Over the last month or so, the focus on Joe Mauer seems to have drifted a bit off topic. Instead of appreciating the season he’s having, which as we’ll see in a moment is in some small sense historic, the focus has shifted to whether or not he’s worthy of the AL Most Valuable Player Award, which is entirely beside the point, as the award won’t alter the significance of his season in any way. Great works of art are great works, whether you pin a ribbon on them or not.
First, unless Mauer slumps dramatically over the few games left in the season, you’re going to have to choose between Mike Piazza‘s 1997 and Mauer’s 2009 as the greatest offensive season by a catcher in the history of the game or of the last 55 years, which may be saying the same thing. Second, Mauer is in the process of topping all catchers in history in the category of single-season batting average, whether your standard is batting average by a catcher or batting average as a catcher. Here are the highest single-season averages by backstops coming into this season, in the 400 plate appearances and up division:
# Player Year PA AVG @ Catcher 1 Bill Dickey 1936 472 .362 .362 2 Mike Piazza 1997 633 .362 .358 3 Chief Meyers 1912 435 .358 .358 4 Mickey Cochrane 1930 561 .357 .357 5 Gabby Hartnett 1937 405 .354 .356 6 Spud Davis 1933 540 .349 .350 7 Mickey Cochrane 1931 521 .349 .352 8 Elston Howard 1961 482 .348 .352 9 Joe Mauer 2006 608 .347 .333 10 Johnny Bassler 1924 456 .346 .344
Some notes on the foregoing to account for the differences in the two batting average columns, from bottom to top: Johnny Bassler’s the only truly obscure player on this list (I’ll say more about him in a moment), and had a 2-for-4 as a pinch-hitter in his only non-backstop action. In 2006, Mauer hit .333 in 457 at-bats as a catcher, .450 in 71 plate appearances as a DH, and went 2-for-4 as a pinch-hitter. Elston Howard hit .352 as a catcher in ’61, hitting .324 in 39 plate appearances as a first baseman; he also went 4-for-14 as a pinch-hitter). In ’31, Mickey Cochrane hit .352 in 516 plate appearances at catcher. Spud Davis went 2-for-6 as a pinch-hitter, while Hartnett went 2-for-8 as one in 1937. The ’30 version of “Black Mike” never played anywhere but at catcher and never pinch-hit. Chief Meyers went 1-for-2 as a pinch-hitter, which doesn’t change his average. Piazza hit .358 as a catcher (595 PA) and also went 15-for-31 as a DH (32 PAs) and 0-for-5 as a pinch-hitter. Mr. Dickey went 2-for-6 as a pinch-hitter, which only wreaks a fractional change on his percentage. We should also note the exclusion of the above of Ernie Lombardi, who won two batting titles as a catcher; he topped out at .342 or .343 depending on where you want to fix your plate-appearance limit. In the former season he had 529 PAs, in the latter only 351.
For the curious, the list is composed of just one active player in Mauer, plus one likely Hall of Famer in Piazza and three already-elected Hall of Famers, Dickey, Cochrane, and Hartnett. Among the non-Cooperstown dwellers there’s one guy who is a famous Yankee (Howard), another guy who got a chapter in The Glory of Their Times (Meyers), and somebody who’s one of two guys named “Spud” to ever receive consideration in the MVP voting. That leaves Bassler. Bassler is a Hall of Famer-a Pacific Coast League Hall of Famer. That said, he was a pretty good major leaguer too, and an interesting one.
Bassler was a left-handed hitter from Pennsylvania and raised in a Mennonite community there, and he finished in the top seven in MVP voting in each season from 1922-24. He was a .304 hitter and was wonderfully selective at the plate, finishing what would be a brief major league career with a .416 on-base percentage. His OBP is the second-highest career mark achieved by a catcher with 2000 plate appearances or more; Mickey Cochrane leads at .419, and Mauer is third on that list. Bassler’s bat control was also extraordinary, as he very rarely struck out, just 81 times in 2,319 at-bats, or once every 29. As for power, well, he didn’t have any. He hit just one home run in the majors. Throw in his five home runs in his 1,525-game PCL career, and you get just six round-trippers in 6,534 career at-bats.
Bassler reached the majors as an 18-year-old in 1913 on the strength of his glove work, but he clearly wasn’t ready, and was sold to the Los Angeles Angels, who at that time were not of Anaheim. Bassler spent five years there, played well, and was asked back to the big leagues by the Tigers and was put right into the lineup by rookie manager/veteran outfielder Ty Cobb. Bassler hit .307/.401/.379 and impressed observers with his throwing arm. With that positive impression made, he got to be the Tigers’ starting catcher through 1925, when he slumped-if you could call a .400 OBP slumping-to .279/.408/.352. He started again in 1926 and hit well, but broke his ankle and missed two months. When he “slumped” again in 1927 (hitting .285/.416/.320), the Tigers sold him back to the PCL-this time to the Hollywood Stars-where he would be a fixture through 1935, at which time he was sidelined for most of the season by another injury. In ’28, his first year with the Stars, Bassler hit two home runs in 373 at-bats; his next home run would come in 1932. He moved on to the Seattle Indians (also known as the Rainiers) and hit .354 in 111 games as a 41-year-old. He took over as player/manager in 1937, finally retiring after the season to coach in the majors with the Indians; Ossie Vitt, who had managed the Stars during Bassler’s stay, was the ill-fated skipper. With the Indians, Bassler helped tutor a very young Bob Feller, but where Vitt went, Bassler went too. He later coached for Stars teammate Fred Haney with the ’41 St. Louis Browns, but then left the majors for good.
Thus endeth the Johnny Bassler digression; let’s get back to Joe Mauer. Mauer is presently hitting .387 in 354 at-bats as a catcher. This is something that catchers, with their abused hands and frequent time off, just aren’t supposed to be able to do. There have been just 31 player-seasons in which a catcher has hit .330 or better in 400 or more plate appearances. First basemen have done it 132 times, center fielders 132 times, and even shortstops have done it 41 times. As we’ve seen above, none of that small band of backstops have gotten into Ted Williams territory. Indeed, Mauer’s current overall .374 average would be the seventh-highest of the postwar period, trailing only Tony Gwynn‘s .394 of 1994, George Brett‘s .390 of 1980 (and let’s note here that Brett won the MVP Award that year despite having fewer plate appearances than Mauer has now), Ted Williams’ .388 of 1957, Rod Carew‘s .388 of 1977, Larry Walker‘s .379 of 1999, and Stan Musial‘s .376 of 1948.
We sabermetric types have been taught to think of batting average as an overrated stat, and of course this is correct, but average isn’t wholly without meaning, and whether the stat is less expressive of production than OBP or greatly influenced by luck, Mauer deserves credit for having the kind of season that he’s having, one which no other catcher has come close to. Catchers winning batting titles are rare enough, but Mauer is likely to win his third title in the next couple of weeks. On the other hand, catchers hitting .374 or .381 while playing their position? That just hasn’t happened. You can debate the MVP race as much as you like, but regardless of whether Mauer wins it or not, he is definitively the Player of the Year.