Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Look at Joe Mauer's Hall of Fame Case, and the Sorry History ofCatchers in the Hall

I was at the Houston Astros game yesterday, which means that I got to see Joe Mauer single in the first inning. This brought him to 1499 career hits, which he followed up during today’s day game with hit number 1500 in the first inning. It’s a big mark for one of the game’s longtime greats, and as I am wont to do, it made me think about his place among the all-time greats.

There are a lot of ways to go about looking at it, so let’s start with the most basic. Right now, Mauer stands at 1501 hits, thanks to his single and home run today. If he made it to 3000 hits, even the most brain dead of Hall voters would surely vote for him. Well, maybe not “surely”, but it would at least check off the arbitrary milestone box that so many voters seem to fall back on to avoid critical thought.

Let’s take a rough estimate of his chances of 3000 hits, then, since 500 home runs probably isn’t happening. Bill James’s career projection tool is good enough to use for our purposes. It requires full seasons, though, so let’s try and estimate where he’ll be at the end of the year first. Right now, Mauer sits at 87 hits in 79 games, with 43 games remaining. Let’s assume he continues at his current pace of 1.1 hits per game and plays in 35 of the final 43 games. That would give him about 38.5 hits left this season, which we’ll round to 39. That means he’d finish the season with 126 hits, for a career total of 1540.

It’s easy to forget with all of his injury troubles, but Mauer is only 31. With our inputs, the projector spits out a career total of 2310 hits for Mauer, with a 3% chance to reach 3000 hits. 2310 hits might seem like a disappointment, but that would rank fourth all time among players with at least half of their games at catcher. The only other catchers with even 2200? Ivan Rodriguez, Ted Simmons, and Carlton Fisk.

The Ted Simmons reference does touch on a larger point though, which is: Hall voters have no idea how to vote for catchers. This could be problematic for a player like Joe Mauer, who’s made most of his living cutting down on passed balls his rotation would otherwise be throwing (among other services the position usually provides). To date, only twelve players have made the Hall after spending a majority of their career as a catcher. Only five of them have played more than a season since integration.

Even when they do induct catchers, they seem to be utterly dazed and confused through the process, like they’re inducting them almost through lucky chance alone. Carlton Fisk took two ballots to make the Hall. Gary Carter took six. Roy Campanella took seven. Even Yogi Berra, he of ten championship teams and universal adoration, took two ballots. Only Johnny Bench made it on his first go. At the very least, this helps explain (on top of the unfounded steroid rumors) why Mike Piazza will still be around seeking induction for a third time this winter. Note that that’s “explains”, not “justifies”, as the reason is still dumber than a sack of bricks.

Anyway, Mauer probably isn’t reaching 3000 hits. He might get in by being great for a catcher, but that hasn’t seemed to help Simmons or Piazza or Joe Torre. It’s hard to tell with the voters, so let’s instead decide whether he’ll be worthy of making the Hall.

Well, let’s start with the awards stuff. He’s already had six All-Star Game appearances, plus an MVP award and three other top 10 finishes. Another All-Star appearance or two would help, but those aren’t bad totals.

Where does he rank among catchers in other areas? Well, Mauer currently has a .320 batting average, thanks to his three batting titles (easily a record for a catcher). Among catchers, that ties him for first all time with Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane. The Hall median for catchers is .280, so he has some room to drop before he’s below the standard.

Mauer also shines in getting on base. His .401 OBP makes him one of only two catchers with a .400+ OBP, the other being Hall member Cochrane. .359 is the Hall median, so again, even if he does fall off, there’s a lot of cushion for him. That .359 mark would still leave him in the position’s top 25 among players with 3000 plate appearances, and even higher if you start setting higher plate appearance cutoffs.

What about OPS+, just to get a sense of his overall offensive contributions? At 133, only Mike Piazza (143) and Gene Tenace (136) rank higher. The Hall median is 125, while the average is 118, so again, Mauer has a ways to go before he falls out of range. Basically, he’s already pretty worthy on offense.

It’s hard to get a sense on defense with catchers, although Mauer is by all accounts not bad (with his recent position switch inspired more by fear of injury than weakness). Where does he stand in terms of overall value, though? There are plenty of ways to address that question, but overall, he stacks up pretty well.

Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement? Mauer sits at 44.6 currently, which according to this list, puts him eighteenth among catchers. However, that list doesn’t filter out players with a majority of playing time at other positions, so players like Joe Torre and Brian Downing appear above him, meaning he’s in truth even higher than that. Plus, he’s a stone’s throw away from the top 12 (even counting the non-majority catchers), with under 4 WAR to go and four and a half years still under contract.

Baseball-Reference WAR? Mauer’s already up to 45.3, putting him fourteenth out of all catchers (and less than a win out of the top twelve). Again, that’s pretty close to Hall-ready as is, with the Hall median at about 52 and a half.

How about stats more geared to evaluating Hall worth? Well, I’m a big fan of the Hall of Stats, as I’ve shown in the past. Hall Rating has Mauer sixteenth among catchers (again, including some with less than 50% of their games as a backstop), and his 99 Hall Rating means he’s already just shy of being Hall-worthy.*

*100 is the baseline to enter the Hall of Stats, so Mauer’s at 99% of a Hall career right now, not even counting this season. Also, it’s worth noting the Hall has a lower baseline and average than the Hall of Stats, so he’s even better off in that regard.

JAWS (The Jaffe WAR Score)? Mauer’s already tenth, thanks to his strong peak. Again, just shy of where he needs to be.

If you want to check just peak value, we can use Wins Above Average, or WAA. WAA basically takes Baseball-Reference WAR, then changes the baseline from a “replacement player” to an average starter. An average starter is expected to be worth about 2 wins, so whenever a player crosses the 2 WAR mark for a season, they start to accumulate WAA. Mauer’s already up to 26.4 WAA in his eleven-year career, which puts him eleventh among catchers. He’s again a little short of the Hall median (29.5), but like with everything else, he’s really close.

That’s basically my take away; one more All-Star season would make him a definite yes for me. Another few solid years would also work. Either way, he’s just 31, and there’s still time. His peak was just unprecedented for a catcher, and that’s worth remembering. Whether or not the Hall realizes this is another question; but right now, I’d say that Mauer’s easily on pace to be worthy of Cooperstown.

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