Although the decision is technically not final, long-time Minnesota Twins star Joe Mauer has likely played his last MLB game. Here’s a look at what he was like as a prospect and how his career looks in historical context.
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 college 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 more-than-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, earning MVP honors.
The power exploded in 2009 with 28 homers, enabling him to post a +170 OPS+ and leading the league in raw OPS. His command of the strike zone is outstanding, and at age 27 he was just entering his peak seasons. Combine this level of hitting with strong defense behind the plate, and you had the best overall player in the American League.
Mauer signed a huge new contract and began a slow decline. His power dropped off as nagging injuries and concussions took their toll. He was still quite productive, hitting over .300 with moderate power in 2010, 2012, and 2013 with OPS+ marks at a steady 140.
The stronger fade began at age 31 in 2014 when he moved to first base due to concussion issues and saw his batting average dip into the .270s with reduced power. He still drew walks and kept his OBP at respectable levels but by age 33 was a shadow of his former self. He popped up over .300 again in 2017 but was down to .282/.351/.379 this year.
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 handled his success with aplomb. This is the guy you want as the anchor of the franchise and Mauer filled that role admirably for an entire decade.
In terms of history, Mauer’s first ten seasons in the majors was one of the greatest runs by any catcher in baseball history. From 2004 through 2013 he hit .323/.405/.468 for a OPS+ of 138, 42.9 fWAR, three Gold Gloves and an MVP trophy.
Overall he finished at .306/.388/.439, 49.2 fWAR. That would make him the 12th-best catcher in baseball history by Fangraphs measures, in the neighborhood with 1930s stalwarts Gabby Hartnett (53.7) and Mickey Cochrane (50.6), 1970s/80s catcher/outfielder/DH Brian Downing (48.4), and 19th-century superstars Buck Ewing (48.1) and King Kelly (45.1). All but Downing are in the Hall of Fame and Downing was better than some guys who have made Cooperstown.
Mauer will be so honored eventually.