After the first month of the season, popular sentiment among fans and the media was calling for erstwhile Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer to retire. He hit .225/.271/.275 in March and April and had hit .267/.353/.380 in the previous three seasons since moving to first base. A concussion at the end of the 2013 season had turned an elite catcher into a pedestrian first baseman.
“I’ve been feeling pretty good,” he told Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press at the time. “I just really haven’t had a whole lot of results here early. I think it’s just been frustrating because I’ve been making some good contact and just not having any results from it. That’s baseball. Hopefully that shifts soon.”
It did. Mauer, a three-time batting champ and career .308/.391/.444 hitter, recorded a .346/.442/.531 line in May and is currently hitting above .300 with a .388 on-base percentage. He hit .336/.405/.458 last month. He’s basically matching his stat line three years removed from his career-altering concussion and with one year left on the infamous eight-year, $184 million contract he signed before the 2010 season.
People have already made up their mind on Mauer now. He’s 34 years old. He won’t ever hit for power, and he isn’t going back behind the plate. To some he’s still a hometown hero; to others he’s an economic albatross — not enough homers, too quiet, just plain boring. Understanding what exactly Mauer offers to the Twins not only matters in shaping his legacy, but also has implications for how we will view Royce Lewis, who Minnesota selected No. 1 overall this year, and for Byron Buxton, the team’s next superstar.
“Agents are probably going to hate me for saying it. You’re not very valuable when you’re making $20 million”
If this is who Mauer is, he’s not a $23 million per year player, especially since he moved from catcher to first base. He’s a typical hitter who signs a big contract. It’s an all too common phenomenon:
- Future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols makes the All-Star team nine times and hit .328/.420/.617 with an average of 40 home runs per season. Since signing a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at age 32 he has hit .263/.320/.462 with an average of 27 home runs per season.
- Ryan Howard, 37, signed a five-year, $125 million extension in 2009 which included an option that was bought out by the Philadelphia Phillies for $10 million this year.
- Prince Fielder, 33, signed a nine-year, $214 million contract in 2012, retired in 2016 and is still owed $106 million through 2020.
- Mark Teixeira, 37, signed an eight-year, $180 million contract before the 2009 season and hit .248/.343/.479 with an average of 26 home runs per season.
“Agents are probably going to hate me for saying it. You’re not very valuable when you’re making $20 million,” Teixeira told the Wall Street Journal in 2013. “When you’re Mike Trout, making the minimum, you are crazy valuable. My first six years, before I was a free agent, I was very valuable. But there’s nothing you can do that can justify a $20 million contract.”
Teixeira was older than Mauer when he signed his contract, and less accomplished before he signed it. Mauer was approaching his 27th birthday, was already a three-time All-Star, three-time Silver Slugger award winner and three-time batting champ. He also had two Gold Gloves to his name. Teixeira was a one-time All-Star, had two Gold Gloves and two Silver Slugger awards. He was 29 when he signed the deal.
Mauer got a $5.15 million signing bonus in 2001 when he was selected No. 1 overall by the Twins, and made a $400,000 base salary in 2006 when he made his first All-Star team. He made roughly $20 million from 2007-09 before signing the $184 million extension, and during that time he made the All-Star team twice and earned two more Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards. He made $12.5 million base during the 2010 season, when he was once again an All-Star, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner.
Since the 2010 season he has been named to two more All-Star games and another Silver Slugger award and has been paid $23 million per season. He had bilateral leg weakness in 2011, the year the Twins lost 99 games. He hit .321/.410/.460 in 2012 and 2013 before suffering the concussion. Minnesota has not been to the playoffs since 2010 and went 407-565 since that time, a .419 winning percentage, meaning they didn’t assemble a winning roster around their most expensive player until now.
Numbers aside, the one major aspect of Mauer’s game that separates him from the likes of Pujols, Howard and Teixeira is that he doesn’t hit for power. He had 28 home runs in 2009, the last year in the Metrodome, but hasn’t replicated those numbers in Target Field. Part of it is the dimensions, part of it is the injuries that have piled up. Maybe he was just in a contract year, as he will be next season.
The focus on lack of power also disregards the value of on-base percentage
None of these players were behind the plate, however, and Mauer likely would have been longer if he had not gotten concussed. This still remains an injury that is not fully understood by sports fans, despite all the data that has been revealed about the brain injury in studies conducted on NFL players regarding CTE, but it has devastating consequences for professional athletes.
The focus on lack of power also disregards the value of on-base percentage. This statistic is a lynchpin in the Moneyball revolution, and became a dramatic scene in the 2011 movie. Sabermetricians will note that a player that can get on-base at a regular clip offers a lot of value to his team. According to FanGraphs, a .320 OBP is average, .370 is great and .390 is excellent. If Mauer can hang in that .390 range, he has a lot to offer.
Many baseball fans would like to see MLB contracts that were more like NFL deals, which are basically year-to-year contracts with large bonuses. The Twins and Mauer cannot restructure his contract due to the league and the player union’s collective bargaining agreement. All baseball contracts are guaranteed, which is why the Tigers still owe Fielder money, and is why Glen Perkins and Phil Hughes, for example, will continue to earn paychecks as long as they rehab and try to get back on the field. Someone who wishes to see a change in MLB contracts to be more performance based should focus less on Mauer, who is a laborer, and more on the relationship between MLB and the player’s union.
Finally, if Buxton continues to ascend, the Twins will eventually have to pay him. It’s easy to like him now when he’s making around league minimum — but he’s due for a Mauer-like contract if he can hit for average and power and continues to be the best defensive center fielder in baseball. It is wise for the Twins to sign the deal, even with all the risks involved. Same goes for Jose Berrios if he turns out to be a top of the rotation starter and Miguel Sano if he continues to hit for power and stay on the field.
By that reasoning, the Twins would have been wise to keep Torii Hunter and Johan Santana around — they were talented players who established a positive clubhouse culture. As that began to erode in 2011, Michael Cuddyer left and everything fell apart from there. Continuity is important in all sports, but especially baseball which is so routine-oriented and major league players can have an influence on minor league prospects in the system.
“The reality is what he’s accomplished in his career has put him in a position to earn the money he’s made right now”
Most successful organizations understand that they have to overpay for the last half of a player’s career knowing that they got value on the front end. This is especially true if the player is a positive locker room presence and plays an up-the-middle position. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, the Twins chief baseball officer and general manager, respectively, seem to understand this, which bodes well for the team’s future.
“The reality is it’s tough to quantify what [Mauer’s] salary is reflective of in terms of a contribution on the field,” Levine told the Pioneer Press in April. “The reality is what he’s accomplished in his career has put him in a position to earn the money he’s made right now. There certainly were seasons here in the context where he was grossly underpaid. …
“I think if we look back at his career, when it’s all said and done, I think we’ll all feel very comfortable with how much he earned in his career, relative to what he contributed to this franchise, both as a player and what I’m quite certain he’ll do once he’s done playing.”
As for Royce Lewis, he’s off to a hot start, and if he turns out to be a three-time batting champ and a five-time All-Star, the Twins chose the right guy in this year’s draft. Mauer will be a tough standard to live up to, given that he has outperformed the three other guys selected behind him (Mark Prior, Dewon Brazelton, Gavin Floyd) and could end up with a more impressive career than Teixeira. It certainly looks like he’s on that path right now.
In that Moneyball scene, Brad Pitt, playing Beane, sits in a room full of scouts who disapprove of his desire to sign Jeremy Giambi, David Justice and Scott Hatteberg. Giambi clubs and smokes pot, Justice is washed up and nobody knows who the hell Hatteberg is.
Every time a scout raises an objection, however, Pitt points to Jonah Hill, playing the Yale-educated wiz kid Peter Brand, who offers a simple explanation: “He gets on base.”