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Joe Mauer has a complicated Hall of Fame case

Can history help to shed some light on Mauer’s difficult Hall of Fame case?

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Earlier this week, I wrote about Joe Mauer and the best season he is having as a first baseman. Here I will be discussing his Hall of Fame case. Personally, I see this as one of the most difficult cases I have ever come across. Ben Lindbergh and Jeff Sullivan discussed it in not just one, but TWO recent episodes of Effectively Wild.

Before I go any further, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with the JAWS construct developed by Jay Jaffe. JAWS is by no means a perfect measure of a player’s career, and it should not be used as the first and only argument in evaluating a Hall of Fame case. Jaffe would be the first to tell you that. That being said, it is very useful as a starting point. JAWS uses Baseball Reference WAR, so that is what we will stick to going forward.

Joe Mauer

  • 14 seasons, .308/.391/.444, 124 wRC+
  • Best seven seasons combine for a 140 wRC+.
  • Good defensive catcher. Led league in caught sealing percentage twice. Career rate at 33 percent.
  • Good pitch-framer with 61.4 career framing runs.
  • Won 2009 AL MVP.
  • Won the sabermetric triple crown in 2009.
  • Barely struck out more than he walked, and only struck out 12.7 percent of the time.
  • Arguably the best pure hitter to ever play catcher.
  • One of the best baserunning catchers of his era. Seriously.
  • Lifelong Minnesotan who became the face of the Twins franchise in his prime.
  • Ranked seventh all time among catchers by JAWS. 53.3 WAR / 38.5 WAR7 / 45.9 JAWS

If Mauer were still a full-time catcher, he would be easily qualified. He comfortably surpasses the JAWS standard, and his peak was so good that it ranks fifth among catchers using that same standard. He hit .308/.391/.444, good for a 124 wRC+ as a catcher. He even has a well deserved MVP award. All the other catchers above the JAWS average are in the Hall of Fame. In the alternate universe where he never moved off of catcher, he would likely make it in on the first ballot. At worst it would take no more than a few years.

This is not what happened, though. His move to first base really complicates things. The Hall of Fame catchers who exceed the JAWS standard were all catchers for their entire careers. As I mentioned, JAWS is a very useful tool in helping with Hall of Fame analysis, but it can struggle with players who played significant time at more than one position. What JAWS does for these players is consider them for the position where they registered their peak value. That is why Craig Biggio is a second baseman, Dick Allen is a third baseman, and Ernie Banks is a shortstop, to mention a few examples.

Mauer has never been more than an above-average player at first base. Hall-of-Fame first basemen have to rake, and Mauer as a first baseman has hit .280/.359/.396 for his career. That is a 104 wRC+, which is not very impressive.

Mauer does not need a 150 wRC+ as a first baseman to make him automatically Hall-worthy again, but an underwhelming bat at the lowest on-field position on the defensive spectrum really hurts things. The good news is that history provides a couple of players who can offer some precedence that could shed some light on the situation: Ernie Banks and Joe Torre.

Mr. Cub entered the Hall of Fame on his first try, and deservedly so. In his first full eight seasons in the majors, he hit .290/.353/.552 with 296 HR as a good defensive shortstop. He also earned two well deserved, back-to-back MVP awards. In an age where we had yet to see Alex Rodríguez, Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith, and Derek Jeter, Banks had already established himself as one of the greatest shortstops ever. Then he got moved to first base.

In 1962, Banks was moved off of shortstop due to knee problems that were flaring up from an injury he sustained while in the army. As a result, he ended up playing over 200 more games at first base than shortstop for his career. As with Mauer, Banks was not great at first base. He hit .260/.308/.450, which was barely better than league average. As a matter of fact, both Mauer and Banks have a 104 wRC+ as first basemen!

This appears to be a precedent that works in Mauer’s favor, but there are a couple of important caveats. Banks had a better peak with respect to position than Mauer did. He also finished with 67 WAR, which is 14 more than Mauer.

Joe Torre is obviously best known for managing the Yankees from 1996-2007, including their dynasty in the late nineties. What is not as well known is that Torre was a great player, too. He hit .297/.365/.452 for his career and was worth 57.6 WAR. As you can see, while comfortably outside of being Hall of Fame worthy, Torre’s career as a player was not too far off from it.

As with Mauer, Torre began his career as a full-time catcher, spending nine of his first ten years at the position. He did spend some time at first base during that time, though, not unlike what the Giants currently do with Buster Posey. From 1970-1975, he split time between first base and third base. Overall, he started 837 games at catcher, 712 games at first base, and 493 games at third base. Here are his splits by position.

Joe Torre by position

AVG OBP SLG PA
AVG OBP SLG PA
Catcher .301 .366 .476 3425
First Baseman .283 .355 .413 2990
Third Baseman .311 .375 .471 2118

Torre’s and Mauer’s first base numbers are remarkably similar. However, they are not era adjusted as shown here, and Torre played in one of the lowest scoring environments of the live-ball era. Unfortunately, we do not have any park adjusted stats for Torre’s positional split. If Mauer is slightly better than league average in 2017, then I would estimate that Torre in the ‘70s had a ~115 wRC+ as a first baseman.

There are certainly some similarities between Torre and Mauer. Torre hit better in his post-catching career, but Mauer hit better as a catcher. So how did Torre fare once he was eligible for the Hall of Fame?

You are probably well aware of the fact that Torre never made the Hall of Fame as a player. He only got 5.3 percent of the vote in his first year. He lasted his entire 15 years of eligibility on the ballot but never even cracked 15 percent until his final year, when he received 22.2 percent of the vote. I would predict that Mauer will do better than that, but that’s as far as I am willing to go with predicting how voters will evaluate Mauer.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

JAWS is not the only Hall of Fame metric out there. Bill James came up with a couple different metrics that work a bit differently. Hall of Fame Standards rates how worthy a player is for the Hall, while Hall of Fame Monitor rates how likely a player is to be voted in. Mauer is below an average Hall of Famer for both. I share these metrics in the interest of full disclosure, but they are outdated for reasons I will not get to here. (However, the book that they appear in, The Politics of Glory, is a must read for Hall of Fame aficionados.)

You might be familiar with a website called The Hall of Stats, started by BtBS alumnus Adam Darowski. It shows what the Hall of Fame would look like if players’ cases were evaluated purely by regular season stats. No narratives, no historical importance, no milestones, and no playoff performances. Of course the actual Hall of Fame should not work like this, but it definitely provides a useful perspective.

What I like about the Hall of Stats is how they arrived at their Hall of Fame metric. They use an adjusted version of WAR for a player’s career in total. Nothing out of the ordinary there. What I really like is that they use Wins Above Average (WAA) for players’ peaks. Darowski talks about it a little bit here. WAA is simply WAR without the replacement level adjustment. An average player is worth 0.0 WAA per year, which is usually equal to ~2.0 WAR.

I have become more and more interested in recent years in WAA as a metric for Hall of Fame analysis. In short, it makes more sense to compare Hall of Fame candidates to average players than it does to compare them to lousy replacement level players. It also penalizes compilers. It is easy to inflate WAR, but a player has to be legitimately good to raise his WAA. Alas, this is a topic for another day.

So how does the Hall of Stats rate Mauer? Well enough! A player has to have a Hall Rating of at least 100 to get into the Hall of Stats when eligible. Mauer is at 106. That is the same rating as Tommy John, Darrell Evans, and Hall of Famer Early Wynn. However, it needs to be mentioned that none of them rate well by the JAWS standard.

In conclusion, I really want to say that I just don’t know where to fall on Mauer’s Hall of Fame case. I seem to change my mind every time I think about it. Since “I don’t know” feels like a cop-out, here is my very not confident take that I do not feel good about at all: I’d vote for him. There are not a lot of catchers in the Hall of Fame, so that makes me lean favorably towards difficult cases. I am sure I will continue to go back and forth on this.

Jay Jaffe is arguably the leading expert in Hall of Fame analysis, and in The Cooperstown Casebook, even he has a hard time drawing a firm conclusion on Mauer. He presents the facts on him, and he speculates on what some of his obstacles could be in the eyes of the voters, but he does not give a firm “yes” or “no.” I don’t blame him.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.