On January 23rd, the BBWAA’s final ballot tally will be revealed, and the 2024 candidates for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame will get a long-awaited phone call. Well, for some it will be long-awaited. For others — first-ballot Hall-of-Famers, broadly considered the upper echelon of all-time baseball talent — that call will come a lot sooner.
For one man in particular, that call will finally put a cap on a much-discussed career.
You all know the facts.
For the last 20+ years, the Joe Mauer origin story has been tantamount to the fable of Paul Bunyan, oft-recited and well-learned by a few generations of Minnesotans. It was a feel-good hometown tale when he went 1-1 in the 2001 draft, direct from Cretin Durham Hall in St. Paul; it was tantamount to baseball legend by the time it was all said and done. Certainly everyone here already understands the impact Joe Mauer made on the franchise, providing the organization their greatest hometown star, and putting the Gardenhire-era Twins on the map leaguewide.
After the batting titles, the MVP, and the video game covers, Mauer finished his 15-year career head and shoulders above all but a select few backstops — both literally, and commercial campaign-wise.
It’s nearly impossible to spill new ink on Mauer’s playing career — especially in this town — and part of that saturation had to do with this very discussion, held across the entire tail end of his career and his post-playing years. For the last ten years, the question has been mulled over, tossed around, beaten to a pulp. Was Joe Mauer really all that?
Was this player, with his noteworthy sideburns and Dennis Reynolds-esque peak, actually one of the all-time greats? Or was a Midwestern baseball community, starved for a contemporary baseball icon, hitching their wagon to a feel-good story that wasn’t going to measure up once he underwent national review?
Well, the time has finally come to see how that national review is going.
After being inundated with pieces about concussions, bi-lateral leg weakness, defensive moves, and power — or lack thereof — it would have been understandable to expect a lukewarm reception to Mauer’s first crack at the ballot, for lots of reasons, some outside the scope of Mauer’s performance.
For one, he joins the ballot in a year featuring a first-ballot lock in Adrian Beltre, and popular campaigners such as as Billy Wagner and Todd Helton. Elsewhere on the ballot are the sprinklings of controversy; Gary Sheffield, Carlos Beltran, Alex Rodriguez, and Manny Ramirez are just a few of the returning candidates. Mauer also joins the ballot alongside “what-if” names like David Wright, and debatable cases like Chase Utley.
Needless to say, the competition is stiff, especially when dealing with a stingy electorate.
What’s more, fringy Twin cases haven’t fared very well over the last few cycles. Johan Santana, the greatest Minnesota pitcher in many fans’ living memory, lasted one ballot before being unceremoniously kicked to the curb. Joe Nathan, who I campaigned for two years ago, was met with a similar fate.
While bigger-market questionables seem to earn more discussion from the writers, Minnesota players seem to need a significant push. The last Twin to make the Hall straight-up was Bert Blyleven in 2011, and he may not have made it were it not for the cries of the early-(ish) social media sabermetricians. Jim Kaat was inducted last summer, and he was done pitching by 1983 and required election via some of his contemporaries on the Veteran’s Committee. For the most part, there haven’t been many recent Twins players to work their way into the mix.
Enter Joe Mauer, whose case is on some levels reminiscent of Joe Nathan’s. Having played the most niche offensive position, Mauer is in large part being graded not against his generation’s position players, but against all historical MLB catchers. So, it seems only fair to take a look at a table full of Hall-worthy catchers, and see how Mr. Mauer stacks up.
JAWS - Catching Leaders
|Johnny Bench (HOF)
|Gary Carter (HOF)
|Ivan Rodriguez (HOF)
|Carlton Fisk (HOF)
|Mike Piazza (HOF)
|Yogi Berra (HOF)
|Bill Dickey (HOF)
|AVERAGE HOF C
|Mickey Cochrane (HOF)
|Gabby Hartnett (HOF)
|Ted Simmons (HOF)
|Buck Ewing (HOF)
How anyone can look at this table — a table where Joe Mauer is surrounded exclusively by Hall of Fame inductees in the first eleven slots, and is surpassed in WAR by only six catchers in the history of the game — and come to the conclusion that Mauer might not be a Hall of Famer is beyond me.
This is simply as good as a resume as it gets; in a fifteen-year career, Mauer posted a better peak by WAR7 than Carlton Fisk, Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, Gabby Hartnett, and Ted Simmons; he has a significant lead in many HOF-related categories on Buster Posey, who many believe to be a shoo-in; and he has as many or more top-10 MVP finishes as Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez, Fisk, Hartnett, and Simmons.
Most notably, he has more bWAR, a higher 7-year peak, and better JAWS than the average catcher inducted into the Hall of Fame. His fWAR reaches similar heights. Jay Jaffe, the inventor of JAWS, slapped him on his own personal ballot.
We compare Mauer to all-time great Twins, and to the fellow All-Stars of his generation, but the reality is that Joe stacks up to the greatest catchers of all-time. To have assembled a career that lands you seventh on the table above is a remarkable accomplishment for someone who could have played quarterback professionally.
So, what’s the hold-up here?
Throughout the back half of his career, Joe’s reputation as a soft, past-his-prime, payroll-soaking punching bag threatened to overshadow a prime so exceptional, I barely need to address it in an article about his Hall of Fame candidacy, because the fanbase is so familiar with his laundry list of accomplishments.
I still remember a Common Man segment when Dan Cole made an impassioned pitch to KFAN listeners that if Joe was as athletic as his fable implied, the organization should be moving him to shortstop — not the corner infield.
But from 2014 until his final game — a moment so dramatic it nearly deserves HOF induction on its own — Mauer moved off his unique position, set up shop at first base, and hit .278/.359/.388 for the remainder of his career. Mauer’s diminished post-concussion production at first base didn’t always sit well with fans, who already bemoaned his lack of power even at a more demanding defensive position.
It didn’t help either that this downturn coincided with some of the franchise’s leaner years, culminating in the infamous “total system failure” that saw an organizational overhaul that led to the Derek Falvey administration.
It’s not a moot point, either. Among that same above list of inducted catchers, almost all the other names caught in excess of 1,500 games; Joe clocked in at 921 behind the dish during ten of his fifteen total years in the big leagues, and the last chunk of 10.6 bWAR was earned having taken over for Justin Morneau near the foul lines on the side of the home dugout, which means a direct comparison to a group of nearly exclusive catchers requires somewhat of a concession.
But I think it’s worth noting that Mauer’s first-base career is probably more ill-remembered than it should be, in large part because his prime was so otherworldly. In his five seasons at first, Mauer only posted a below-average OPS+ once, and he made it to 98, which is essentially a sneeze off the mark. He would continue racking up hits (709 of them), would run a .359 OBP, and would even finish another season — across 141 games in 2017 — with a .305 batting average.
His distinguished work ethic would pay off, too, as during that same 2017 season, his defensive numbers probably should have earned him a Gold Glove, an honor which instead went to Eric Hosmer. Mauer’s commitment to excelling at an unintended position would have made him one of the only players to ever win a defensive award at multiple spots on the diamond; Placido Polanco, Darin Erstad, and Mauricio Dubon are the only ones to do it. It’s a hypothetical — again, he didn’t win — but his presence in the conversation shows he wasn’t hiding away at first collecting paychecks.
Primary position notwithstanding, Mauer kept up his above-league-average offensive production to the tune of 2,123 career knocks, and he never really lost his eye, either, striking out just 95 more times than he walked over nearly 8,000 trips to the box.
This combined with the reality of the story — that Mauer quit catching largely for precautionary reasons, and not due to pure inability — does enough in my book to offset any “penalties” of impressivity, which is a real word, thanks.
But do the voters agree?
There are only two catchers in the history of the Hall to go in on the first ballot — Johnny Bench and Pudge Rodriguez. In a few days’ time, Mauer could become just the third, another feather in his statistical roster of trailblazing significance.
With 182 ballots revealed/~47.4% known:— Ryan Thibodaux (@NotMrTibbs) January 19, 2024
Beltré - 98.9%
Mauer - 84.1%
Helton - 83.5%
Wagner - 79.7%
Sheffield - 74.7%
Jones - 70.9%
Beltrán - 66.5%
Utley - 43.4%
A-Rod - 39.0%
Ramírez - 35.2%
Abreu - 20.3%
Pettitte - 15.4%
Rollins - 14.3%
Vizquel - 9.9%
Buehrle - 7.7%
As of Friday afternoon, just shy of half the submitted ballots are known to the public. The other half of private ballots — generally more conservative than their freely-shared counterparts — will likely drag down Mauer’s overall percentage. But as with all potential inductees, Joe only needs 75%, and early returns have him high enough to start that even a significant hedging by the voting body might still result in his enshrinement.
We’ll know in a few days’ time; Tuesday, to be specific.
I’m confident enough in the early exit polls to call it right now. It may wind up closer than I’d like, but the Writers’ Association seems to understand what local media and fans should have been recognizing the entire time he was in a “TC” cap and a throwback catching helmet — that Joe Mauer is one of the greatest baseball players of all time, one of the inner-circle historical catchers, and one of the most deserving ambassadors this franchise could ever hope to honor.
Either way, whether it’s within the next 72 hours, or on a second crack at the ballot, Joe Mauer can be sure of one thing — it was a career well played.