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:
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.