There are certain players whose greatness is only apparent to fans who get to watch them everyday. It can be frustrating, because saying “this player belongs in the Hall, or at least deserves serious consideration” invariably produces either complete agreement (by fans) or total bewilderment (by outsiders). The most recent example of this? Jim Edmonds, who had the misfortune of playing in the offensive and defensive shadows of Ken Griffey, Jr. and Andruw Jones, respectively, for most of his career. Despite eight gold gloves, nearly 400 career home runs, and a World Series title, Edmonds didn’t even get enough votes to remain on next year’s ballot.
The same phenomenon is apparently at work in Minnesota, where a Twins fan recently floated the idea of Joe Mauer as a Hall of Famer. The idea was immediately mocked as ridiculous, though a handful of people at least gave Mauer the caveat of “if he can have a few more good years as a first baseman, he’d merit consideration.” It’s an unnecessary caveat, though. Regardless of what he does from this point on, Joe Mauer has already done enough to warrant a strong Hall of Fame case.
Central to Mauer’s case is his time as a catcher–by far the most difficult position on the defensive spectrum. Sure, concussions and assorted other injuries forced Mauer to move from behind the plate to first base, but he nevertheless caught the vast majority of Twins games from 2005-2010. He managed roughly another 200 starts behind the dish over the next three years before becoming a full time first baseman and DH. If Mauer’s lucky enough to stay healthy through the end of his contract, he’ll have more career starts away from catcher than at catcher, but none of that diminishes what he did as a full-time backstop.
What did he do? From 2005-2013, he put up a combined batting line of .323/.406/.466, good for an OPS+ of 135. In terms of offensive WAR, that amounts to nearly twice as much as produced by Mike Napoli, who finishes a distant second. If one is willing to include defense in the metric (an admittedly dicey proposition as defense is hard to quantify to begin with, and muddying the waters with catcher defense makes it worse), he still finishes almost one and a half times better than Brian McCann’s distant second.
Teams are better at recognizing the value of keeping a strong bat in the lineup regardless of position, too. One need look no further than the Giants, where Buster Posey frequently sees time at first base despite being a catcher by trade. Playing fewer games at catcher while still remaining in the lineup is a testament to the value that player brings to his team.
Yet it’s not as if Mauer’s value solely came from having a strong bat at a typically defense-first position. Mauer has three Gold Gloves to his name. Yet the Hall seems traditionally an offense-first endeavor: of the catchers with more Gold Gloves than Mauer, only Johnny Bench (10) is in the Hall. (Pudge Rodriguez has 13 and won’t be eligible until next year’s voting; should he somehow fall short, it’ll be an enormous blow to Cardinals fans having their own version of this conversation about Yadier Molina.) To be fair, the Gold Glove didn’t exist during the careers of other HoF catchers–Ray Schalk, for example, is in Cooperstown solely on defensive merit. Regardless, the fact remains that Mauer was easily the best offensive catcher in baseball during his peak, and among the best defensive as well.
How does his offense stack up against other Hall of Fame catchers? Quite favorably, actually.
In terms of total production, only the recently-elected Mike Piazza significantly outperformed Mauer. Mauer performs similarly-well when looking only at a player’s peak. That Mauer’s peak didn’t last as long as some other catchers is hardly his fault. Mauer, much like his former Twins teammate Justin Morneau, had his career derailed by concussions. The diagnosis and treatment of concussions has, thankfully, been far more serious recently as compared to only a handful of years ago. It’s not at all hard to imagine Mauer playing in a different era where ballplayers just “got their bell rung” and played through traumatic brain injury, greatly jeopardizing their personal health. Mauer’s peak is long enough as-is; penalizing him for correctly seeking treatment and prevention of further injury sends entirely the wrong message to future ballplayers.
What Mauer doesn’t have is postseason success. The Twins have made the postseason three times in his career, and were swept out of October each time. Yet that, too, is a byproduct of the era. With the introduction of the wild card, and later two wild cards, it’s much harder for any player to get a World Series ring–his team has to win a series of playoff rounds which largely amounts to making a series of successful coin flips.
Perhaps much of the blowback against a Mauer Hall of Fame candidacy stems from his current contract: Mauer signed an eight-year, $184 million contract that began prior to the 2011 season. At a $23 million average annual value, that’s quite a lot to pay for a player that’s solely a first baseman at this point in his career–especially on a team that’s not cash-flush like the Twins. That said, characterizing Mauer’s contract as “the worst in MLB” is laughably hyperbolic. Regardless, a player’s contract should not factor into his Hall of Fame candidacy. Long-term contracts rarely end well, and given the difficulties for any player to reach a lucrative free agency payoff, if anything, Mauer should be commended.
As for the fact his candidacy requires one to disassociate his catching career from his first base/designated hitter career? It wouldn’t be the first time. Dennis Eckersley, for example, spent as many seasons as a starting pitcher as he did a relief pitcher, yet it wasn’t his pedestrian work as a starter that got him to Cooperstown. Voters have correctly looked at the relevant parts of a player’s career before and ignored (or at least gave less weight to) the others in the past. There’s no reason they cannot do the same with Mauer.
In all likelihood, Mauer will end up like Edmonds in about ten years–incredibly appreciated by Twins fans who watched him, but without the gaudy numbers to make enough BBWAA members get him into Cooperstown. Yet the fact remains: Joe Mauer could retire tomorrow and still be a worthy Hall of Fame catcher. It’s a shame so few apparently realize it.