JAWS and the 2024 Hall of Fame Ballot: Joe Mauer

Joe Mauer
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2024 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Joe Mauer was one of baseball’s greatest hometown-boy-makes-good stories. A former No. 1 overall pick out of Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2001, he spent the entirety of his 15-year career with the Twins. Despite a listed height of 6-foot-5, he excelled at catching and was also an elite left-handed hitter, with a quick, compact stroke and impeccable judgment of the strike zone. Between his outstanding two-way performances, his handsome good looks, and his wholesome public persona, he was an ideal face-of-the-franchise player. He played a central role in helping the Twins, who were targeted for contraction just five months after he was drafted, to four postseason appearances. Along the way he made six All-Star teams and won three Gold Gloves and three batting titles apiece, not to mention the 2009 AL MVP award.

Alas, the Twins were swept in each of their playoff series, and for all of Mauer’s accomplishments, his career was punctuated by injuries, starting with a meniscus tear in the second game of his rookie season. Post-concussion problems forced him to hang up the tools of ignorance and shift to first base; his power, which had only intermittently shown up even in the best of times, with one season of more than 13 homers, dissipated upon moving to the team’s beautiful new ballpark; and some segment of the fan base blamed his eight-year, $184 million contract extension for the team’s apparent financial limitations. Ultimately, he chose to retire at age 35 due to continued concussion-related complications.

All of that is proof that Mauer’s story wasn’t a fairy tale, but even so, it was a great career. So great, in fact, that Mauer ranks seventh in JAWS among catchers despite its limitations, and that’s without accounting for his above-average pitch framing, a factor that will become increasingly important to grapple with in upcoming Hall of Fame debates. Even without a bonus for his upstanding character (the original intent of the infamous clause in the voting rules), he’s eminently worthy of a spot in the Hall of Fame. Whether he’ll get there on the first try is another question, however, particularly amid a crowded field and an electorate that has not only become much less generous lately but also has rarely treated even the most obvious honorees among catchers with appropriate respect.

2024 BBWAA Candidate: Joe Mauer
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Joe Mauer 55.2 39.0 47.1
Avg. HOF C 53.6 34.7 44.2
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2123 143 .306/.388/.439 124
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Joseph Patrick Mauer was born into a baseball-saturated family on April 19, 1983 in St. Paul. His grandfather, Donald C. “Jake” Mauer Sr. (born 1931) had a brief professional career in the White Sox organization; his three older brothers played professionally as well, with John Mauer (b. 1922) playing for independent teams before and after World War II and Ken Mauer (b. 1927) playing in the Dodgers’ chain (which had a St. Paul affiliate) from 1944 to ’48. Baseball Reference contains no records for either Hank Mauer (b. 1926) or Jake Sr., though an April 12, 1954 newspaper clipping in the Waterloo (Iowa) Courier notes of the latter’s release by the White Sox-affiliated Waterloo White Hawks of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League: “Released were… second baseman Jake Mauer. Mauer was not officially on the White Hawk roster but was under contract to the Colorado Springs club.”

Jake Sr.’s 2020 obituary says his baseball career was cut short by polio. A 2006 Sports Illustrated profile of Joe by Kelli Anderson makes reference to Jake Sr. and his three brothers and tells a different story, one that offered a cautionary tale:

Jake had his shot in the early 1950s. A lefthanded hitter with power who played shortstop and third base, he was supposed to be better than his three older brothers, all of whom played in the high minor leagues. But his time with the White Sox’ Class A affiliate in Colorado Springs was brief. His performance was hobbled by an overly enthusiastic social life, and his career ended with a knee injury after four months. “I thought I could play ball and drink and party and chase women, but it catches up to you,” says Jake. “I’ve harped on that with Joe: Don’t make the same mistakes I made. Focus on playing the game. Focus on being the best player you can be.”

When he became a widower at age 48, Jake Sr. moved in with Jake Mauer Jr., a trophy engraver who spent his weekends coaching his sons, and his wife Teresa. Grandpa Jake provided day care and “preached the virtues of hitting,” wrote Anderson:

“If you can hit,” he’d say, “they’ll always find a place for you.” He tried to get the older boys to emulate his style and hit lefthanded, but they wouldn’t bite. “Then one day Joe [then a toddler] picked up a plastic bat lefthanded and whacked a little beach ball,” says Grandpa Jake. “I said, ‘Ho-leee! We have a lefthander!’ His brothers tried to get him to hit righthanded, but I told them to leave him alone.”

Those brothers would both have professional careers within the Twins’ organization. Infielder Jake Mauer III (b. 1978) was drafted out of the University of St. Thomas in the 23rd round in 2001 and played down on the farm for five seasons before elbow problems forced his retirement. He then spent 2008–17 managing in their minor league system, overseeing future Twins such as Luis Arraez, José Berríos, and Byron Buxton. His last team, the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts, featured Nick Gordon and LaMonte Wade Jr. and finished first in the Southern League’s North Division; they were declared co-champions after a hurricane forced the cancellation of the finals. Pitcher Bill Mauer (b. 1980), a non-drafted free agent, pitched in the Twins’ organization from 2003 to ’05.

When Joe was nine, Jake Jr. invented and later marketed a device to aid hitting called Mauer’s Quickswing, which uses a tilted PVC pipe, “a unique delayed gravity-drop design to help batters develop greater bat speed, hand-eye coordination, reflexes, and muscle memory.” Young Joe and his brothers spent hours in the family basement honing their craft with the Quickswing. At Cretin-Derham High, Joe was a three-sport star, earning two All-State honors as a guard in basketball, and USA Today‘s national player of the year honors in both football (as a quarterback, in 2000) and baseball (2001); he’s the only athlete ever to win both. He was also Baseball America’s High School Player of the Year, the first of numerous top rankings bestowed upon him by the publication.

Following in the footsteps of Cretin-Derham’s Chris Weinke, the 2000 Heisman Trophy winner (and previously a minor leaguer in the Blue Jays chain), Mauer signed a letter of intent to play football at Florida State. With Mark Prior thought to be more expensive to sign, the Twins chose the local boy with the first pick of the 2001 draft despite the football risk and signed him for a bonus of $5.15 million; Prior, chosen second by the Cubs, received a $10.5 million package, including a $4 million bonus and a five-year major league deal.

Mauer began his professional career with a flourish, hitting .400/.492/.491 in 130 plate appearances for the Twins’ Rookie-league Elizabethton affiliate; he didn’t homer but vaulted to no. 7 on BA’s Top 100 Prospects list the following spring. He spent 2002 at A-level Quad Cities and split ’03 between High-A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain, hitting a combined .338/.398/.434. On the strength of his 80-grade arm and the belief that his game power would eventually manifest itself (“Twins scouts insist he has the power to one day hit 35–40 in a season if he wants to,” to quote BA), he entered 2004 as the game’s no. 1 prospect. He also had a clear path to the starting job thanks to the trade of starter A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants, a heist that fetched Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser. The 20-year-old Mauer made the Twins out of spring training and went 2-for-3 with a pair of walks against Cleveland on Opening Day; his first base on balls came against CC Sabathia, and his first hit was a single off Rafael Betancourt.

Alas, the next night Mauer tore the medial meniscus in his left knee while sliding in an attempt to catch a foul ball, though the Twins only became aware of the injury after he singled and stopped abruptly while being waved home. He underwent surgery and missed nearly two months, returning on June 2. Dr. Joel Boyd, who performed the surgery, “told the Twins’ doctors that it’s inevitable Mauer will have problems as he adjusts to the constant strain that catching puts on knees,” according to a report by ESPN’s Phil Rogers. Mauer went hitless in his first three games back before connecting for a tiebreaking three-run homer off the Tigers’ Esteban Yan. “I don’t know what it is about superstars, but they do those things,” manager Ron Gardenhire said… after Mauer’s sixth major league game. No pressure, kid.

Mauer was hitting .308/.369/.570 with six homers in 122 PA when he was sidelined again in mid-July due to continued soreness in his left knee and didn’t play again that season. The Twins, who finished first in the AL Central, hoped to activate him to serve as their designated hitter had they gotten past the Yankees in the Division Series, but they lost in four games.

Concerns about Mauer’s knee lingered into the spring, but aside from minor aches and pains, he remained healthy, playing in 131 games, catching in 116 of those, and hitting .294/.372/.411 (107 OPS+) with nine homers and 2.8 WAR. It was a solid campaign, but the Twins went 83–79, slipping to third in the AL Central. Though he’d been BA’s no. 1 prospect again, he wasn’t actually eligible for Rookie of the Year voting because he’d exceeded the maximum for days on a roster before September (45).

Mauer broke out in 2006, hitting .347/.429/.507 with 13 homers. He made his first All-Star team and joined Deacon White (.367 in 1875), Bubbles Hargrave (.353 in 1926), and Ernie Lombardi (.342 in 1938 and .330 in 1942) as the only catchers to win batting titles to that point; Buster Posey (.336 in 2012) is the only one to do so since. Mauer’s 144 OPS+ ranked seventh in the league, his 5.8 WAR fifth, and he placed sixth in the AL MVP voting. Aided by a Cy Young-winning campaign by Johan Santana and an MVP-winning one from Justin Morneau (who had just 4.3 WAR but 34 homers and 130 RBIs), the Twins won 96 games and the AL Central, but they were swept by the A’s in the Division Series, with Mauer going just 2-for-11 without an extra-base hit.

Mauer signed a four-year, $33 million extension in February 2007, buying out not only his arbitration years but also his first of free agent eligibility. A quad strain limited him to 109 games and a 118 OPS+ that season, though he still produced 3.9 WAR. He rebounded to hit .328/.413/.451 with nine home runs in 2008, winning his second batting title to join Lombardi as the only other catcher with multiple titles. Meanwhile, his 5.6 WAR ranked seventh in the league, his 134 OPS+ eighth. He made his second All-Star team, won his first Gold Glove, and finished fourth in the AL MVP voting; again, Morneau placed above him despite a lower WAR but better counting stats.

It tuns out, Mauer had been playing though pain caused by a blockage in one of his kidneys. He underwent surgery to correct the problem on December 22, 2008, which limited his offseason conditioning; he couldn’t run or lift weights. As camp opened, he dealt with inflammation of his right sacroilac joint, which kept him out of major league action until May 1, 2009. He homered off the Royals’ Sidney Ponson on his first swing of the season, though, then just kept hitting. Through June 16, he was batting a sizzling .429/.497/.756 with 13 homers in 42 games, matching the career high he’d set in 2006. At a point when he was still chasing .400, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci checked in:

The secret to Mauer’s success is his serenity, his minimalist movement and emotion. He is the Ben Hogan of hitters, bringing the sweet spot to the hitting area with no extraneous movement. “I think the biggest thing about my swing is I don’t have a lot of stuff going on,” he says. “Guys have different triggers for timing, and my timing is very simple.”

…Mauer is so calm he seems to change the physics of the game. Because his swing is so compact, he can wait longer to commit to pitches, which has the effect of stretching the 60 feet, six inches between the pitching rubber and home plate. “He sees the ball longer than any hitter in baseball,” [bullpen coach Rick] Stelmaszek says.

Mauer couldn’t maintain the .400 average and barely missed surpassing Babe Phelps‘ .367 from 1936, the high-water mark for a modern AL/NL catcher, hitting .365/.444/.587. He won not only his third batting title but also the “Slash Stat” Triple Crown — the only catcher who’s ever done so. Additionally, he led the AL with a 171 OPS+ and placed second behind Ben Zobrist with 7.8 WAR. After hitting a modest 29 homers over the previous three seasons, he clubbed a career-high 28 in 138 games and 606 PA; though he missed the season’s first 22 games, he played in all but three of Minnesota’s last 141. The Twins won a Game 163 tiebreaker against the Tigers to claim the division title, but despite Mauer’s 5-for-12 showing, they were swept by the Yankees in the Division Series. In the AL MVP voting, Mauer received 27 out of 28 first-place votes.

The 2009 season was the Twins’ final one in the much-derided Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. Anticipating the revenue boost that would come with the move to outdoor Target Field, and fearful of losing their hometown star after trading Santana to the Mets and watching Torii Hunter sign with the Angels, they inked Mauer, who was heading into the final season of his four-year deal, to an eight-year, $184 million extension. It was the fourth-largest contract to that point after Alex Rodriguez‘s 10-year deals of $252 million and $275 million and Derek Jeter’s 10-year, $189 million deal. The Twins, who opened the 2009 season with the majors’ seventh-lowest payroll at $65.3 million, according to Cot’s Contracts, jumped to 10th at $97.7 million in ’10, when Mauer was making $12.5 million; they would climb to ninth at $113.2 million the next year, when the catcher began receiving his annual $23 million salaries.

Where the Twins and their opponents ranked ninth in the majors with 189 homers at the Metrodome in 2009, they hit just 116, the majors’ fourth-lowest total at Target Field in ’10. Mauer’s total sank to nine as he battled right shoulder woes and persistent left knee pain, but he still hit .327/.402/.469, good for a 140 OPS+ and 5.9 WAR (both 10th in the league), not to mention his third straight season as the starting catcher on the AL All-Star team. The Twins improved to 94 wins and claimed their sixth AL Central title in nine years but were again swept by the Yankees, this time with Mauer going 3-for-12. A blown call in the 11th inning of a 3–3 tie in Game 2 by left field umpire Phil Cuzzi on a Mauer drive loomed large:

After the season, Mauer underwent surgery on his left knee to alleviate discomfort caused by the plica band, a fold of tissue that lines the knee and that sometimes gets irritated by overuse. Shortly after camp opened, Gardenhire revealed that the catcher had received an injection of joint lubricant into the knee. Mauer was “miffed the shots are public,” according to one of many reports that expressed his disgruntlement. He issued a clarification, saying, “It’s more of a preventative thing just to make sure I’m good to go for the season. It’s really not that big of a deal and I kind of wish it wasn’t out there, but here we are.”

Though he inaugurated his new contract while making the Opening Day lineup, Mauer played just nine games before landing on the disabled list with what the Twins termed “bilateral leg weakness” — a vague phrase describing a mysterious constellation of symptoms, and one that did the catcher no favors in a state with a hockey-toughness mentality. “Perhaps it’s time to ask Joe for some of those millions back,” wrote the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Jim Souhan in an ugly hit piece, calling Mauer “the softest of stars” for missing over two months. Fans began to boo him. It didn’t help that Morneau was sidelined by a ruptured disc in his neck as well, that after missing half of the 2010 season due to a career-altering concussion.

Mauer played just 82 games, hitting a thin .287/.360/.368 with three homers before an upper respiratory infection turned into pneumonia and ended his wretched season — one in which the Twins lost 99 games — in mid-September. Fortunately, he came back strong, batting .319/.416/.446 (140 OPS+) with 10 homers in 2012, leading the AL in OBP for a second time (all other catchers in the AL, NL and bygone 19th-century leagues have done so just twice) and producing 4.4 WAR in a career-high 147 games. Just 74 of those were behind the plate, with 42 at DH and 30 at first base.

Mauer was in the midst of another outstanding season in 2013, hitting .324/.404/.476 (142 OPS+) with 5.5 WAR, when a foul ball off the bat of the Mets’ Ike Davis hit his mask on August 19. He suffered a concussion, was placed on the seven-day concussion disabled list, and didn’t play again that season. When he had tried to return, headaches, bouts of dizziness, sensitivity to light, and other post-concussion symptoms prevented him from doing so. After the season, Mauer consulted with physicians at the Mayo Clinic as well as team doctors. He and the Twins concluded it would be best for him to stop catching and move to first base — a position opened up by Morneau’s free agency — on a permanent basis.

“When I kept gathering information, to be honest with you, it wasn’t really even a decision,” he told reporters. “I kept searching to see if it was going to be OK, if it was going to be safe for me to go back there and catch, and I just wasn’t finding that… All it could take is one foul tip in pitcher’s batting practice, and I’m out for two or three months or even more.”

Heading into his age-31 season, Mauer still had five years remaining on his eight-year deal, and it was apparent given his modest power that he would have trouble providing the level of offense expected from a first baseman. He eventually became strong enough defensively to provide significant value, but from 2014 to ’16, he hit a combined .267/.353/.380 (103 OPS+), averaging just eight homers and 1.8 WAR.

Mauer did have one more exceptional season, however. In 2017, he hit .305/.384/.417 with seven homers and a 115 OPS+. Boosted by his 13 Defensive Runs Saved (third among all first basemen), he finished with 3.9 WAR. His performance helped the Twins to a Wild Card berth, but once again they ran into the Yankees; Mauer went 1-for-5 in the loss.

On April 12, 2018, Mauer singled off the White Sox’s Aaron Bummer. It was his second hit of the night and the 2,000th of his career, a milestone I noted here at FanGraphs because of its significance in Hall of Fame deliberations (a topic I’ll take up later in this cycle with the case of Chase Utley).

On May 11 against the Angels, he was shaken up diving for a foul ball. He played another six games before being removed in the fifth inning of a May 18 contest due to whiplash-like symptoms, at which point manager Paul Molitor revealed that Mauer had also been dealing with balance issues and sensitivity to light. “We ran through the protocol last night,” Molitor said, “and there was no definitive answer there as far as what exactly is ongoing, but given his history … it looks to me like it’s gonna be at least a few days.”

The Twins placed Mauer on the injured list with a cervical strain and concussion-like symptoms. “(On) the drive home, the symptoms started to really kind of pour on,” Mauer later said. “That’s why you didn’t see me for a couple days.” He cut short an on-field workout at Target Field on May 30 due to the return of symptoms; he had hoped to sit in the dugout to test his tolerance for the noise levels of a game. “Hitting, I felt pretty good, but taking groundballs and moving around is kind of when I started to feel some of that stuff, so we kind of backed off… I’m not there yet.”

Mauer missed 25 games and lost 53 points of on-base percentage between the point of his latest injury and the end of the season, finishing at .282/.351/.379 (100 OPS+) with 1.4 WAR. With two five-year-olds at home and wife Maddie pregnant with the couple’s third child, he reassessed his priorities but played his cards close to the vest. While he hadn’t officially made up his mind regarding retirement, the Twins hatched a plan for him to make a one-pitch cameo behind the plate in the ninth inning of the season’s final game, with his family in attendance. Here’s the highlight reel, including his final hit, a seventh-inning hustle double. After one intentionally-outside pitch from Matt Belisle to Yoán Moncada, Mauer visited the mound and received a hug from the pitcher and a lengthy ovation as the theme from The Natural played over the Target Field public address system. The catching cameo starts at 1:56; you might want to beware of the oncoming dust storm:

On the White Sox’s broadcast, play-by-play announcer Jason Benetti offered words that still give me goosebumps: “None of us gets to choose how we’re remembered on this planet. But in the game of baseball, every once in a while, a player so special to a town gets to choose how he walks off the field for a final time. If this is it for Joe Mauer, a fitting, touching and warm send-off on a chilly day in the Twin Cities.” After this piece was initially published, I was able to obtain the footage thanks to White Sox vice president of communications Scott Reifert, and courtesy of WGN/MLB:

Mauer waited until November 9 to announce his retirement, writing a letter to fans that cited his concussion issues:

“The decision came down to my health and my family. The risk of concussion is always there, and I was reminded of that this season after missing over 30 games as a result of diving for a foul ball… I am soon to be a father of three and I find myself thinking about my future health and its impact on my family more than I had years ago… If I were to continue playing this game I would want to do so without reservation and I no longer feel that is possible.”

Three years later, with concussions and young children at home, Posey made a similar exit.

To put it bluntly: BBWAA voters have done a horseshit job of electing catchers for the Hall of Fame in timely fashion. To date, just two have been elected on the first ballot: Johnny Bench in 1989 (53 years after the first election!) and Ivan Rodriguez in 2017. Both were eminently worthy, ranking first and third in WAR and JAWS among backstops. Gary Carter, an 11-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner who ranks second, needed six years to gain entry in 2003. Carlton Fisk, who battled injuries early in his career but recovered to set all kinds of longevity records, made 11 All-Star teams and ranks fourth in JAWS; he needed two years. Fifth-ranked Mike Piazza, a 12-time All-Star who stands as the best-hitting catcher in AL/NL history, needed four years, though PED allegations played a role in that delay. Sixth-ranked Yogi Berra, a three-time MVP and 10-time champion as a player, needed two years. Eighth-ranked Bill Dickey, an 11-time All-Star and eight-time champion, received votes in nine elections (not counting runoffs), though to be fair, that tally began before the five-year waiting period was established; he was elected in what would have been his third year of eligibility by modern rules. Ninth-ranked Mickey Cochrane, a two-time MVP whose career ended in 1937, the year after the first Hall election, wasn’t elected until a decade later. Tenth-ranked Gabby Hartnett, whose career ended in 1941, wasn’t elected until ’55, and 11th-ranked Ted Simmons went one-and-done in his only BBWAA appearance in 1994; he wasn’t elected until the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot.

In all, just 16 non-Negro Leagues catchers are enshrined, counting Roy Campanella, whose 10 years with the Dodgers made him BBWAA-eligible long before his Negro League stats were considered part of his major league totals. That total of 16 is tied with third basemen for the fewest at any position besides relievers and DHs. When it comest to evaluating the position that may be the most important on the diamond and is certainly the most physically demanding, voters have dropped the ball again and again. Constraints on playing time and susceptibility to injury tend to suppress catchers’ offensive totals, which puts them at significant disadvantages when they’re compared to other position players. The comparatively recent introduction of pitch-framing metrics helps to close some of the gaps when it comes to value, but it also limits the scope of historical comparisons. It’s against that backdrop that I’ve been awaiting — anticipating and sometimes dreading — the reaction to Mauer’s candidacy since his final seasons as a first baseman. Particularly given his position switch, we haven’t had a BBWAA candidate quite like this in my 23 years of Hall coverage dating back to my pre-JAWS days.

We’ll start with the elephant in the room: Mauer caught only 921 games, a total that ranks 154th all-time. Of the 16 catchers in the JAWS pool, 12 caught 1,451 games or more, the exceptions being Campanella (1,364 including Negro Leagues games but not the uncounted number of non-league games he must have played early in his career) and 19th-century backstops Roger Bresnahan (974 out of a total of 1,446), Buck Ewing (636 out of a total of 1,345) and King Kelly (584 out of 1,456); the last two have more value as backstops than in their games at other positions, which his why they’re counted as catchers.

Even at the outset of his career, Mauer’s height — officially listed at 6-foot-5 but commonly referred to as 6-foot-4 — made him an anomaly, and it was widely presumed he’d be unable to spend his entire career behind the plate. That proved to be true, albeit not for the reasons expected. Via Stathead, since the start of the 20th century, just 12 players listed at 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6, including Mauer, have caught even 10 games in an AL/NL season, with only eight reaching 100 in a season, and only three — Mauer, Sandy Alomar Jr., and Matt Wieters — doing so more than twice. Only that trio and Larry MacLean (1901–15) caught more than 501 games in their careers.

It’s not hard to understand why. With extra height generally comes extra weight, which translates to extra stress on joints already overtaxed by so much squatting and contorting. Usually if a tall amateur catcher is a talented enough hitter, he gets moved to a less physically demanding position before he reaches the majors; Jayson Werth is a prime example. Mauer might have had a longer career had he followed that path, but would it have been a better one? We can’t know.

Regardless of height, it’s because of the impact of catching — figuratively and literally, as we know the dangers of collisions and concussions — that I believe we should still be comparing Mauer to other players who spent the substantial portions of their careers behind the plates. There’s a reason none have reached the milestones such as 3,000 hits and 500 home runs that all but guarantee induction; Piazza’s 427 is tops in the latter category, and 31 of those came playing positions besides catcher.

Anyway, among the 68 players who played at least 50% of their non–pinch-hitting games behind the plate and accumulated at least 5,000 PA in the AL, NL and 19th-century leagues, Mauer ranks 11th with a 124 OPS+. Raise the bar to 6,000 PA, and he’s eighth of 36; raise it to 7,000, and he’s sixth of 20. Let that sink in: only 20 players who have spent a majority of their careers behind the plate in those leagues have even reached 7,000 PA, the cutoff I generally use when I’m reporting rate-stat rankings for position-playing candidates such as David Ortiz, Gary Sheffield, Larry Walker, et al. Ten of the 20 are in the Hall, including nine of the top 11 in OPS+, with Mauer and Jorge Posada (121 OPS+) the exceptions.

Letting go of the PA cutoffs but still maintaining the percentage one, Mauer ranks sixth in terms of batting runs (Rbat), the offensive component of bWAR; his 239 trails only Piazza (418), Cochrane (273), Bench (269), Gene Tenace (259 thanks to a .388 OBP in just 5,527 PA) and Dickey (244). For both that category and OPS+, Mauer might have regressed had he spent longer behind the plate or in the majors at all. Still, we’re talking about rankings on lists that are far fewer in number than the number of catchers in the Hall.

Throw in Mauer’s slightly above-average baserunning (worth eight runs), double play avoidance (-5 runs) and fielding via Defensive Runs Saved at both catcher and first base (19 runs), and his career total of 55.2 WAR ranks ninth, both among players with at least 50% of their non–pinch-hitting games played at catcher (which Stathead uses) and those who accumulated the plurality of their value as catchers (which JAWS uses). The other 10 in the top 11 of either category are all enshrined. Mauer’s total is 1.6 WAR above the position standard.

As for seven-year peak, Mauer’s 39.0 WAR ranks fifth behind only Carter (48.4), Bench (47.2), Piazza (43.1), and Rodriguez (39.8), 4.3 WAR above the standard. All seven of his peak seasons are from his catching days (his 3.9 WAR in 2007 is tied with that of his standout season at first, ’17), which is to say that he’s not gaining any traction from his late-career move. Indeed, it’s because of the positional adjustments and his decline as a hitter that his WARs at first base weren’t higher. In terms of JAWS, his 47.1 ranks seventh, between Berra (48.7) and Dickey (45.9), and it’s 2.9 points above the standard.

Above the career standard, above the peak standard, above the JAWS standard: That’s an easy Hall of Famer right there, or it should be one if you’re at all familiar with the system, particularly as we’re talking about a player with no known connections to PEDs. Do you know how many position players clear all three standards, have no PED links, and are outside the Hall but eligible as of this ballot? It’s a short list: Mauer, the first-time eligible Adrían Beltré, and long-lost Bobby Grich, who fell short of 2,000 hits and for some reason has yet to appear on a small-committee ballot. That’s it.

We haven’t even talked about pitch framing. For the past several years, I’ve used a system cobbled together from both our framing stats (which go back to 2008, the start of the Pitch f/x era) and those of Baseball Prospectus, where Max Marchi came up with the Retroframing methodology using called strikes above average going back to the dawn of the pitch count era (1988 onward). Mauer was about 38 runs above average for those early years (2004–07) and 28 above for the later ones. Using FanGraphs’ version of WAR, which incorporates our framing numbers, and a runs-to-wins conversion based on seasonal numbers (somewhere in the 9–10 run range) for the BP ones, Mauer adds 3.8 WAR to his total. When I do a JAWS-like calculation using those adjusted fWAR figures, his fJAWS is 2.6 higher than his JAWS:

FanGraphs Framing-Inclusive JAWS for Catchers
Player Career WAR FG Fram BP Fram WAR Adj fWAR fPeak fJAWS
Mike Piazza 1992-2007 63.7 n/a 87.2 8.4 72.1 52.5 62.3
Ivan Rodriguez 1991-2011 69.2 2.9 -14.1 -1.5 67.7 40.0 53.9
Buster Posey 2009-2019 57.5 128.8 0 0.0 57.5 47.7 52.6
Joe Mauer 2004-2018 53.0 27.6 38.3 3.8 56.8 42.4 49.6
Yadier Molina 2004-2022 55.7 151.1 30.0 2.9 58.6 39.5 49.1
Russell Martin 2006-2019 55.0 165.7 33.7 3.3 58.2 39.8 49.0
Brian McCann 2005-2019 54.5 165.6 -11.3 -1.1 53.4 39.9 46.7
Jorge Posada 1995-2011 40.4 -43.9 -69.5 -6.7 33.7 29.5 31.6
FG Fram = FanGraphs framing runs for 2008-21, now included in WAR. BP Fram = framing runs from 1988-2007 via Baseball Prospectus. WAR Adj = BP framing runs converted to FanGraphs WAR.

Piazza, an unheralded framer in his day but actually an exceptional one based on Retroframing, has an fJAWS 11 points higher than his JAWS; that of Rodriguez is 0.6 lower. I’m forgoing the upcoming discussions regarding Posey, Molina, McCann, and Martin for the sake of space, but those are four of the best for whom we have fdata, and we’ll be doing them a grave disservice if we don’t incorporate these figures into future Hall deliberations. And if you’re of the mind that framing is somehow cheating because it takes advantage of the limitations of umpiring, both with regards to what’s practical and what’s humanly possible, note that the league itself publishes its own framing numbers on Baseball Savant and has encouraged their proliferation elsewhere, as Lewie Pollis pointed out. This is an officially accepted part of the game.

Anyway, I’m of the mind that Mauer is worthy of a spot on every voter’s ballot, and he’ll certainly be on mine. I’ve been bracing for the possibility that he won’t get to 75% this time, both because of the BBWAA’s track record and because his case requires some digging and comparison. With Beltré and holdover Todd Helton (72.2% last year) the most obvious honorees amid a crowded picture that includes Sheffield (55% in his ninth year), Billy Wagner (68.1% in his eighth), and Utley, I projected that Mauer would be elected next year alongside Wagner in my most recent five-year electoral outlook. I remain optimistic about his chances long-term, but I dearly hope BBWAA voters can do a little to make up for past sins by beating that timetable.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

77 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Cool Lester Smoothmember
3 months ago

Still a bit sore that he beat Jeter for MVP in ‘09…but Mauer’s a clear cut HoF, for all the reasons Jay outlines.

catmanwayne
3 months ago

Mauer was 1.7 wins better that season. Any other year, I’d probably give it to Jeter, but Mauer was on an insane level in 2009.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
3 months ago
Reply to  catmanwayne

Oh, I know – I’m sore at the timing, not the win!

It’s nowhere near Morneau in 2006.

myjah
3 months ago

Jeter was nowhere near Mauer in 2009.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
3 months ago
Reply to  myjah

Def could have worded it better, haha!