Tuesday, March 11, 2014

14 Minnesota Twins to Watch in '14: Joe Mauer

Complacency is the enemy of progress.  When a player gets complacent, they stop improving.  When a player is satisfied with their place on a team or within the league, they have no reason to get better.  Some players constantly work to get better, staving off complacency even though keeping the status quo is quite easy.  Fans can get complacent too.  This seems to happen with the most consistent players, regardless of how well that player performs.  An excellent player who is consistently excellent can be viewed as boring or unexciting.  The Twins have a consistently great player who gets extra scrutiny and lends some credence to the idea that consistent is boring. 

The 2nd most important Twins player in 2014 is Joe Mauer.

Who is he? 

Mauer is the Twins' current first baseman and former catcher.  Mauer just finished his 10th season with the Twins, racking up 1414 career hits and setting a Hall of Fame pace.  Now 31, Mauer will move to a new position in 2014 because of lingering issues with concussions.  On August 19, Mauer went 2-4 with a double.  He didn't play another game that season, due to his brain injury.   He finished 2013 with a .324/.404/.476 batting line, good for a 144 OPS+.  If a move to a new position lowers the risk of future concussions, the loss of a great offensive catcher in the lineup is worthwhile. 

It would be unwise to worry about Mauer's offense.  His career .323/.405/.463 batting line will play at any position.  Plus, he should be able to play more games than ever.  His career-high for games played is 147.  He's only played 140 or more games in three seasons.  If he can remain healthy, there should be no reason to expect fewer than 155 games from Mauer in 2014.  While he won't provide his great offense as a catcher any longer, he should be in the lineup more often as a first baseman. 

As for his defense at first?  He's a natural, of course.  He's Joe Mauer.

Why is he important?

Mauer is the Twins' best hitter, so he is obviously an important player.  Just how good could Mauer be over the course of a full slate of games?  I looked at each of his seasons to see how many games he missed due to rest, not injury.  According to Baseball Prospectus, Mauer has missed 201 games due to injury since 2005.  I removed his 2004 season, as he missed most of that season due to knee surgery.  The Twins have played 1460 games since 2005 (two game 163s, as you may recall).  Mauer has played 1143 of those games and missed 201 due to injury, leaving 116 games missed due to rest.  Of course, this doesn't even consider the games he missed due to injury as a result of his catching, but that's not something I can quantify.  

If Mauer had played in 95% of those 116 "rest" games, he'd have played another 110 games in his career, worth roughly another 4.0 rWAR.  Based on his hits/game of 1.2, he'd also have another 132 hits.  That would give him 1546 hits going into his age 31 season.  In the last 50 years, only 44 players have 1546 hits prior to their age 31 season.  Mauer would have the 19th highest slugging percentage of those 44 players.  What does this mean for 2014?  Nothing, but you already know that he's good and that he's important to the Twins' success.  It's always fun to plug Mauer into the history machine though.

Fine, but how will he compare to other first baseman in this era?  Well, Mauer's career .323 batting average would be best among all first basemen since 1999.  His on-base percentage of .405 would be fifth, behind just Albert Pujols, Todd Helton, Jason Giambi and Joey Votto.  But, wait, what about his power?  He's got Little League power!  His slugging percentage would be 19th among first baseman over that span, which is pretty good when you consider that some of the guys ahead of him are known steroid users and/or Richie Sexson

Just looking at last year, Mauer would have finished first in batting average, second in OBP and tenth in slugging percentage among all MLB first baseman.  Would we like more power?  Sure, but I'd also like a rocket car and a solid gold house.  Mauer's 144 OPS+ in 2013 would have been tied for fifth among MLB first baseman.  He was tied for 12th among all qualified MLB hitters in 2013.  He's a good hitter at any position.

If Mauer struggles in 2014, the Twins' offense will be brutal.  Of course, you already knew that.  That's why he's so important. 

Paul the Positive Puma's Take:

I've been asked to keep this short because someone is a show-off and likes to use Baseball Reference's play index.  That's fine, I don't have much to say about Mauer anyway.  He's my favorite player.  He's extremely solid and one of the best hitters of his generation.  He's just 31 and he should have many good years in front of him.  Moving him to first base was a great move because it should prolong his career and prolong his peak. 

I know how to use the play index too.  There are just seven catchers since 1961 who have posted a 100 OPS+ or better after age 31 (min. 3000 plate appearances).  Just two of those players have posted an OPS+ greater than 125.  Using those same parameters, there are 33 first baseman who have posted a 100 OPS+ or better and 11 who have eclipsed a 125 OPS+.  It was the right move in the long run. 

Peter the Pessimistic Puma's Take:

Keep it short?  No problem.  Play more games.  I don't care about the power.  I understand that while Mauer doesn't hit home runs, he still has above-average power.  I'd like to see more home runs, but at this point, I'm not expecting more than 10-15 next season.  However, if Mauer doesn't play 155-160 games in 2014, I'm going to lose my fur.  If he gets hurt, whatever, that happens.  If he's healthy and he takes even 10 games off, it will be a travesty.  Mauer plays the least taxing position on the diamond and he can always DH when he needs a little breather. 

I'm not going to rip Mauer as a hitter or a player because I know how good he is.  However, he has to play through the nagging injuries and any general soreness.  He's a first baseman now, so he can't use catching as an excuse for his knees, arm, and body any longer.  If he doesn't play nearly every game, he'll only lend support to the anti-Mauer crowd. 

What to look for in '14:

Regardless of where Mauer played defense, he would have been the Twins' best hitter in 2013.  In fact, Mauer would have been the best hitter on a lot of teams since his debut.  Since he joined the league in 2004, only 14 players have a better career OPS+.  Only nine players have a higher career rWAR.  Mauer has been an incredibly valuable, transcendent player since he reached the Majors.  There's simply no reason to think he won't continue to be that same player (just without the mask, fat glove, chest protector, shin guards, and by proxy, positional boost). 

Mauer is the face of the franchise and hey, now we get to see his face more.  Right?  Has anyone pointed that out yet? 

I'll be back tomorrow with the most important Twins player in 2014.  Have a nice day, everyone!

If you haven't been paying close attention, I'm counting down the 14 most important Twins players for the 2014 season.  This was just one part in a 14-part series.  If you missed any of the previous installments, just click here as I have put them all in one nice, tidy location for you.  I'm the best.


  1. It is a necessary move to put Mauer at first, I know, but man, it's a shame he's no longer catcher. In German, Mauer means "wall." Other than defensive line in football, what better position for someone named "wall" than catcher? Good luck plowing through that on a close play at the plate!

    1. I totally agree. Not with the German part because I don't speak any languages, but the rest of it for sure. As long as Mauer is playing, I'm happy, but it would have been nice to see him be a "wall" a little longer.

  2. I guess a wall would be a good goalie in Hockey as well.