Prospect Retro: Joe Mauer
Given the ongoing contract negotiations, this seems like a good time to do a retrospective on Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer.
Hometown hero Joseph Patrick Mauer was the first overall pick in the 2001 draft, out of high school in St. Paul. The best athlete to come out of Minnesota since Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor in the 1970s, he was a top prospect in both baseball and football. The Twins spent $5.15 million to buy him away from the quarterback job at Florida State.
His selection with the first pick was a little controversial: most experts rated University of Southern California pitcher Mark Prior (the Stephen Strasburg of his day) as a slightly better prospect, but his bonus demands were huge and Mauer's home-state connection was too much for the Twins to pass up. Mauer was an outstanding prospect in his own right, rated as a strong defensive catcher with a terrific bat. He got into 32 games for Elizabethton in the Appalachian League after signing, hitting a robust .400/.492/.491, demonstrating excellent strike zone judgment with a 19/10 BB/K ratio in 110 at-bats. I gave him a Grade B+ in my 2002 book, ranking him as the number 24 prospect in all of baseball. Back then I did a Top 50 list that combined both hitters and pitchers; on a pure hitting list he would have ranked in the 15-20 range.
Moved up to Class A Quad Cities in the Midwest League for 2002, Mauer hit .302/.393/.392 with 61 walks and just 42 strikeouts in 411 at-bats. He drew notice for strong defensive play and an excellent work ethic. I got to see him play that summer and was very impressed with his approach at the plate: his command of the strike zone was superb. The only thing he didn't do was hit for power: he knocked just four homers. But given his size and strength, most scouts anticipated that the power would develop eventually. I gave him a Grade A in the 2003 book, ranking him as the number two hitting prospect in all of baseball, behind only Mark Teixeira. A few experts wondered about his size, worrying that knee or back injuries may hamper his development, but given his excellent athleticism and mobility I wasn't too worried about it.
Mauer began 2004 with Class A Fort Myers in the Florida State League, hitting .335/.395/.412 in 62 games. Promoted to Double-A at mid-season, he continued to rake with a.341/.400/.453 mark. He continued to show outstanding command of the strike zone, and showed more flashes of power with 30 doubles. He continued to draw praise for his defensive acumen, throwing out 52% of runners trying to steal on him and demonstrating strong leadership skills according to scouts. I gave him another Grade A in the 2004 book, rating him as the top prospect in baseball. I wrote "Mauer will need some Triple-A time to put the finishing touches (home runs) into his offensive game, but he's essentially major league ready in all other departments."
Mauer didn't get that Triple-A time: he earned a major league job in spring training thanks to rapidly developing power. Alas, he was limited to just 35 games with the Twins by a knee injury. However, those 35 games were incredibly impressive, resulting in a .308//.369/.570 mark. Although he hadn't yet exceeded the rookie at-bat qualification, I did not put him in the 2005 book. My feeling was that Mauer had established his credentials as a player; we just needed to see if he could stay healthy. If I had put him in the book, he would certainly still have ranked as a Grade A prospect and number one overall.
Mauer had a solid '05 season (.294/.372/.411), then improved dramatically in 2006 with a .347/.429/.507 campaign. He was hampered by injuries in '07 (.293/.382/.426), but was more-or-less healthy in '08 and '09, hitting .328/.414/.451 then an amazing .365/.444/.587 last year, earning MVP honors. The power exploded last year with 28 homers, enabling him to post a +170 OPS+. His command of the strike zone is outstanding, and at age 27 he is just now entering his peak seasons. Combine this level of hitting with strong defense behind the plate, and you have the best overall player in the American League.
There are a few oddities in Mauer's statistical record, explored in this trio of Fangraphs articles regarding his unusual field hitting splits, his performance by pitch location, and his ability against fastballs.
As a prospect, Mauer demonstrated unusually good plate discipline and a low strikeout rate. His power in the minors was never that strong, but his polish as a hitter was always evident, and scouts were right that the power eventually developed. His "intangibles", work ethic, and leadership skills also stood out. By all accounts, he's a remarkably level-headed individual who has handled his success with aplomb. This is the guy you want as the anchor of the franchise.
So, should the Twins ante up the money and sign Mauer to a long-term deal? Speaking as a lifelong Twins fan, HELL YES. Speaking as an analyst, HELL YES.
By every measure you can think of (WAR, win shares, the various traditional metrics, etc.) he's an amazing player. Looking at it historically, his Sim Scores are instructive: his top ten are Bill Dickey (Hall of Fame catcher), Yogi Berra (Hall of Fame catcher) Jason Kendall, Mickey Cochrane (Hall of Fame catcher), Derek Jeter (future Hall of Famer), Frankie Hayes (a solid catcher from the late 1930s who was good but not nearly as good as Mauer), Shanty Hogan (decent player from the late 20s with superficially similar numbers but in a pro-hitting context), Tony Lazerri (Hall of Famer), Robinson Cano, and Joe Torre (borderline Hall of Famer as a player). Note that none of Mauer's Sim Score comps are especially similar: the highest score is Dickey at 897, and anything less than 920 is a marginal comp. It does show that Mauer is in rarified company, ranking on the same list with four Hall of Famers, plus one guy who will make it and another who could have.
Joe Mauer clearly has Hall of Fame talent. Of course, not every player with a Hall of Fame talent level actually gets into the Hall; sometimes guys get hurt or don't last long enough to build up enough "counting stats." But if Mauer avoids serious injury and lasts long enough, he'll rank as one of the best catchers who ever lived. Combine that with his hometown cachet as the face of the franchise, and the Twins have to do everything they can to keep him. They will.