One cannot assume anything that a catcher brings to the table. One cannot simply ignore it either. We know that a catcher is valued highly for a reason, but what exactly are those reasons? Certain catchers are perceived at being more adept, in regard to their counterparts, in calling a game with more skill. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, this in respect to the average catcher of course, not just some guy taken off the street. But how do we prove this? How do we prove that a catcher is better at calling the right pitch at the right time. One cannot look at the team ERA when the catcher is behind the plate, because there are too many variables. How talented are the pitchers on the mound? How much experience do those pitchers have? Etc, etc, etc. A pitcher that has been around at least a little while, generally will have more of an idea about what to throw in certain situations, and how to attack a hitter. But then again, a pitcher with dynamic stuff may have an advantage in getting a hitter out because he can simply blow a fastball right by the batter, even though he may be a first or second year pitcher. There are too many variables to come to a conclusion for who the best game caller is. So if we believe that every catcher has an impact on this, while not knowing how much each catcher impacts it individually, then we understand that the catcher itself matters much, but we cannot draw a conclusion as to how much.
The other aspect of a catcher’s job, is to work with the pitchers (coincides with game calling to an extent). Again, cannot be defined through the numbers, yet exists regardless. I don’t exactly like placing value on something that I cannot place value on, but I know that a catcher has to work with whoever the given pitcher on the mound happens to be. Whether it is during a game, or not. A catcher is there to help give the pitcher confidence, to discuss the game plan, and to apply the gameplan during the actual game. But no one can quantify what this means in a teams success. We simply assume it means a lot, and I am sure we all agree that it does.
Basically, the catcher does a lot for their respective team, and our perception of how much that impacts a team may differ, but no one thinks little of their job. Catcher is the one spot on the field that we cannot measure accurately, yet we know it matters the most. They have some impact, ever so slightly at times, on every single pitch that comes their way. No one else has this kind of impact, outside of the pitcher who happens to reside on the mound, at any given moment.
So all of that leads me to this…
My “Most Valuable Player” in the American League is Joe Mauer.
When a catcher wins a batting title in this day and age, it probably seems a little less a big deal then if it had happened in earlier decades. One point being because at least some of us value “Batting Average” a little less than in past years. And the second point being that it at least seems that catchers have become better with the bat these days. I have no definitive proof of this, nor have I looked. But it seems so with the Piazza’s,etc, that have come around in the past 15 years. Whether it is because of unspecified variations to one’s body or not, the perception that a catcher doesn’t have to hit, or more accurately can’t hit, to have value, has changed. In this day and age they need to hit a little if they want to stick around, in most cases.
Back to the batting title part…There is actually still a game, so it is conceivable that Mauer could struggle in the one game playoff and concede the title to Dustin Pedroia. That matters little to me, and the odds are against it happening anyway. Because if he finishes with a .330 average, or a .325 average, it makes little difference to me. The most important thing about his batting average is that he isn’t up there at the plate hacking at everything and having some flukey season. First, he already won one batting title. And second, he is one of the more patient hitters in the game. Mauer sees 4.05 pitches per plate appearance. That is 15th among all American League hitters who qualify for the batting title. And it translates into a .415 OBP, second in the AL. And remember getting on base is what it is all about these days, after the statisticians have studied a 100+ years of data to come as close as possible to proving it. But just imagine a catcher, outside of Mike Piazza posting these kinds of numbers, and more importantly getting on base as much as he does. Yes, Joe Mauer is that good.
The one “flaw’ that Mauer has, is his inability to hit for power when compared to other MVP candidates. Mauer fell in at 33rd with a .454 Slugging %. Not terrible, and actually 34 percentage points better than the American League average in 2008. But a player with 9 home runs doesn’t exactly strike intrigue into the minds of the voters. The minds that will find the most value in Joe Mauer, are the ones that understand how important the catcher position is. And of course the sabermetric following (OBP). Hitting for power is not evading Joe Mauer, it is just evading him when compared to the A’rod’s and Hamilton’s of the world.
Onto the other more complex offensive metrics which lend help to my case for Joe Mauer as MVP. Mauer tied for second in “Win Shares” with 27, behind only his teammate Justin Morneau. Mauer was 15th in “Runs Created,” which is definitely an indication that he was not the best hitter, but that doesn’t mean that he was not the best player. Mauer batted .362 with runners in scoring position, fifth in the league. He hit .321 with a ridiculous .992 OPS in “Late and Close” situations. OPS+ of 135 (35% better than the average hitter), and fell in at 8th in the league in this department. Mauer was seventh in the league in “VORP” with a number of 56.4. Well, we all get the point, right? All of these numbers indicate that he was good at the plate, even if he was not the absolute best.
As for defensive prowess? Mauer is regarded as being one of, if not THE best defensive catcher in the game. To play the most demanding position in all of baseball, and to be regarded as being the best at it, is a pretty good accomplishment. So “no small feat” as some would say. But I cannot solely base it on reputation, although I will not ignore it either. I will include the one stat that we can use with meaning from behind the plate. Mauer was 3rd this season in CS% (caught stealing). He struck down 36% of basestealers attempting to get a little greed on their hands. Well the thing was, Mauer never let them reach, so they went back empty-handed.
…Just for the heck of it by the way, the Twins ERA when Mauer was behind the plate was fourth in the AL, and the pitchers he worked with weren’t exactly a bunch of wily veterans with Cy Young awards on their mantle.
And if one wants to bring the teams success into the equation, then Mauer has a pretty strong case on that regard. The Twins have two star players in that lineup: Justin Morneau and of course Joe Mauer. There are some other nice pieces, but it isn’t like the stars the Mets lineup consists of. Mauer did something that not only can influence the Carlos Gomez’s and Delmon Young’s of the world in how much patience he has shown at the plate, but he also actually applied it to winning ballgames. That is what a .415 OBP does, it helps win games. Mauer was the most important piece in helping the Twins achieve the status of playing in a one game playoff with the White Sox. No one, including myself, believed the Twins would be in the mix, that they would be one win away from the playoffs. Does that matter to me much in the MVP discussion? Not really, for if Mauer were on the Pirates they would still be sitting outside the playoffs, yet Mauer would be impacting the team the exact same way he is now. But having a team on the verge of the playoffs only helps Mauer’s case. And in my opinion, Joe Mauer has the strongest case of anyone.