Few players in the history of the game have taken over a town the way that Joe Mauer has. When we think of players that have done this, we consider guys like Derek Jeter in New York and Albert Pujols in St. Louis. The excitement for Mauer started when he was drafted first overall in 2001 as the hometown guy over then-stud prospect Mark Prior out of USC. The excitement really built up in Mauer's early career, where he won a batting title at 23 and another one at 25. Then, everything came together for Joe in a rather incredible 2009 MVP season, where he lead the league in BA, OBP, SLG, OPS, and OPS+ as a catcher. During that season, Mauer put up some insane numbers:
.365 BA/ .444 OBP/ .587 SLG (170 OPS+)/ 7.5 WAR (7.2 oWAR/ 0.3 dWAR)
Yes, everything clicked in that 2009 season from Mauer. After missing the first month of the season, he put on a show, putting up numbers that were incredible. However, one thing happened in 2009 that began the start of a noticeable trend for Mauer: He started playing many more games at DH, which hurt his overall value. This is only one of the things that started a downward trend for Mauer. To put the trend into perspective, here are some rates for Mauer, which start with end results and then shift towards other rates:
2009: .365 BA/ .444 OBP/ .587 SLG (170 OPS+)/ 7.5 WAR (7.2 oWAR/ 0.3 dWAR)- 80% G at C
2010: .327 BA/ .402 OBP/ .469 SLG (140 OPS+)/ 5.9 WAR (5.5 oWAR/ 0.4 dWAR)- 83% G at C
2011: .287 BA/ .360 OBP/ .368 SLG (103 OPS+)/ 1.7 WAR (1.4 oWAR/ 0.3 dWAR)- 60% G at C
And here are the other rates:
2009: 12.5% BB/ 10.4% K/ .222 ISO/ .373 BABIP
2010: 11.1% BB/ 9.1% K/ .141 ISO/ .348 BABIP
2011: 9.6% BB /11.4% K/ .081 ISO/ .319 BABIP
Look familiar? It should, because it's a similar trend line to what happened to Hanley Ramirez down in Florida. However, the two trend lines (as similar as they may seem), are very different. Let's look at a few of the ways they are different:
1) Target Field.
The Twins' new ballpark posted a 95 rating for hitters (5% below average) in 2011, which greatly favors pitchers. In its final year, the Metrodome posted a rating of 103, which is 3% above average and solidly favors hitters. This rather drastic change in run environment is going to cause a downward trend in anyone's overall numbers. Because of the move, the drop in production wasn't as severe as most people would think, as 2010 was a 5.5 oWAR season for Mauer, which was good for 4th best in his career. Hanley did not have to deal with a change in park at all.
Unlike Hanley Ramirez, Joe Mauer's injuries are the type that really don't look to impact him in the future. The shoulder injury that has plagued Ramirez over the past two years could potentially affect his play for the rest of his career. Joe Mauer hasn't seen injury issues like that, as he was diagnosed with things like pneumonia and bilateral leg weakness, which are short-term illnesses that sap an individual's strength. Attempting to come back from those illnesses in the middle of the season does not allow a player to gain his full strength, as he loses stamina from playing games and isn't allowed to work out as hard as he needs to in order to return to top form.
3) Stabilizing skills
When you look at Joe Mauer's recent rates, it's tough to say that he's really in true regression. Yes, the numbers would point to that if you took them completely out of context, but let's consider a few things that impact this trend:
For starters, 2009 was an absolutely unreal year for Joe Mauer, much like it was for Hanley Ramirez. However, Mauer's year puts the term "career year" on a whole new level. here are some of Mauer's rates from 2009 compared to his career averages:
12.5 BB% vs. 11.9 BB%
.222 ISO vs. .148 ISO
.373 BABIP vs. .342 BABIP
20.4% HR/FB vs. 10.2% HR/FB
So rather than say he's truly regressing from 2009, let's label 2009 as a fluke career year and get back to some more realistic expectations from Joe Mauer. 2009 was amazing, but expecting him to ever do that kind of thing again (or repeat it even if he's 100% healthy) is ridiculous and puts too much pressure on him. So, the next step in this is to look at 2010, since it was a season where drop off should have occurred. In the end, the drop off did indeed happen, but not to the level that most people would think. Let's look at his 2010 against his career averages:
11.1% BB vs. 11.9% BB
9.1% K vs. 9.9% K
.141 ISO vs. .148 ISO
.348 BABIP vs. .342 BABIP
6.7% HR/FB vs. 10.2% HR/FB
That's much more like the Joe Mauer that we know and love. 2010 was right on par with where Joe Mauer should be expected to play, especially since those rates happened in a much less favorable offensive environment. Mauer didn't deal with a ton of injuries, played more games at catcher, and did absolutely just fine in his playing time. So 2010 really isn't a season of regression at all. It's actually just another good prime year from Joe Mauer.
The last thing we do when looking at this trend line is toss out 2011. Mauer suffered from two fluke illnesses, which he is now fully healed from, and he was forced to play more games at first base, catcher, and even in the outfield because of team issues and injuries. Unless the Twins overreact, Mauer should get back to playing 80% of his games at catcher, where his value is great.
So this is a case not of a player regressing, but of a player having the same skill set and having end results that simply wound up looking like a regression. Because of all of this, I label Joe Mauer as a big time rebound candidate for 2012.
Real Life Value to the Twins
It seems to me that many individuals have ignored the potential reasons for the results that Mauer has gotten and are mislabeling him as a big-contract bust. Nobody is going to deny that Mauer is making a lot of money. In fact, the 161 million dollars he's owed over the next 7 years is more than most teams could possibly afford. However, I am not going to label this as a bad contract. Let's look back once more to what Mauer did in his last full season:
2010: .327 BA/ .402 OBP/ .469 SLG (140 OPS+)/ 5.9 WAR (5.5 oWAR/ 0.4 dWAR)- 83% G at C
A six WAR player on the open market would demand well over 25 million dollars, and Mauer is making less than that. When you consider the complete scarcity at the catcher position, keeping the league's elite catcher means a lot to the formation of a roster. The Twins have themselves a fantastic player, and Twins fans need not be worried about what he's going to do in the future. Many people have suggested that Mauer play fewer games at catcher, but the 80% clip gives him an off day from the position every 5th game and will keep his legs fresh. The question then becomes the issue of getting the most value from Mauer's offensive production (by playing him at catcher) versus keeping him fresh enough to play at an elite level. Let's compare some average numbers at catcher and at DH, which are the two positions that Mauer is likely to play in the future:
C: .245 BA/ .314 OBP/ .390 SLG ( 91 wRC+)
DH: .268 BA/ .342 OBP/ .431 SLG (110 wRC+)
Clearly the Twins need to play him at catcher as much as possible, and if you look at Mauer's career, he's played only 13.9% of his games at DH. This means that when he's not suffering from pneumonia and bilateral leg weakness, he is more than capable of playing 80% of his games at catcher and producing at an elite level. Heck, even if Mauer played 3/4 games at catcher, he's getting a rest every 4th game and is still playing 75% of the time at catcher, which saves his legs and will easily allow him to play over a full season. With that being said, here's what I think Mauer will do for the Twins in 2012:
140 G/ 590 PA/ .325 BA/ .370 OBP/ .450 SLG (128 OPS+)/ 6.1 WAR (5.6 oWAR/ 0.5 dWAR)- 78% G at C
This is a guy that can, when healthy, perform as one of the best players in baseball and one of the best players in the history of the game. I think he'll be just fine in 2012, with a big bounce back year.
This is a department where I think that Mauer is going to be severely overlooked. His injuries last year are ones that should not impact him. The Twins chose to rest Mauer late in the season, so he'll be working on an extended off season where he's had plenty of time to get his strength back. Mauer will probably be a guy that gets slotted for the 3rd round, and some guys might choose to take Brian McCann and other catchers in front of him. I'm here to tell you that that would be gold for you in your fantasy league. Let's look at what Mauer did in a 5x5 in 2010:
.327 BA/ 88 Runs/ 9 HR/ 75 RBI/ 1 SB
Let's add some context by comparing that to what the average team got from their catchers in 2011:
.245 BA/ 66 Runs/ 18 HR/ 74 RBI/ 2 SB
If you are okay with sacrificing 9 HR for 82 points in batting average and 22 runs, then you will be perfectly okay taking Joe Mauer in the first round. Remember, even though I compared it to the average production by team from the position, catcher is an extremely scarce position where a lot of teams wind up playing multiple guys. Having one player get a ton of playing time and production out of the position is very rare, which swings in Mauer's favor. With that being said, here's what I expect from Mauer in 2012:
.325 BA/ 89 Runs/ 10 HR/ 83 RBI/ 2 SB
Those are the numbers of a late first round pick, especially when you consider the individual is playing at catcher. However, depending on the league you participate in, you won't have to take him in the spot where his value would normally demand you take him. Based on the league and site you pick on, you might be able to get Mauer in the 3rd round or later, which is an absolute steal. One of the awesome things about Mauer in 2012 will be that he gets the much-sought-after dual listing for positions. He played 52 games at catcher and 18 games at first base, so he will be eligible at catcher and first base in 2012, which increases the offensive flexibility your team can have. Because of this, Mauer is a guy that is borderline essential for a team to have. If you take more of guaranteed success in the first round and a solid guy in the 2nd round, Mauer is the perfect player to take in the third round of a fantasy draft, because he's likely to produce first round value.
Joe Mauer is officially a rebound candidate for 2012.