him for getting hurt and for not performing up to the big contract.

I know this is self-evident, but it’s worth pointing out every time this conversation comes up. (Apologies for the forthcoming Bolshevist diatribe.)

If we don’t play athletes, that money will go to owners. I, for one, do not want old, already-billionaires who inherited a company from their pappy getting more money than they’ve already not earned. Owners contribute nothing of value to an organization. Yes, they have the money, but the Twins could be a damn non-profit run by a public trust or owned by the fans.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I personally would rather see my money go toward the players who actually do the playing.

Sports franchises have always been littered with weird, miserly, felonious, blood-sucking, racist, shady-ass, cretinous, Nazi-sympathizing, creepy owners. As Twins fans, a terrible owner literally founded our franchise. The only reason the Twins even moved to Minnesota was because Washington, D.C. was too black for former owner Calvin Griffith, who decided to let a room full of fans at the Waseca Lions Club know this in 1978.

If you’re unaware, read this from the Star Tribune’s Nick Coleman:

”There’s no damn place in the country worth moving to. They talk about New Orleans, but what’s wrong with that is...”

At that point, Griffith interrupted himself, lowered his voice and asked if there were any blacks around. After he looked around the room and assured himself that his audience was white, Griffith resumed his answer.

”I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota,” he said. “It was when I found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ball games, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. It’s unbelievable. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking, white people here.”

Thanks, I guess?

Griffith ultimately sold the Twins to Carl Pohlad because he didn’t like free agency’s impact on his bottom line or his ability to control “his” players.

Carl Pohlad certainly seemed a kindler, gentler fella than Griffith. But, like many billionaires, Pohlad amassed his fortune in a pretty grimy way. Pohlad first started accumulating his wealth by foreclosing on homes during the Great Depression, which he excelled at because of his “reputation as an emotionless guy who could efficiently collect loans,” as the Grand Forks Herald put it in his obituary.

Pohlad also accepted $250 million from Major League Baseball to allow the Twins to be contracted before Hennepin County Judge and borderline folk hero Harry Seymour Crump issued an injunction forcing the Twins to honor their lease at the Humbert H. Humphrey Metrodome. (As you may have noticed, the gambit worked. The Twins still exist.)

The Pohlads have also contributed money to charity and all that, though I tend to expect that from the 75th-richest family in the United States. They have ruthlessly maximized their earnings at every turn, whether it was coaxing $350 million of taxpayer money out of lawmakers to help build Target Field (the multi-billionaire Pohlads paid $195 million) or fighting an IRS estate-tax judgment to save $219.8 million. It is their prerogative — and, some would argue, duty — to ensure they retain as much of their vast fortune as possible. I do not hear people begrudging them for tirelessly maintaining their bottom line. It’s how rich people get and stay rich.

So why should Joe Mauer not be allowed the same? Why should he not ruthlessly maximize his worth when he’s the one actually playing the game? Why should Mauer not value himself accurately when he’s the one putting his body — and mind — on the line for a career that, if a player is lucky, lasts into his mid-to-late 30s?

If there’s a problem with Joe Mauer’s contract, it stems not from Mauer’s avarice but Major League Baseball’s horribly skewed salary and incentive structure. In January, during an offseason that had (and still has) been conspicuously absent of free-agent signings, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan published a massive story in which he asked a scary question about baseball’s economic structure: “Is the foundation of the sport, a structure in place since the advent of free agency in the 1970s, still viable?” Passan wrote. “Or is baseball’s economic system, its underpinning, broken?”

The problem at play is pretty simple: as front offices grow smarter, they’re less inclined to dole out massive free-agent contracts to players on the downswing of their careers. No one wants to sign the next Albert Pujols or Ryan Howard deal; and players — who (1) have their compensation capped by the draft or international market (2) make poverty-level wages in the minor leagues (3) and are stuck under team control and vastly underpaid during their prime years — want to recoup (at least some) of their mountain of lost earnings once they’ve reached free agency if they’re lucky enough to stick around through their team-control years.

In the last five years, baseball franchises have exploded in value — from a total of $18.1 billion to $46.1 billion, according to Passan. The Twins pulled in $253 million in revenue in 2017, and Forbes last valued the franchise at $1.03 billion in 2017 — a 3,219% return on the Pohlad’s $32 million initial investment. If you factor in inflation, $32 million in 1984 is (very roughly) $76.3 million in 2017 money, good for a 1,350% ROI. Still not too shabby. And if you really think about it, it’s an infinite ROI for the Pohlad brothers, who spent $0 on the Twins in 1984.

Major League Baseball is awash in money, and somebody has to gobble it up. But, for whatever reason, sports are oddly the only sector of American life where our raging capitalism boners disappear, replaced by a fervid desire to suppress salaries and impose odd market-killing restrictions that in other industries would be decried as a march toward Stalinist principles and signs of the looming nanny state.

America does love a fat cat, I suppose, and baseball owners certainly qualify. I’ll simply never understand why Twins fans would rather enrich Bill Pohlad than Joe Mauer. The Pohlads have money. No owner is cash-strapped, despite many of their consistent cries of “small-market team!” Because of Disney’s purchase of MLB Advanced Media, every baseball team will receive a check for more than $50 million this year simply for existing — on top of whatever revenues they’re already pulling in.

The Twins’ Opening Day payroll looks like it’ll come in around $113 million, or roughly what the 2011 payroll was, according to Cot’s. In 2011, that payroll ranked 9th in baseball. This year, it’ll be closer to 25th. Teams are richer and spending more money. The Twins are not.

With the explosion of revenue in MLB, it’s time we stop acting like paying Joe Mauer $23 million a season somehow prevents the team from adding other players via free agency. Yet, I’m sure all season we’ll hear how, now that Mauer’s contract is coming off the books, the Twins can finally splash the cash for 2019.

Passan hit on this issue on a recent episode of the Effectively Wild podcast. There was a telling moment about 50 minutes in where Passan had to stop himself from using the type of language so many of us have grown accustomed to. “The Red Sox may not be able to go out and — may not be willing to go out, rather,” he corrected himself. “I need to get that out of my lexicon, by the way. I find myself saying ‘may not be able to’ — no. They’re all able to. It’s a matter of willingness.”

Minnesota Twins v New York Yankees
Preparing to strike.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Joe Mauer was a worthwhile investment

Mauer serves as a very instructive example of how skewed the current salary system is in both underpaying elite players and perversely rewarding the decline years.

Since 2004, Joe Mauer has earned $195,025,000 in big-league salary. He’s owed $23 million more in 2018.

Conveniently for us, Fangraphs has been calculating the value of a win on the free-agent market since 2002, which allows them to then use a player’s WAR to calculate his value to his team.

Sure, the Twins have paid Mauer nearly $200 million in his career. That’s several truckloads of money. No argument here. But, according to Fangraphs’ data, Mauer has been worth $298.8 million to the franchise — an actually surplus value of $103.75 million. This factors in only on-field production, of course; there’s no consideration of Mauer’s ability to bring butts to the seats or sell shirseys.

I constructed a (rather crude) graph to show how Mauer’s value has basically had an inverse correlation to his paychecks over the course of his first 14 years with the Twins.

Graph by Louie. Data by Fangraphs/Baseball-Reference

This graph really sums up the problems in today’s baseball salaries: Mauer was hugely underpaid during his best years, and, for five of the seven seasons after signing his $184 million contract, a net-negative.

I’m not suggesting that Mauer “deserved” a $48 million-per-year contract in 2009, simply that he was worth that to the Twins while getting paid just $10.5 million. And, yes, I know “just $10.5 million” is an absurd phrase, and “they’re playing a kids’ game,” all the other old saws, etc. etc. But this is not a “kids’ game.” It is a near-trillion dollar industry where those who actually create the product we love are significantly underpaid to ensure more money returns to billionaire owners. Do not shed a tear for the Pohlads. They’ll be just fine.

MLB 6-12-05: Minnesota Twins at LA Dodgers
Watch Joe run.
Photo by John Cordes/Sporting News via Getty Images

A victim of poor timing

More than anything, the perception of Mauer’s contract soured so immediately because of injury. Again, The Contract and The Injuries are inseparable. Mauer signed his deal right before the 2010 season, in which he hit .327/.402/.469 and won his third consecutive Gold Glove and Silver Slugger at the catcher position. So far, so good!

But Mauer’s contract didn’t kick in until the 2011 season. Early in the 2011 season, Mauer went down with a mysterious malady theretofore unknown to Twins fans (and most anybody, I’d guess) called “bilateral leg weakness.” Those three words remain a punchline in Minnesota sports because they have the misfortune of being both made-up sounding and not-that-painful sounding. The diagnosis confirmed a lot of the simmering biases and misconceptions that many Twins fans harbored — that Mauer was weak, lazy, noncompetitive, and that, worst of all, he didn’t really care about the team.

The odd injury and the contract spurred a raft of hot takes that hammered away at this refrain. The funniest take, in retrospect, was Jim Souhan excoriating Mauer for not volunteering to play first base while Justin Morneau was hurt. (In classic Souhanian fashion, the column was titled “Perhaps it’s time to ask Joe for some millions back.”)

You may recall this was after Jose Mijares, of all people, had the temerity to question Mauer’s pitch-calling. Instead of pointing out that Mijares was crap — he was two months into a season that he finished with 30 walks, 30 strikeouts and a 4.88 FIP — and not exactly a role model of dedication, Souhan had this takeaway: “[Mauer] got called out by a lefthanded middle reliever over his pitch calls, a sure sign that Mauer is less popular in the clubhouse than the IRS. Can you imagine Jose Mijares jabbing Mauer if Mauer’s average were .340 and he was playing every day?”

So, as far as I can tell, the logic here was that if Mauer, one of the best hitters in the history of baseball, was hitting better through the comically small sample size of 18 games after a debilitating injury, then a Twins afterthought wouldn’t have complained about getting shelled? If Mijares truly didn’t respect Mauer, wouldn’t he just have shook him off? Was that too hard on Mijares’ neck? Sorry, I’m now dissecting terrible old Souhan columns, a fool’s errand if ever there was one.

Mauer certainly struggled in 2011, though he did end the season with an OPS+ of 102, just above league average. The year after signing his record-breaking contract, Mauer’s production cost the Twins $13.5 million in value lost, according to Fangraphs’ calculations. Of course, if one were sensible and took the long view of the situation, you’d recognize that before his contract Mauer had accrued nearly $148 million in surplus value for his hometown team. So, after his disappointing 2011 season, Mauer had still put the Twins $134.48 million in the black.

Even with his new $23 million/year deal, in 2012 and 2013 Mauer provided Minnesota with $22 million in surplus value.

If 2011 was the season in which Twins fans really began to sour on Mauer, 2013 was the year when things really went downhill, all because of the August 19, 2013 concussion that knocked Mauer out for the season and off the catcher position for good.

Here’s a rather unsavory thought experiment that I think is useful: What if, instead of sustaining another less-understood injury (concussions), on August 13, 2013, Joe had contracted ALS like Lou Gehrig? Or an occlusion of the retinal blood vessel, leaving him blind in one eye like Kirby Puckett? At that point, Mauer had batted .323/.405/.468 with an 11.2% strikeout rate and a 12.2% walk rate for his career, as Aaron Gleeman points out in a terrific article I refer to fairly frequently.

In this terrible alternative world, Mauer would have ended his 10-year career as a three-time batting champion, a five-time All-Star, a five-time Silver Slugger, a three-time Gold Glove-winner, and an American League MVP — all from the most difficult, demanding defensive position. Mauer had produced the fifth-most Wins Above Replacement of any catcher through an age-30 season (Mauer turned 30 two weeks into the 2013 season), behind only Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez, and Ted Simmons — four of whom are Hall of Famers, and one, Simmons, who certainly could be.

It’s impossible to know how Mauer would have aged without his numerous concussions. Perhaps his career would look just like it does today. As they say, age is undefeated.

But as macabre as it is to imagine, if Mauer had been struck down by a career-ending injury or disease, I don’t think there’s any argument: he would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Instead, he was struck down by a brain injury that scientists still don’t fully understand, let alone fans. It’s a shadow injury, a specter that hangs over a player who may look similar to his former self but isn’t quite the same — like the seventh photocopy of a piece of paper, where the gist remains but the edges have faded and are harder and harder to recognize as the original you remember.

Joe Mauer continues to play as much as he can, continues to show up and do his best, and, yes, continues to collect his paycheck. But he’s not the same. His vision gets blurry, his hand-eye coordination has diminished — the latter the cruelest joke on a player who relied so heavily on his quick reactions to succeed. I know Joe Mauer will never go hungry; he lives a blessed life. But his story is also a tragic one, filled with possibilities of what could have been and uncertainties about what his life will look like as his body and, most frighteningly, his brain, age. It’s not just a child’s game.

More than anything, I hope that we can look at Mauer not for what he isn’t but for what he is: a hometown boy who made good to become one of the best Twins — and best baseball players — we’ll ever see.

For all he’s given this team, we owe him that.