Last season baseball fans saw two young catchers have MVP-perennial seasons in each league.
In the American League, it was 23-year old Joe Mauer. After having a very productive season in 2005, Mauer broke out, hitting .347/.429/.507 in 2006 becoming the first American League catcher to win the batting title. Mauer also showcased terrific defense behind the plate and placed 6th American League MVP voting. Though his teammate Justin Morneau would win the award, you could make the argument Mauer was the most valuable player in the league.
In the National League it was 22-year Brian McCann. After a short (180 AB's) rookie season in 2005, McCann also broke out, hitting .333/.388/.572 showing above average power for a catcher as he also hit 24 homers in 492 PA's. Though he would not receive any N.L. MVP votes, McCann led all N.L. catchers (300 PA's minimum) in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS.
The future for each catcher is very bright, but who would you take for the long run?
Mauer, no doubt, received more attention last season winning the batting title and all, but McCann wasn't too far behind him in terms of overall production.
We'll start with Mauer first:
The Minnesota Twins held the #1 pick in the 2001 MLB draft and selected the local boy in Joe Mauer making him the #1 overall pick. The eventual #2 pick, Mark Prior, was widely regarded as the best pick in the draft, but the Twins felt they could not meet Prior's financial demands and drafted Mauer instead. Today that move looks like a blessing to Twins fans.
Mauer's terrific pure-hitting ability was apparent at a young age as he struck out only once in his high school career. He continued to show that ability at the professional level.
Mauer began his first pro season at RK Elizabethton and all he did was hit .400/.492/.491 in 110 AB's. Though he struggled on the power front (Mauer didn't hit a single home run) his ability to make contact and draw walks were evident. As a result of his fine season, Baseball America named Mauer the Twins top prospect heading into the 2002 season. A callup was all but certain for the young backstop as he was promoted to Quad City for the 2002 season.
Mauer would once again make contact (8.8 K%) and draw walks (12.8 BB%) as he managed to hit .302/.393/.392 in 411 AB's as a 19-year old in A-Ball. Mauer's power production was still a bit disappointing, but as a 19-year old it wasn't time to panic. As a result of what was a keen eye at the plate, the Twins promoted Mauer to High-A Fort Myers for the 2003 season. Mauer was also named the Twins #1 prospect by Baseball America for the second year in a row heading into that season.
It was during the 2003 season Mauer established himself as one of baseball's elite prospects (if he was not already considered elite). In 509 AB's between High-A and AA Mauer would hit .338, walk in nearly 10% of his PA's and strike out in nearly 10% of his PA's. His power numbers remained stagnant, as he hit only 5 home runs the entire year, but you were having a more difficult time finding a better pure-hitting prospect, much less a better pure hitting catching prospect with great defense.
The only other time Mauer would see minor league play was in 2004, as he made 25 AB's at two different levels on a rehab assignment.
Mauer had one heck of a minor league career. In total he made 1055 at-bats and hit for a line of .332/.407/.426 improving at higher levels of play. Mauer hit only 9 homers in the minors and his ISO of .094 was a bit disappointing, but at 6'4" and 220 lbs. it was still expected that Mauer could develop more power. He was named the Twins #1 prospect by Baseball America 4 years in a row (2002-2005) and was also awarded BA's Minor League Player of the Year Award in 2003. On the defensive end he was always considered an elite defender even for his size.
Needless to say, expectations for Mauer were sky high.
Let's move over to McCann:
McCann's first season of pro ball was rough as he hit .220/.295/.330 for the GCL Braves in Rookie Ball striking out in almost 20% of his PA's. Still, this was only 100 AB's and the Braves promoted him to Single-A Rome where he would have a much better season.
McCann would hit .290/.329/.462 as a 19-year old in 424 AB's for Rome. He struggled to take walks, but managed to increase his power output and cut down his strikeouts. The Braves decided to promote McCann to High-A Myrtle Beach for the 2004 season.
It was in Myrtle Beach McCann really starting drawing attention. He would hit .278/.337/.494 with a career high 16 home runs in 385 AB's playing in a very pitcher-friendly environment. McCann also improved his walk rate while cutting down on his strikeouts once again. Baseball America named McCann the #9 prospect in the Carolina League following the 2004 season.
The Braves would promote McCann to AA Mississippi we he would play half of a season before being called up to the majors to replace the injured Johnny Estrada. McCann would hit .265/.359/.476 in that shortened AA season taking 166 AB's. He continued to show improvement at high levels of play as he increased his power output, setting a career high in ISO, while also improving his walk rate. His strikeout rate increased only slightly.
McCann, by no means, was as the type of prospect Mauer was, but he was making a name for himself.
You had to like the direction each two players were headed in, as they were soon to take on full-time major league jobs.
I'll once again start with Mauer:
Mauer was expected to begin the 2004 season as the Twins starting catcher and did so, but injured his left medial meniscus in his knee which required surgery. He was sidelined for over month following the procedure. As mentioned earlier, he would make 25 more minor league AB's on a rehab assignment before returning to the Twins lineup in June. Mauer however, would experience pain and swelling in that same knee in late July forcing him to end his rookie season early.
Regardless, it was a very loud debut for the 21-year old rookie catcher. Mauer would hit .308/.369/.570 in 107 AB's striking out in only 11.5% of his PA's and walking in 9.0% of his PA's. Maybe the most surprising feature of all was Mauer sudden increase in power: His ISO of .262 that year was heads and shoulders better than any other number he posted in the minors.
In 2005, Mauer would play his first full major league season.
His power output took a sharp dip, but he was still awfully productive. He continued to make contact and show a great eye at the plate hitting .294/.372/.411 in 489 AB's increasing his walk rate to 11.0% while only striking out in 11.6% of his trips to the plate. Mauer's ISO of .117 coupled with only 9 home runs may have been disappointing in some sense, but it was still too early to doubt Mauer's power potential.
It was last season Mauer established himself not only as one of baseball's elite catchers, but also as one of baseball's elite players. He would hit .347/.429/.507 as he won the batting title and launched a career high 13 home runs silencing many doubters of his power potential. Outside of home runs, Mauer set career highs in just about every major offensive statistic including batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, ISO, and OPS. His WARP of 8.7 was among baseball's best as he "out-WARPed" many American League MVP candidates including Jermaine Dye, David Oritz, Manny Ramirez, Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and MVP-winner Justin Morneau.
It's only reasonable to expect some sort of regression for Mauer next season. Hitting .347 again is extremely unlikely, improving is almost unthinkable. He is only 24 years old however and when you take into account his production with the bat and with the glove, you can make the strong argument Joe Mauer is one of baseball's top five players.
Let's move over to McCann:
As I mentioned earlier, McCann made his major league debut replacing the injured Johnny Estrada on June 10th, 2005 against the Oakland A's going 2-3. McCann would take 180 AB's that season, hitting .278/.345/.400 with five home runs. His major league debut wasn't nearly as loud as Mauer's: An OPS+ of 92 isn't very exciting, but he was only 21-years old.
The Braves were pleased enough with his production as they traded Estrada to the Diamondbacks that winter making room for McCann to take on a full-time job behind the plate.
McCann made the Braves look like geniuses that next season. Estrada would have a good season for Arizona hitting .302/.317/.444 with 11 homers in 414 AB's, but McCann's season was MVP-like as he broke out hitting .333/.388/.572 with 24 homers in 442 AB's.
His WARP of 7.3 wasn't up to par with Mauer's, but it was still terrific as he "out-WARPed" every qualified National League catcher.
Mauer was the better catcher in 2006, but once again, McCann wasn't too far behind. Looking forward, it's reasonable to infer solid production from the two in coming years, but which young backstop is projected to produce at a higher rate?
Before I begin I want to acknowledge the Jarrod Saltalamacchia factor. Last I heard, the Braves were higher on Saltalamacchia's defense than McCann's defense meaning chances of Saltalamacchia eventually becoming the Braves everyday catcher and McCann becoming the Braves everyday first baseman are still present.
But for now let's assume Mauer and McCann will be everyday major league catchers over the next five seasons.
Unlike the results from the Hanley Ramirez-Jose Reyes comparison, PECOTA doesn't see this debate as a close one: Mauer is projected to produce 7.5 more wins above the replacement player over the next five seasons when compared to McCann's five-year forecast.
In fact, PECOTA's MORP system values Mauer's projected 2007 season production at $31.4 million.
Needless to say, PECOTA likes Mauer......A LOT.
So, Joe Mauer or Brian McCann?
If you like PECOTA, you have to like Mauer here, but it's safe to say we have found two of baseball's finest catchers whose breakout seasons last year apparently were not flukes.