Can Joe Mauer hit .400?
That’s suddenly a very popular question among Twins fans. Actually, if you’ve watched Mauer over the past month you might think .400 is selling him short. You see, when Mauer woke up in Milwaukee on the morning of May 19, he was hitting .307. He went 3-for-5 against the Brewers that night, beginning the following incredible stretch (H = hits; BB = walks; OB = times on base):
DATE H BB OB DATE H BB OB 5/19 3 0 3 6/1 2 0 2 5/20 4 1 5 6/2 0 0 0 5/21 2 0 2 6/3 2 0 2 5/23 1 1 2 6/4 1 0 1 5/26 1 1 2 6/6 4 0 4 5/27 2 0 2 6/7 2 2 4 5/28 3 0 3 6/8 3 1 4 5/29 1 1 2 6/9 3 1 4 5/30 2 0 2 6/10 2 2 4 5/31 3 0 3 6/11 1 0 1
Mauer reached base safely in all but one of those 20 games and got on base at least twice in all but three of them. He reached base at least three times in nine of the 20 games, got on base at least four times in six games, and even had a four-hit, one-walk game on May 20. Mauer went 1-for-4 yesterday, and in doing so snapped a streak of five straight games of getting on base at least four times.
On June 6 he had four hits. On June 7 he had two hits and two walks. On June 8 he had three hits and a walk. On June 9 he had three hits and a walk. On June 10 he had two hits and two walks. At first glance that appears to be a fairly impressive accomplishment, but it’s a lot more than that. In fact, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Mauer was the first player in the history of baseball to reach base at least four times in five straight games.
By going 2-for-3 with two walks against the Orioles on Saturday, Mauer reportedly broke a four-way tie with Barry Bonds (2001), Babe Ruth (1930), and Milt Stock (1925). Further research shows that Mauer likely only tied the MLB record and the presence of Stock made that somewhat odd company anyway—it’s like bragging that the only three women you’ve dated are Jessica Alba, Elisha Cuthbert, and Star Jones—but it’s still an amazing feat.
Mauer is hitting .386/.448/.538 on the year, including .391 against righties and .375 against lefties. So, can he hit .400? While the technical answer is yes, the real answer is no. Batting .386 on June 12 is spectacular in any other context except in regard to batting .400 for an entire season. In that context it just means that as good as Mauer was for the first six weeks and as extraordinary as he’s been over the past three weeks, he’s still not even there. And that’s with 100 games left to play.
It would be fun to watch him chase a .400 batting average deep into the season, but even that seems unlikely. Why? Because catchers just don’t do that. In the entire history of baseball only two catchers have won a batting title and no catcher has ever hit above .370 while coming to the plate at least 500 times in a season. In fact, only two catchers in the sport’s history—Mike Piazza in 1997 and Mickey Cochrane in 1930—have managed to hit above .350.
However, even with a .400 batting average being a relative pipe dream, Mauer has a chance to put together one of the great catching seasons of all time. Here’s where his current pace ranks among the all-time single-season catching leaders in batting average and on-base percentage:
YEAR AVG YEAR OBP JOE MAUER 2006 .386 Mickey Cochrane 1933 .459 Mike Piazza 1997 .362 Mickey Cochrane 1935 .452 Mickey Cochrane 1930 .357 JOE MAUER 2006 .448 Spud Davis 1933 .349 Mike Piazza 1997 .431 Mickey Cochrane 1931 .349 Wally Schang 1921 .428 Ernie Lombardi 1938 .342 Mickey Cochrane 1934 .428 Gabby Hartnett 1930 .339 Dick Dietz 1970 .426 Mickey Cochrane 1927 .338 Mickey Cochrane 1930 .424 Mike Piazza 1996 .336 Mickey Cochrane 1931 .423 Deacon McGuire 1895 .336 Mike Piazza 1996 .422
Despite the old-time catchers holding a potential advantage in the comparison, Mauer is still blowing away the rest of the competition in batting average and sits slightly behind two of Cochrane’s seasons for the top spot in on-base percentage. And while Mauer’s home-run power is limited at this stage in his career, his .538 slugging percentage ranks tied with Carlton Fisk‘s 1972 season for 30th all time among catchers.
In addition to all of that (plus great sideburns and a girlfriend who looks like this), Mauer’s pace of 211 hits would break Joe Torre‘s record of 203 from 1970, and his pace of 45 doubles would rank second only to Ivan Rodriguez‘s record 47 two-baggers in 1996. Add it all up and here’s where Mauer’s current pace ranks among the all-time single-season catching leaders in OPS and Runs Created:
YEAR OPS YEAR RC Mike Piazza 1997 1.070 Mike Piazza 1997 149 Gabby Hartnett 1930 1.034 Bill Dickey 1937 132 Mike Piazza 2000 1.012 Gabby Hartnett 1930 128 Roy Campanella 1953 1.006 Roy Campanella 1953 127 Chris Hoiles 1993 1.001 JOE MAUER 2006 126 Rudy York 1938 .995 Mike Piazza 1996 123 Bill Dickey 1937 .987 Yogi Berra 1950 123 JOE MAUER 2006 .986 Mike Piazza 1998 122 Mike Piazza 1996 .985 Johnny Bench 1970 120 Roy Campanella 1951 .983 Mickey Cochrane 1932 118
If not for the Twins’ horrible record and the voters’ tendency to discount great seasons from players on losing teams, Mauer would be one of the early favorites for AL MVP. In fact, if you’re more interested in who has actually been the most valuable player rather than who the voters will end up giving the award to, Mauer is probably your guy. Here’s where he ranks among AL players in Value Over Replacement Player and Runs Created Above Average:
VORP RCAA Travis Hafner 35.5 Travis Hafner 31 Miguel Tejada 34.1 Jason Giambi 30 JOE MAUER 34.0 Jim Thome 29 Vernon Wells 32.1 Ichiro Suzuki 25 Grady Sizemore 31.9 Manny Ramirez 24 Jim Thome 28.9 JOE MAUER 23 Ichiro Suzuki 28.7 Jermaine Dye 23 Derek Jeter 28.0 Grady Sizemore 22 Jason Giambi 27.9 Vernon Wells 22 Jermaine Dye 25.2 Kevin Youkilis 22
Neither stat takes defensive contributions into account, which is why both lists are dominated by first basemen, designated hitters, and corner outfielders. Once a rough estimate of defensive value is thrown in—advanced defensive metrics are iffy enough without trying to use them midseason—guys like Travis Hafner, Jim Thome, Jason Giambi, and Manny Ramirez would slide down the rankings.
That leaves fellow up-the-middle defenders Grady Sizemore, Miguel Tejada, and Vernon Wells as Mauer’s primary early-season competition. And sure enough Wins Above Replacement Player, which attempts to combine both offense and defense, has Mauer’s 4.2 WARP leading the league just ahead of Sizemore (4.1), Hafner (3.8), and Tejada (3.6).
Let’s recap, shall we? Mauer just completed one of the greatest weeks of all time, is hitting over .500 during his last 20 games and .386 overall, is on pace to turn in one of the top handful of seasons by a catcher in baseball history while becoming the first catcher in over 60 years to win a batting title, and has arguably been the most valuable player in the league thus far. Oh, and here’s the kicker: Mauer turned 23 years old in April.