I’ve never been certain what the exact criteria for Hall of Fame induction are. I mean, I understand how the voting process works and the percentage of votes required for enshrinement. It’s just that, like every other major sport, it often feels like the actual criteria oscillates depending on the circumstance. The tangible statistics are the high watermark, of course, but in what respect do the more ‘intangible’ statistics, things like MVPs, All Star appearances, and world championships, factor into that statistical reckoning? And what about the ‘intangibles’? The storyline aspects, the stuff that is less measurable? A guy’s ‘impact’ on the game, which can be measured in a multitude of ways beyond just their career WAR.
I was mulling this over, when a good friend and (some might say) wise baseball mind defined Hall of Fame worthiness as such: “Who can you not tell the story of baseball without?”
I find this narrative fascinating. The idea that there is an overarching, now centuries long narrative of ‘baseball’ lurking behind everything we see and do in the sport like some kind of pine-tarred Tolstoy chronicle is something that an old-school lover of clothbound classics like myself would just drool over. The idea of a continuum running from Walter Johnson, through High Pockets Kelly and Tom Seaver down the line to Barry Larkin and Larry Walker, is what makes this sport the thing of true romantics.
And so, with all of that in mind, I’d like to posit that, for a variety of reasons, one cannot tell the ’story of baseball’ without the legendary Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer. Here’s why.
The Statistical Case
Statistically, it can be a challenge to determine what makes a Hall of Fame catcher. As a position that is traditionally not the refuge of generation-defining bats, you don’t often have the kind of no-doubter numbers that you have at other positions. For starters, no career catcher is a member of the 3,000 hit club. The closest one has thus far come is Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez, who ended with 2,844. There are no members of the 500 home run club (Mike Piazza’s 427 is the most), and only four catchers have ever won multiple MVP awards. Yet it is this very paucity of ‘obvious’ Hall of Fame numbers that make exceptional catchers so unique and robustly celebrated
This is where the fantastic Jaffe Adjusted WAR Score system (or JAWS) really comes in handy. Pioneered by sabermetrician and baseball writer Jay Jaffe in the early 2000s, the system seeks to measure a player’s worthiness by juxtaposing them against already-enshrined players. In short, it is a measure of comparative WAR
The JAWS system is as close to a definable scale for Hall of Fame induction that we’ve got, and it speaks very favorably of Joe Mauer. So let’s start there.
There are currently 15 full-time catchers enshrined in the Hall of Fame, the second-lowest number (barring relief pitchers) of any position. The highest JAWS score of any catcher will surprise no one: it’s Johnny Bench, with 61.2. Bench’s 75.1 career WAR is head and shoulders above the rest, and he is top-5 in Runs, Home Runs, and RBI. In 8674 career Plate Appearances, Bench net a .267 BA, .476 SLG, and 126 OPS+. These are strong numbers and an obvious supplement to his unquestionable worthiness for the Hall. It’s also worth noting that, when it comes to positions, the average JAWS rating for catchers is the lowest (44.2), with second place (1B at 54.8) being not particularly close. Of course, much of that has to do with how demanding of a position catcher is, and how brief the prime years of catchers tend to be, so adjustments to expectation must be made.
You know whose numbers are just as good as Bench’s in many of these key metrics? You guessed it: Joe Mauer.
While Mauer didn’t have quite the career power stroke that Bench did (he hit just 143 career home runs), he was an on-base beast. His career OPS of .827 is better than Bench, and other HOF luminaries including Carlton Fisk, Pudge Rodriguez, and Yogi Berra. His 124 OPS+ is only a hair behind Bench, and he had more career hits in fewer plate appearances than Bench. He had more than Gary Carter did, too – and Carter had over 1,000 more plate appearances (9019 vs. 7960).
In fact, if you take JAWS into account – and you really ought to, all things considered – Mauer has the 7th-highest JAWS score of any catcher in history. The six guys ahead of him are all Hall of Famers, and he is ahead of the other 9 guys in the Hall.
At his peak, Joe Mauer was not just the best catcher in the league, he was undoubtedly one of the best players in the world. His 2009 stat line is the stuff of absolute legends, and was the highlight of a five-year stretch in which he was on another planet:
|2006||140 G, .347/.429/.507, 144 OPS+||13 HR, 84 RBI, 86 R, 8 SB, 5.8 WAR||All-Star, Silver Slugger, 6th in MVP voting, led Majors in AVG|
|2007||109 G, .292/.382/.426, 118 OPS+||7 HR, 60 RBI, 62 R, 7 SB, 3.3 WAR|
|2008||146 G, .328/.413/.451, 134 OPS+||9 HR, 85 RBI, 98 R, 1 SB, 6.4 WAR||All-Star, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, 4th in MVP voting|
|2009||138 G, .365/.444/.587, 171 OPS+||28 HR, 96 RBI, 94 R, 4 SB, 8.4 WAR||MVP, All-Star, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, led Majors in AVG & OBP|
|2010||137 G, .327/.402/.469, 140 OPS+||9 HR, 75 RBI, 88 R, 1 SB, 5.7 WAR||All-Star, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, 8th in MVP voting|
His 2009 WAR score was the 5th-best single-season WAR for a Catcher in history and was the pinnacle of his career. It was the only season in which Mauer hit more than 20 home runs (13 in 2006 was his next-highest), and his 171 OPS+ is the second-highest single-season OPS+ for a catcher in history.
In fact, when taking into account Mauer’s roughly eight-year prime, he wasn’t just elite amongst Catchers: his WAR over that span (41.4) ranks him 5th in the majors, while his Batting Average (.327) is 2nd, and his OBP (.410) is 4th. Considering how heavily weighted towards ‘prime’ years JAWS score is, this is a significant marker that speaks to just how elite his peak was.
Defensively, it’s important to look at those prime years when making a case for his prowess as a run saver. During that span, Mauer’s Fielding Percentage (.996) was the best among catchers, he committed the second-fewest errors (13) at the position, and he twice led all catchers in Caught Stealing percentage (2007, 2013). His three Gold Gloves speak to how vital he was behind the plate, and that simply cannot go ignored when it comes to the position.
Now, it is completely fair to point out Mauer’s modest career power numbers as something that makes his case a little less sure-fire. His 143 career home runs would be significantly lower than his catcher contemporaries, and his .439 SLG doesn’t stand out either. He was never a free swinger, and his career ‘patience’ numbers are indicative of that. There’s also the matter of how, in the final four years of his career, he played primarily as a first baseman, with the typical wear-and-tear a catcher gets on his body (along with concussion issues) ultimately leading him to make the switch. But other noteworthy, and some Hall of Fame position players have made similar positional switches in their later career, and such a move seldom invalidates their accomplishments at their primary position.
There’s also the matter of the career accolades, both personal and team. 6 All-Star appearances, 5 Silver Slugger awards, 3 batting titles, and 3 Gold Gloves is a strong case, and that MVP award is a definite kicker. Since 2000, only one other catcher (Buster Posey in 2012) has won his league’s MVP award, and Mauer won 2009 with all but one of the available first-place votes (99% vote share). It’s truly one of the great catcher seasons in history. It’s also worth noting that, in winning three batting titles, Mauer became, at the time, just the third catcher in history to win the award, and the first since 1942.
When it comes to titles, though, Mauer’s cupboard is decidedly bare. In fact, there was very little to speak of in terms of post-season success on the whole: three career true-playoff appearances (2006, 2009, 2010), and one loss in the Wild Card game in 2017, while never being part of a team that made it past the Division Series. In fact, Mauer never won a single playoff game in his career. While baseball isn’t a sport that necessitates championships as part of Hall of Fames resumes, the complete lack of playoff success is noteworthy. His Hall of Fame contemporaries at the position are title winners (with the exception of Piazza), and guys who were the part of some exceedingly legendary teams. The best team Mauer was a part of was the 2006 team, which won 96 games, but they were swept in the ALDS by Oakland.
Still, the Baseball Hall of Fame tends to equalize individual resumes against team success – Mike Trout has played just 3 career playoff games, and at this rate, may never play one again – and so Mauer shouldn’t suffer too much on account of that. Where that lack of team success may hurt him, however, is more in the ‘intangibles’ portion.
The Story Case
Everybody loves a hometown kid. Joe Mauer’s story is as good as it gets in baseball terms. Drafted 1st overall in 2001 out Cretin High School in St. Paul, Mauer was one of those rare instances of a top-tier talent getting the chance to play for his hometown club. If you’ll recall, that was the year in which the Cubs took Mark Prior out of USC at 2nd overall, and there was some hand-wringing in baseball circles as to whether taking a catcher, a position that seldom produces elite talent, ahead of a 6-foot-5 flame-throwing righty was the right call. But everyone loves a good story. Of course, the fact that Mauer hit .605 in his senior high school season, and only struck out once across four high school years, speaks to why he was considered so special.
Fun fact: Mauer was a three-sport standout at Cretin. In basketball, he was a 20+ point-per-game guard and two-time state All-Star, while his football career as a quarterback included accolades as USA Today’s Player of the Year, the Gatorade National Player of the Year, and recognition as an All-American. He was a five-star quarterback recruit coming out of high school and committed to Florida State before ultimately deciding to declare for the MLB draft. One has to wonder how much of a factor in his decision was the fact that the hometown Twins were selecting first overall that year.
Debuting in 2004 at the age of 20, Mauer quickly built up capital with fans in the Twin Cities, and never really seemed a true threat to leave the club. His big contract signing came in 2010, on the heels of his monstrous MVP season. When he signed an eight-year extension worth $184 Million, Mauer became the highest-paid Catcher in baseball history. From 2006-2013, he was the top-Twin when it comes to WAR four times (2008-2010, 2013), and was the best player on the team during the seasons in which the club was a consistent threat in the AL Central (2006-2010).
Not being a Twins fan, I’d have a hard time telling you who the club’s ‘folk heroes’ might be, but if you take the great Walter Johnson out of the equation (as he played for the club when it was the Washington Senators in the 1910s-20s), then you can make a compelling case for Mauer to be on the club’s ‘Mount Rushmore’ of players. Mauer ranks 4th all-time in WAR (55.8) generated by a Twin (although Johnson’s obscene 164.8 was, again, all generated when the club played in Washington). He trails only Hall of Famers Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew in that metric. Carew played at the club from 1967-1978, and accumulated a WAR of 63.8, and won an MVP award while being named an All-Star every single season; Killebrew played with the franchise from 1954-1974 and was on it when it made the move from Washington to Minnesota in 1961. He generated a career 60.5 WAR with the franchise, although it should be noted that he never hit above .300, and had the same number of league MVPs (1) as Mauer. Twins fans would, of course, make a righteous case for the great Kirby Puckett, a Hall of Famer who famously led the team to its World Series titles in 1987 and 1991. Like Mauer, Puckett was a Twin Cities lifer. But he never won an MVP award and his career WAR of 51.2 trails that of Mauer by a margin. So, if you take Johnson out of the equation, your four Minnesota faces on the mountain are almost-assuredly Carew, Killebrew, Puckett, and Mauer. And none of those other guys are Minnesota-born boys. He meant a great deal to the city.
Of course, it’d help if Mauer had been a lifer on one of the league’s ‘glamour’ franchises, as would it have helped if he’d won a World Series title or two, and stayed at catcher for the entirety of his career. When it comes to current catchers, we generally hear Yadier Molina’s name mentioned as a sure-fire Hall of Famer. I have a lot of love for Yadi, and his longevity behind the plate (16+ years of relevancy) is a remarkable anomaly at such a challenging position, but his JAWS score of 34.9 ranks him 23rd overall in terms of catchers. His career WAR of 41.1 is 21st amongst eligible catchers. He never had an MVP award, either, and arguably his best season (2013) does not equate to that of Mauer (.319/.359/.477, 12 HR, 80 RBI, 65 R, 12 SB, 7.7 WAR, All-Star, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger). Of course, Yadi has 2 World Series rings to his name, and his 394 career postseason plate appearances dwarf that of Mauer (44).
The same might be said of Buster Posey, whom I personally consider to be a Hall of Famer, but whose career metrics rank below Mauer’s. Posey is currently 14th amongst catchers in JAWS (39.9), although his 2021 suggests that his peak may not be over, so that number will likely increase before all is said and done. Like Mauer, Posey has an MVP season in 2012, when he hit .336/.408/.549 with 24 HR, 103 RBI, 78 R, 171 OPS+. That year is arguably on-par with Mauer’s 2009 season, and the ridiculous 10.1 WAR that Posey posted that year is above Mauer’s from 2009. As a contemporary, you could make a strong case for Posey as Cooperstown cred is equivalent, and, in fact, yours truly has indeed made such a case on a world-famous high-quality top-tier podcast that you should absolutely listen to if you haven’t already. Just ignore the part where I initially argue against Mauer as a sure-fire HOF. People can change their minds!
When Mauer is first eligible for the Hall in 2024, he will be in solid company. Adrian Beltre is up for the first time that season, as are Bartolo Colon and David Wright. Do we think that Joe Mauer is a first-ballot HOF? Probably not. Pudge Rodríguez barely was first-ballot, and he is in the pantheon amongst the greatest of all time at the position. But there is absolutely a strong case for Mauer to be a guy who gets in shortly thereafter.
The idea that a Hall of Famer is someone without whom you ‘cannot tell the story of baseball’ is a romantic one that pulls eagerly at the heartstrings of any narrative-obsessed romantic, including yours truly. When considering the ’story of baseball’, you could probably argue that you could tell it without Joe Mauer. He never won a title, never played for a ‘glamour franchise’, never had the marquee cachet of a Jeter or a Griffey Jr. Catchers seldom do. You can tell the ’story of baseball’ without him, I guess.
But would you want to?
Photos from Wikimedia Commons & Icon Sportswire | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)