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March 26, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Mauer and JAWS

by Jay Jaffe

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Is Joe Mauer Cooperstown-bound? Four weeks shy of his 27th birthday, we can't answer that question definitively, of course. But that doesn't mean we can't start measuring the $184 Million Dollar Man's chances with the tools (of ignorance?) at our disposal.

Start with the fact that Mauer has compiled 34.5 WARP during his six-year career—five seasons and a 35-game cup of coffee, actually. Here's the breakdown:


Year Age WARP
2004  21  1.4
2005  22  4.8
2006  23  7.2
2007  24  4.8
2008  25  7.5
2009  26  8.8

Believe it or not, 34 wins from a catcher over the life of his career is already pretty special. Of the 1,713 players in our database who classify as catchers—which is to say, they accumulated the most value in their careers during the years where they were primarily backstops—Mauer already ranks 31st in career WARP. That's somewhere among the top two percent of all time. Of course, Albert Pujols ranks fourth in career WARP among 988 first basemen based upon his work up through age 29, but we'll save that story for another day.

The other night as I was chatting with Eric Seidman about the data queries for this piece, I joked that among the thousands of catchers in our database, half of them hit like Alberto Castillo. I wasn't entirely right, but there's a kernel of truth there. Castillo was actually a terrible hitter whose lifetime .206 True Average ranks 470th of the 512 catchers who stuck around long enough to rack up 1,000 plate appearances (Mauer's .309, meanwhile, is second only to Mike Piazza's .312). Nonetheless, Castillo's career 3.3 WARP ranks 300th among the larger field of 1,713 catchers. The International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers is vast. And mostly lousy.

Back to Mauer. We can employ PECOTA and JAWS in the service of gauging his progress towards Cooperstown. If he were simply to deliver what his weighted mean forecast expected of him this year (6.1 WARP), his seven-year Peak score of 40.6 WARP would be higher than five of the 13 Hall of Fame catchers, four Veterans Committee selections (Ernie Lombardi, Roger Bresnahan, Ray Schalk and Rick Ferrell) as well as the more contemporary Carlton Fisk, whose peak was diluted by injuries. That's a decent start, particularly given that it's within hailing distance of the Peak score component of the JAWS standard for catchers:


Rk  Player            Career   Peak   JAWS
 1  Johnny Bench*       84.7   55.0   69.9
 2  Gary Carter*        79.7   51.6   65.7
 3  Ivan Rodriguez      82.9   42.3   62.6
 4  Mike Piazza         68.7   50.1   59.4
 5  Bill Dickey*        71.9   44.6   58.3
 6  Yogi Berra*         73.2   43.8   58.5
 7  Gabby Hartnett*     73.0   42.6   57.8
 8  Buck Ewing**        66.6   46.3   56.5
 9  Carlton Fisk*       65.9   37.5   51.7
10  Joe Torre           61.8   40.0   50.9
    Avg HoF C           60.6   41.0   50.8
11  Mickey Cochrane*    55.9   40.9   48.4
12  Jorge Posada        53.6   40.7   47.2
13  Ted Simmons         53.5   37.8   45.7
14  Charlie Bennett     48.5   39.5   44.0
15  Roy Campanella*     45.7   41.0   43.4
...
23  Ernie Lombardi**    40.7   28.8   34.8
24T Joe Mauer           34.5   34.5   34.5
24T Roger Bresnahan**   38.7   30.3   34.5
33  Ray Schalk**        31.2   29.7   30.5
53  Rick Ferrell**      28.8   21.2   25.0
*: BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer
**: VC-elected Hall of Famer

Turning to Mauer's PECOTA Ten-Year forecast—-less useful for its relatively flat shape than for the cumulative weight of his contributions—if we were to assume he hits his PECOTA mark of 6.5 WARP in 2011, Mauer's Peak score would rise to 45.7, as his abbreviated 2004 season would be dropped. Among enshrined catchers, that would elevate his Peak score above those of Mickey, Campy, Gabby, Yogi and Dickey, putting him in what we at the JAWS headquarters like to call "Flavor Country." At that point we might have to start calling him Joey.

Add a third season from that Ten-Year forecast, 6.4 WARP for 2012, and Mauer's really in business, for his Peak score would rise again, to 47.3 (dropping one of those 4.8-WARP seasons). Not only would that push the odds-on favorite to be the top catcher of the 21st Century past Buck Ewing, the best one of the 19th century, it would lift Mauer's total line (53.5 Career/47.3 Peak/50.4 JAWS) above the Hall standard for catchers. And amazingly enough, he would still be shy of his 30th birthday, though he would need at least a token appearance in 2013 to reach the Hall of Fame's 10-year eligibility rule. Less uniformity to those three phantom seasons—say, 9.0, 3.5 and 6.5 WARP over three rollercoaster years—could actually push Mauer's peak score even higher, and he'd presumably be well on his way towards rounding off his Hall of Fame case with some minimally positive contributions in his 30s.

As Mauer's ascendancy illustrates, working behind the plate at a high level is decidedly a young man's game. As such, it's interesting to put his career to date in the context of the catchers from the past half-century who are already enshrined or else headed there. Nearly every recent catcher within hailing distance of Cooperstown got most of the dirty work done in their 20s:


Player           Debut  < 30   ≥ 30   Total  Peaks
Johnny Bench       19   69.1   15.6   84.7     7
Ivan Rodriguez     19   54.4   28.5   82.9     6
Mike Piazza        23   57.6   24.8   82.4     5
Gary Carter        20   50.6   29.2   79.8     5
Carlton Fisk       21   27.1   39.0   66.1     3
Joe Torre          20   44.9   16.7   61.6     6
Ted Simmons        18   44.0    9.6   53.6     6
Jorge Posada       23   16.6   36.9   53.5     2
Lance Parrish      21   30.2   19.0   49.2
Gene Tenace        22   23.7   24.5   48.2
Craig Biggio       22   10.0   38.2   48.2
Brian Downing      22    9.4   36.9   46.3
Darrell Porter     19   27.0   16.0   43.0
Thurman Munson     22   33.2    9.1   42.3
Jason Kendall      22   29.9   12.3   42.2
Javy Lopez         21   22.7   16.7   39.4
Bill Freehan       19   31.4    7.8   39.2
Benito Santiago    21   22.7   13.6   36.3
Tony Pena          23   24.3   11.8   36.1
Mike Scioscia      21   23.8   11.5   35.3
Joe Mauer          21   34.5   ----   34.5
Terry Steinbach    24   13.5   19.8   33.3
Darren Daulton     21    6.6   25.4   32.0
Charles Johnson    22   27.3    2.8   30.1
Mickey Tettleton   23   10.1   19.7   29.8

Debut is the seasonal age at which the player debuted, < 30 is the player's WARP total through his age-29 season, ≥ 30 is his WARP total from his age-30 season onward, and Total is his career WARP total. That last, incomplete column is the number of seasons from each catcher's 20s, which are part of his seven-year Peak score and I only calculated for the relevant players on the upper half of the previous JAWS list. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of those players' peak seasons took place in their 20s.

Going back to 1960, just eight of the top 25 players who debuted as catchers went on to have more WARP in their 30s and 40s than in their teens and 20s: Fisk, whose prime was blunted by injuries but who played well into his 40s; Posada, who didn't have a 400-plate appearance season until age 26 and who's still chugging along; Tenace, an extraordinarily disciplined hitter (.306 career True Average, with a 16.8 percent unintentional walk rate) who split his career between catcher and first base and was criminally underrated; Biggio, who moved to second base at age 26; Downing, who emerged as a fantastic hitter at 28 and got a new lease on life after shifting to the outfield following an injury at 29; Steinbach, who really didn't get going until age 25; Daulton, who through age 27 hit a cumulative .206/.314/.329 with just one season as a starter before the vibrational energy kicked in; and Tettleton, who lost the battle for playing time to Steinbach in Oakland before emerging as a slugger in Baltimore during his late 20s.

Far more common are the stories of the catchers who debuted young and petered out in their early to mid-30s. Johnny Bench was worth just two wins after age 32, forced to adapt to first or third base over the final three years of his career. Joe Torre shifted to third base at age 30, won an MVP award for hitting .363/.421/.555 that year, then petered out until becoming the Mets manager at age 36. Ted Simmons was on a Hall of Fame track into his early 30s, but was three wins below replacement level over the last five years of his career. As a catcher he hit 294/.358/.451 for his career, but as a DH (12.4 percent of his career plate appearances), just .260/.310/.390, and at various corners (12.8 percent), just .257/.326/.399. As a group, the above players (not including Mauer) produced 59 percent of their value before age 30, though that percentage rises if we raise the admittedly arbitrary cutoff. Draw the line between Mike Scioscia and Mauer and it's 63 percent. Remove Biggio and Downing from the sample because they spent more time and accumulated more WARP at other positions, and it's 67 percent. The take home: the elite catchers of the last half-century have produced twice as much value before their age-30 seasons as from 30 onward.

Now, I don't honestly know how that compares to other positions, though I suspect it's fairly extreme; a few years back, Nate Silver observed that catchers arrived late, left early, and declined precipitously, so this shouldn't be too surprising. With more time, I could have driven Seidman or another colleague to distraction trying to find out, but we'll save that for another day.

I suspect the Twins would take that 67/33 split if they could get it, particularly if they were able to get three more solid seasons from Mauer akin to our PECOTA projections. If they did, they'd make out well when it came to his $184-million contract, which as Tommy Bennett pointed out the other day was rather smartly constructed with its flat rate of $23 million per year.

Suppose we use Mauer's Ten-Year Forecast to fill out the value of his contract, but after penciling in those age 27-29 seasons as above, we reduce the value of his 30s years to a point where he produces 26.8 WARP, half of what he produced in his 20s. Let's say his back has gone all Todd Helton and he's switched positions, leaving him less power but still outstanding plate discipline as he plays out his contract before hanging up his spikes at the end of the deal. To account for that, we'll cut his 2013-2018 WARPs by about 25 percent. At the same time we're doing that, let's set the value of a win on the open market at $4.5 million in 2008, and increase it by five percent per year, the same assumption I used in another recent back-of-the-envelope calculation:

Year  Age  WARP    Sal   $/W   Surp
2004   21   1.4    0.3     
2005   22   4.8    0.3     
2006   23   7.2    0.4     
2007   24   4.8    4.5   4.3   16.1
2008   25   7.5    7.4   4.5   26.4
2009   26   8.8   10.6   4.7   31.0
2010   27   6.1   14.0   5.0   16.3
2011   28   6.5   23.0   5.2   10.9
2012   29   6.4   23.0   5.5   12.0
2013   30   4.7   23.0   5.7    4.2
2014   31   4.4   23.0   6.0    3.3
2015   32   4.1   23.0   6.3    3.2
2016   33   3.8   23.0   6.6    2.0
2017   34   3.6   23.0   7.0    2.2
2018   35   3.2   23.0   7.3    0.7

Sal is his salary in millions of dollars, $/W is the dollar value of a win as outlined above, and Surp is the surplus value of his production that year, WARP times the value of a win minus the cost of his salary. As you can see, the point where I've started arbitrarily discounting Mauer's production reduces the margin drastically, but even so, he'd be worth $15.8 million more than the Twins are paying him over that final six years, and $38.7 million more than paid over the life of the contract. Bump the annual inflation in the dollar value of a win to 7 percent per year and the surplus rises considerably, to $39.0 million for the lean years, and $66.6 million for the life of the deal. Even if one changes the assumption such that Mauer produces just 75 percent of his projected WARP over the life of the entire deal, tapering off from 4.9 WARP in 2011 to 2.9 in 2018, the Twins still come out ahead by $21.7 million at a five-percent inflation rate, and by $48.4 million at a seven-percent rate.

The bottom line is that even with more conservative projections than PECOTA is offering, one can model an array of happy outcomes which provide value to the Twins as Mauer marches not only towards Cooperstown but into the discussion of the top five catchers of all time, at least according to JAWS. Darker scenarios exist, of course, but so long as Mauer's healthy and productive, let's celebrate the upside, because we're watching something pretty special.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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Nice article, but I think even the idea is premature adulation.

Mar 26, 2010 10:37 AM
rating: -5
 
krissbeth

Two quick questions sprung to mind from this very good article:

1. What percentage of catchers have their performance fall through the floor due to injury or wear and tear?
2. How well will Mauer's age-adjusted stats play at 1b? My understanding of the WARP 10 year feature is that it's position-based. But Mauer's bat is vastly more valuable at catcher. Your article talks about a discount due to a Helton back situation, but I think you should dock him for the position shift and for the likely at best mediocre D he'll provide there.

And, while I understand why people are excited, I can't help but think caution is warranted.

First, Will's been talking for two years about getting Mauer more rest to aid his longevity and complaining that they haven't done that.

Second, Mauer's backups are no longer the asset that Redmond once was.

Third, Mauer's blocked by Kubel/Thome at DH and Morneau at 1B for the near term future, making it that much harder to rest him.

Fourth, Mauer's been injured the past two years.

Fifth, Mauer has an atypical body for a catcher.

Sixth, the catcher he most resembles physically is Bench, according to Will, and Bench was worth two wins after age 32.

Seventh, he had a .136 Slugging percentage increase fueled by a 19 homer increase in his age-26 season. I think treating this as anything other than his absolute peak season is a mistake.

Frankly, I put all of this together and I think that the Twins will have a very expensive version of Lyle Overbay in five years, if they don't have an age 33 Johnny Bench on their hands. I hope that I'm wrong, because I likes me some underdog, but...

Since everyone's so excited by this, I'd love to see a BP writer be the contrarian on this issue, just to open up the discussion a bit more.

Mar 26, 2010 14:19 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Some good points, not only by you but by Richard and Luke as well. Some of them are questions for another day, requiring further research. Others - his unique body size, his recent injuries, the likelihood that he just peaked (note that none of his long-term PECOTA forecast seasons are within 2 wins of lasts year), not to mention the high attrition rate of catchers - are things that PECOTA already "sees. In other words, they're already baked into in the projections.

As far as the age-adjusted stats playing at another position, you can argue that I didn't discount his performance enough. If we use Helton as our model, he's averaged 4.1 WARP during his 30s, but just 3.4 WARP over his last five years. Mauer could lose some value relative to that if he's primarily a DH instead of a 1B.

I'll dispute the physical Bench comparison, though; Bench was 6'1" and got bulky late in his career. Mauer is 6'5" and still pretty lean. Not to say that he won't fill out, but the two are dissimilar enough that Bench doesn't show up among Mauer's top 100 PECOTA comps.

Mar 27, 2010 09:37 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

I bet if a back-of-the-envelope calculation similar to this was done on Helton's contract at the time it was signed, it would've looked like the Rockies came out ahead too. Yet the Rockies (and BP) considered it somewhat of an albatross the last three years. Or, to paraphrase a BP comment, he's a 4 win player being paid like an 8 win player.

Then, throw in that Mauer's in a tougher league, with less power than other first basemen/DHs if he needs a position shift based on his checkered injured history and I still can't see this turning out well. I'm glad the Twins committed money to their players, but if Mauer's moved to first base, is there that much that separates him from Doug Mienkewicz in his prime besides about 30 points in batting average?

Mar 26, 2010 14:44 PM
rating: -1
 
Luke in MN

In reply to Bergstrom, Mauer led the American League in all 3 triple-slash categories last year. He was a better HITTER in all facets than Mark Teixeira, Miguel Cabrera, etc. I mean, it may end up being a career year, but...Doug Mientkiewicz?!?!? *Breathe, breathe.*

Career stats:
Teixeira: .290/.378/.545
Cabrera: .311/.383/.542
Youkillis: .292/.391/.487
Morneau: .280/.350/.501
Mauer: .327/.408/.483

He's obviously a different commodity as a 1st baseman, but I don't think Mauer looks too shabby in that company.

I am afraid about injury limiting his career, but to Krissbeth, he did play 29 games at DH last year. The backup catchers going forward, Jose Morales and Wilson Ramos, actually look a little better than Redmond, especially Ramos (though he may become trade bait). And like I said, 2009 year may end up being a career season, but scouts have been saying Mauer would come into power eventually, and it's not like you just flukishly bomb 30 homers instead of 10 for no particular reason.

Anyway, you guys clearly don't love Mauer enough. You probably hate other things that are obviously wonderful too: puppies, freedom, children's laughter, etc.

(And, someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I actually thought Helton's been more or less worth his contract over the breadth of it, although I think backloading has the Rockies paying a lot for Helton in his decline phase.)

Mar 26, 2010 20:08 PM
rating: 6
 
Richard Bergstrom

Mauer does not look shabby in that company, but you are talking about a player who slugged .451 or lower in three of his five "full" seasons and whose previous career high SLG is .507. The 2009 BP Annual, looking at his career until his 2008 season noted "Through his just-completed age-25 season, Mauer has hit .317/.399/.457. Through his age-25 season, Jason Kendall batted .312/.399/.451."

Mientkiewicz's peak seasons were .306/.387/.464 and .300/.393/.450 which, except for batting average would have been comparable to Mauer. The Mientkiewicz comparison was an indication that if Mauer doesn't retain his power and has to change positions for whatever reason (injury, age as he nears the end of his 23 mil per contract) etc., he could end up looking shabby ala Mientkiewicz. Also note that those four first baseman that you listed are _not_ being paid 23 mil per year.

I think at this point, Mauer's shown he can hit for average and get on base. Is the power real? Fernando Tatis went from 11 HR and a .415 SLG to 34 HR and a .553 SLG, then never hit .500 SLG again. Closer to home, Gary Gaetti went from 20 in 1983 to 5 in 1984, back up to 20, then spiked up to the mid thirties for three years. Then he didn't crack 20 HR or a .500 SLG from ages 30 to 36. Or, for a bigger name, Wade Boggs went from 8 HR to 24 HR and a .486 to a .588 SLG, then never hit more than 11 HR or had a SLG over .490 again.

Sure, I cherrypicked those players. One guy who was out of baseball, one guy who was a solid major leaguer for a long time, and one who regularly won batting titles and is in the Hall of Fame. The thing I am trying to get at is, regardless of the quality of the hitter, we don't know based on one season of data if a person will keep or lose their power.

Will Mauer retain his power and how long he'll retain it for? We don't know if he'll have to change positions or whether he'll have more luck with avoiding injury in the future. Any of the above circumstances increases the probability that Mauer will not live up to the value of his contract.

On the flipside, let's say Mauer had a year more in line with his career last year... led the league in batting average and OBP, but slugged around .450, maybe even .500. Would the Twins have paid $23 million per year for 8 years for that? I don't believe so.

I'm glad the Twins are investing in their players and Mauer is arguably the best catcher in the game, but I don't even have a good finger on what he'll do next year, much less 3 or 5 or 8 years from now. Thus, I still think the Twins overpaid for a career year.

Mar 27, 2010 01:23 AM
rating: 0
 
houstonuser

It will be a good day when all this JAWS data is in one place on the statistics page for BP readers to be able to review and compare careers all the time. Thanks.

Mar 27, 2010 11:57 AM
rating: 1
 
Luke in MN

Mauer's career rate is pretty similar to his projections, which as Jay showed, should give the Twins nice value over the life of his contract, even if you discount them later on. Awesome as it would be, I don't think the Twins are counting on 8 more 2009s. A 900 OPS with massive OBP and AVG? I'll take that over the contract, thanks, even if it's not from the catcher position the whole time. More than that--which he's clearly capable of--would be gravy on the hot dish. I'm not concerned about him not living up to the contract if he plays, just if he's injured too much. I guess if his worst years = Doug M.'s best + 30 points of AVG, maybe that's just fine.

And I saw what you snuck in there about him "arguably" being the best catcher in the game. Just name someone who's "arguably" better than him. I dare you!

What Jay said about him being a bit slight is interesting too I think. He probably doesn't want to get too bulky due to catching, but dudes in his family are not small, so I suspect if he moves from catcher he'd grow some prodigious muscles and hit, I don't know, 120-140 homers a year. Something like that.

Mar 27, 2010 13:13 PM
rating: 2
 
ryanlazenby

I'm not saying McCann is as valuable as Mauer, but I wonder what him and Mauer would look like if they traded teams.

Mar 27, 2010 19:08 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Pre-2009, Mauer had a career OPS of .856. I'm not quite ready to assume that he can automatically be punched in for .900 OPS seasons. The indications look good for him being better than .856 because he was finally fully healthy and with age and experience, it is possible he reached a new level of performance. Still, my argument remains that I don't know if Mauer will repeat his 2009 numbers. I think he could've had a 2010's season worth of at-bats and still gotten a 23 mil per contract from the Twins if he maintained that performance. Heck I might even go up a few miillion to outbid the Yankees and Red Sox if it gave me added cost certainty on what Mauer's true performance level is. On the other hand, if he didn't perform as well as 2009, I could save myself a few mil per, or a year on the contract.

Also, just because I say arguably does not mean I was thinking of someone better. Yet, as an exercise, let's say it depends on the context. If I was a GM of a team, and if I had a choice between McCann, Mauer and Martinez, I'd take Mauer for his defense and his potential as well as his established on-base ability. McCann would be a second choice because though he's in a weaker league, he's also a year younger.

But fantasy league? Mauer would be overhyped and either cost a lot of auction bucks or be drafted way too early based on people thinking he will repeat his 2009. I'd get more value for my bucks/draft slot, in a fantasy league, with McCann or Martinez who have established a level of health and production, especially in fantasy leagues that don't count walks as much (not that McCann or Martinez are shabby in the walk department either). Also, similar to Bonds, a high amount of walks detracts from the effect an individual's batting average has on the team's batting average since the fewer at-bats carry less weight. On that note, I'd even be happy with Posada. Either way, I wouldn't break the bank or draft of my fantasy team just to get Mauer.

On the subject of projections, his top ten comparables are a bit of a mixed bag. Martinez, Piazza and Palmeiro are good signs, but you have a bunch of high OBP low SLG players like Grace, Alfonzo, Magadan, etc. Mike Sweeney is also in there which is interesting since Sweeney was a catcher who performed well but also had an injury history and was done at catcher by age 26 and didn't play the field regularly after age 28. Now, don't assume that I think Mauer will have a similar career path as Sweeney. I'm just thinking catching can be a mixed bag.

Keep in mind also, I never said this was an outright stupid move, or even a bad move per se. I'm glad the Twins are investing in their team and Mauer is a player worth investing in. But was it the best move or the best or most cost effective way to approach Mauer's impending free agency? I don't think so. However, if he has a 2010 similar to his 2009, I'll happily eat my words.

Mar 27, 2010 22:18 PM
rating: 0
 
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