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Joe Mauer’s Hall of Fame Case Begins Behind the Plate

The Twins legend’s retirement jump-starts one of the more interesting Cooperstown candidacies in recent memory. He didn’t hit like a catcher, but he should be judged like one.

Joe Mauer Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Friday, Joe Mauer announced his retirement. And on Monday, during a poignant press conference at Target Field, many Twins fans wept with him as he said goodbye, the once-thick thatch of inky hair that helped soothe so many itchy, flaky scalps cropped close and sprayed with gray.

Mauer meant a lot to most Twins fans: A Saint Paul native who stayed home his whole career, he ranked third all-time in career WAR with the Twins, behind Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew. His highlight reel is a little light on national signature moments, both because he didn’t have eye-popping power or speed and because he played for forgettable teams; the Twins ranked 19th in wins and winning percentage during his Minnesota tenure, and he played in only 10 postseason games, all of them losses. In my mind, the most salient snapshots from his 15-year career are his nonchalant no-look catch of a ball that bounced off the backstop, a well-played line in a PlayStation ad, and a sentimental moment from his final game, when he wore catcher’s gear in a game for the first time in five years.

A lack of back-breaking homers, iconic October bat flips, equally iconic fielding flips, or incredible catches that capture a career with one GIF shouldn’t diminish what Mauer accomplished with constant contact, a steady diet of walks and singles, and a good glove at the most important position. In the wake of his farewell, the topic turned to Cooperstown, as it often does when a player who appears to be on the Hall of Fame bubble calls it a career. He has the pedigree: Mauer went from no. 1 draft pick to no. 1 prospect (in back-to-back years) to no. 1 player. In his five-year peak from 2006 to 2010, no AL hitter had a higher FanGraphs WAR (or Baseball Prospectus WARP). He has hardware, including a 2009 AL MVP award, three batting titles (a first for a catcher), and three Gold Gloves; five Silver Slugger awards; and six All-Star appearances. And he has a spotless off-the-field record, with no character-clause concerns to derail his induction. This is a man who costarred with his mom in a milk commercial.

What Mauer lacks is longevity: Although he’s easily the leader in games among 6-foot-5 players who caught in at least 40 percent of their appearances, he spent only 10 seasons behind the plate, making 885 starts at catcher before a concussion forced him to first base. Height makes a catcher’s body a bigger target for foul tips, and it also increases the strain on his knees. Earlier in his career, Mauer’s lower body ate into his squatting time; according to Baseball Injury Consultants, he hit the DL 10 times and lost a total of 500 days to injury over the course of his career, and only two of those DL stints were attributable to concussions. It doesn’t help his case that the final third of his career came as a roughly league-average player: More Mientkiewicz than Killebrew, Mauer sported a below-average bat for his power-centric adopted position but compensated by becoming a top-five fielder. By the time he hits the Hall of Fame ballot, his last season as a star-level player will be as distant as his debut was when he had to quit catching.

Because Mauer’s catching career was cut short, some voters may deem the total package disappointing. Mauer’s 44.7 Baseball-Reference WAR through age 30 ranks fifth all-time among all players who caught in at least three-quarters of their games through that age—topping Mike Piazza, Mickey Cochrane, and Yogi Berra, among others—so it is disappointing that he caught only one professional pitch thereafter, even though it’s hardly his fault that catching dangerously rattled his brain. There’s also the matter of Mauer’s subpar power. “The 36 doubles and 13 home runs he hit last year are going to slowly morph into something more like 25/25 over the next few years,” Baseball Prospectus wrote after the 2006 season, but 13 proved to be his second-highest homer total. Mauer’s 2009 MVP power output was an outlier that inflated expectations: That year, he went deep 28 times without any notable corresponding increase in fly-ball rate, hard-hit rate, or pull rate. The extreme spike stemmed from more of his flies leaving the park, which was partly a product of 11 fence-scraping “Just Enough” homers, tied for the fifth-most of that type in the AL.

Many Minnesotans also see Mauer as a disappointment because he couldn’t catch for the majority of the period covered by the eight-year, $184 million extension he signed in 2010, still the largest awarded to a catcher or a Twin. Still, it’s hard to hold a brain injury against a guy—or it should be, although some injury-shaming local columnists didn’t seem to see things that way. Plus, the perception that Mauer made too much money by baseball standards is more a function of timing and MLB’s collectively bargained indentured-servitude system than his own shortcomings; Mauer made $218 million over the course of his career, but his production would have been worth $307 million on the free-agent market. If his contract prevented the Twins from making other upgrades, that’s on ownership, not Mauer.

None of those slights should diminish what Mauer did do, which puts him in an exclusive class of catchers despite his relatively brief backstop stay. His .328 batting average as a catcher leads all players with at least 1,000 plate appearances at the position, and his .408 on-base percentage as a catcher ranks second, trailing only Cochrane, who retired (a year younger than Mauer) more than eight decades ago. Admittedly, Mauer never suffered a decline phase as a catcher that would have dragged down those stats, but he amassed an enormous amount of value by hitting so well when he was at catcher, a position so demanding on defense that the offensive baseline is low. Only seven catchers have ever put together a better 10-year stretch than Mauer’s best decade: Gary Carter, Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza, Iván Rodríguez, Yogi Berra, Cochrane, and Thurman Munson. That’s six Hall of Famers and Munson, who was killed in a plane crash at 32 but like Mauer won one MVP award and three Gold Gloves. And although the above stats don’t incorporate receiving, Mauer excelled at that too, ranking well above average in his first eight seasons behind the plate before falling slightly below in his last two. (Among the 34 catchers with at least 30,000 framing opportunities from 2004 to 2011, Mauer ranked eighth on a rate basis in called strikes added, according to Baseball Prospectus, saving 68 runs.)

Add it all up—well, all except for the framing—and Mauer compares favorably to the catchers who are already enshrined. Both Mauer’s career WAR and his peak WAR (defined as a player’s best seven seasons) clear the average totals for Hall of Famers who accumulated the majority of their career value at catcher. Naturally, so does his JAWS score, which averages the two and puts him in seventh place at the position.

That positional context makes all the difference to Mauer’s Cooperstown candidacy. Consider the cases of Mauer and David Wright, two perfect contemporaries whose wholesome careers ran along parallel lines. Both are 35 and spent their entire careers with the teams that selected them in the first round of the 2001 draft. Both made the majors in 2004, and both looked like Hall of Fame locks through age 30. And both encountered a series of serious injuries that diminished their skills and ultimately ended their time in the majors—though not before they took emotional career curtain calls on consecutive days.

From 2004 to 2013, which conveniently encapsulates both of their healthy and productive periods, Wright recorded a 137 wRC+ with 47.2 Baseball-Reference WAR; Mauer managed a 134 wRC+ with 44.7 WAR. Wright hit slightly better and made almost 900 more plate appearances over that span, while Mauer offered much more defensive and positional value. It all came close to evening out. And although Mauer tacked on more post-peak production than Wright did, the two are almost indistinguishable in terms of career value. Average the three win-value metrics at FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and BP, and Wright emerges with a tiny two-win lead, 53.7 to 51.6.

Yet when Wright retired, he was widely described as someone who was on a Cooperstown trajectory until injuries intervened, whereas Mauer is receiving more serious Hall of Fame buzz. This is why, in one graph:

Catching is incredibly difficult, as Mauer’s career makes clear. Because of the physical demands of the position, catchers don’t last as long as players at every other position, which prevents them from racking up equivalent career WARs. Even at their peaks, they don’t play as many games or make as many plate appearances, which limits their ceilings; Mauer’s 7.8 WAR in 2009, when he became the first catcher to lead his league in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, was the fifth-highest single-season catcher total of all time, less than one win behind the leader. WAR includes a positional adjustment that gives catchers a boost relative to other players on a per-plate-appearance basis, but it doesn’t give them any extra credit for career length. Hall of Fame third basemen—who fall in the middle of the positional pack—boast 28 percent more career WAR and 25 percent more peak WAR than their catching counterparts. As a consequence, it makes sense to compare catchers to catchers—and Mauer clears the bar for his cohort, while Wright comes in under the bar at third base.

Mauer wasn’t behind the plate for his whole career, and both he and we wish that he could have been been back there longer. But because so much of his value came at catcher, he deserves to be considered a catcher for Cooperstown purposes. Mauer can take the time before his Hall of Fame run to relax or embark on a second career of drinking milk and making mixtapes. And we should take that time to remember what he was: one of the best ever to play a position that chews up players and spits them out too soon.

Thanks to Dan Hirsch of Baseball-Reference for research assistance.