ZiPS Time Warp: Joe Mauer

If we didn’t know it was real, Joe Mauer’s career with the Minnesota Twins might strike us as being more like a fairy tale than an actual story. That is, until August 19, 2013. That was when Mets first baseman Ike Davis hit a foul tip that hit Mauer square in his helmet.

The moribund Twins, coming off a 69-93 season, had the first overall draft pick in 2001 for the second time in franchise history. The first time the Twins had the No. 1 pick, they drafted Tim Belcher, who didn’t sign when the team wouldn’t pay the going rate for a top selection. Minnesota also failed to sign their second round pick, Bill Swift; none of the players they actually did sign ever played a game in the majors.

The Carl Pohlad-owned Twins were not known for aggressively investing in their team. In 2000, the Twins drafted Adam Johnson with the No. 2 pick, largely because he was willing to sign for a $2.5 million bonus, a smaller sum than the next five players drafted. The consensus top pick, Mark Prior, wasn’t going to be cheap (he ended up signing for a $4 million bonus and a $10.5 million major league contract). But the Twins had the chance to not spend money and get a top prospect who was a local boy, and they took it, signing Joe Mauer to a $5.15 million bonus and no guaranteed major league deal.

Mauer was far less of a reach than Johnson had been the previous year; indeed, he may very well have been the mock draft darling if it hadn’t been for the presence of Prior and Mark Teixeira, who were both considered to be as complete a prospect coming out of college as one could ever find. Mauer was already a hitting machine at a young age — he only struck out once in his entire high school career — but there’s always a risk with a high school catcher.

The concerns turned out to be unwarranted. Mauer went from a St. Paul high school to hitting .400 in rookie ball almost immediately after signing. Three years later, he was already in the majors. By his age-30 season in 2013, Mauer could boast six All-Star appearances, an MVP trophy, three Gold Gloves, and four Silver Sluggers, and was widely considered an elite catcher. With six weeks to go in the 2013 season, Mauer was having his best year since before his injury-shortened 2011, hitting .323/.404/.476 for a 143 wRC+ and 5.2 WAR. His case for Hall of Fame induction was proceeding quite nicely. The post-Pohlad Twins opened their wallets for their best player, signing Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million extension in 2010.

Top Catchers Through Age 30 by WAR (As of 2013)
Name G AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Johnny Bench 1633 .268 .343 .484 128 64.1
Gary Carter 1407 .272 .345 .461 123 53.3
Joe Torre 1518 .305 .369 .475 136 51.1
Ivan Rodriguez 1479 .305 .342 .489 110 49.5
Ted Simmons 1564 .298 .366 .459 126 49.2
Joe Mauer 1178 .323 .405 .468 134 46.1
Mike Piazza 981 .328 .391 .575 154 44.0
Brian McCann 1105 .277 .350 .473 117 42.5
Yogi Berra 1200 .293 .353 .493 128 40.3
Mickey Cochrane 1167 .321 .412 .490 132 39.8

But as we know, the foul tip to his head ended up being the major turning point in his career. Placed on the seven-day concussion disabled list, Mauer didn’t play for the rest of the 2013 season. Until the last game of his career, Mauer didn’t play another game at catcher, as the Twins moved him permanently to first base to protect his health. Entering 2014 with a career wRC+ of 134, Mauer didn’t put up that number in a single season as a first baseman. And it wasn’t a coincidence; Mauer dealt with blurred vision for years. From a star to a league-average player at best after a single pitch, Mauer continued to play for Minnesota until his retirement after the 2018 season.

Finishing with nearly 2000 games in the majors, and collecting 2,123 hits, a .306 average, and 52.5 WAR, Mauer finished with career numbers that the vast majority of players would be elated to have accumulated. He may even still make the Hall of Fame, depending on how the electorate considers the concussion. When contrasting Johan Santana and Kirby Puckett, there’s a lot of inconsistency regarding how the voters treat peak value and injury-shortened careers. If considered a catcher, Mauer would rank ninth all-time in hits at the position. It would be hard to argue the event that led to his move to first resulted in Mauer’s career numbers ballooning as the typical move from catcher to an easier defensive position might. And while I will still be just-short of having my Hall of Fame vote when Mauer becomes eligible for induction, I absolutely will vote for him should I have the opportunity a couple years later.

Let’s construct an alternate history for Mauer’s career using 2013 as the jumping-off point. Using the ZiPS projection system, I ran the rest of Mauer’s career as-of the concussion. The foul tip misses Mauer this time, he collects 38 more hits and a .311/.391/.451 line for the rest of 2013, and then experiences a normal decline phase as a catcher:

ZiPS Time Warp: Joe Mauer, 2013
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
2004 .308 .369 .570 107 18 33 8 1 6 17 11 14 1 138 1.2
2005 .294 .372 .411 489 61 144 26 2 9 55 61 64 13 107 3.4
2006 .347 .429 .507 521 86 181 36 4 13 84 79 54 8 144 5.8
2007 .293 .382 .426 406 62 119 27 3 7 60 57 51 7 118 3.3
2008 .328 .413 .451 536 98 176 31 4 9 85 84 50 1 134 6.4
2009 .365 .444 .587 523 94 191 30 1 28 96 76 63 4 171 8.4
2010 .327 .402 .469 510 88 167 43 1 9 75 65 53 1 140 5.7
2011 .287 .360 .368 296 38 85 15 0 3 30 32 38 0 102 2.1
2012 .319 .416 .446 545 81 174 31 4 10 85 90 88 8 140 4.6
2013 .320 .401 .470 568 80 182 43 0 14 62 77 107 0 140 5.9
2014 .302 .388 .427 539 74 163 35 1 10 73 75 96 2 130 6.1
2015 .305 .386 .446 511 68 156 34 1 12 67 67 92 2 126 5.2
2016 .301 .385 .444 491 67 148 32 1 12 66 67 95 2 127 4.4
2017 .298 .385 .436 466 66 139 29 1 11 66 66 89 2 121 3.7
2018 .284 .365 .400 437 54 124 25 1 8 54 56 80 1 109 2.7
2019 .279 .354 .397 408 55 114 22 1 8 54 48 73 1 100 1.6
2020 .277 .346 .375 376 45 104 17 1 6 45 40 59 1 94 1.0
2021 .272 .333 .353 346 39 94 14 1 4 39 32 49 1 85 0.2
2022 .266 .323 .332 289 31 77 10 0 3 31 24 36 1 77 -0.4
ZiPS Proj. ROC .290 .367 .408 3863 499 1119 218 8 74 495 475 669 13 111 24.5
Actual ROC .278 .359 .388 2552 330 709 146 10 38 289 323 470 9 105 6.4
ZiPS Proj. Career .307 .388 .440 8364 1205 2571 508 28 182 1144 1107 1251 56 124 71.3
Actual Career .306 .388 .439 6930 1018 2123 428 30 143 923 939 1034 52 124 52.5

I think Mauer has a clear-cut case for induction as a modern Mickey Cochrane — another legendary catcher struck down by injury — but the normal Mauer decline phase makes the case for his enshrinement overwhelming. ZiPS projects Mauer to fall short on his quest to become the first catcher to collect 3,000 hits, but he passes the 2,500-hit line and still retains the .300 batting average he actually finished with, though this time with 1,500 more at-bats. 71.3 wins would leave Mauer looking up at only Johnny Bench among catchers, but even for voters who aren’t interested in WAR, the old-fangled stats amply make his case.

Joe Mauer had the kind of career any player should have been proud to call his own. It would be a shame if an errant foul ball cost him the chance to make a summer speech in upstate New York.

We hoped you liked reading ZiPS Time Warp: Joe Mauer by Dan Szymborski!

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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Sonny L
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Member
Sonny L

Thanks for the great article. Hopefully there will be more. Mauer, unfortunately, is part of a star-crossed cohort of elder millennials: David Wright, Pedrioa, Sizemore, Baldelli, Lincecum, and more who saw promising careers derailed by injuries.

Seems even those in that age group who reached the top were not immune to the shit luck of their micro generation

JV19
Member
JV19

Or they didn’t have the late-career regenerative powers their counterparts from the previous generation had.

manormachine
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manormachine

Sad if true that steroid hysteria has robbed us of the latter half of great players’ careers.

The Stranger
Member
Member

it sounds as though you are suggesting that we should all agree to turn a blind eye to steroid use so that these players can extend their careers. I hope I have misunderstood you.

SenorGato
Member
SenorGato

Could not agree more with this sentiment. The phony sanctimony, a ’21st century post-9/11 ‘Merican speciality, dedicated to things like steroids and sign stealing in sport was all to cover for way more sinister happenings btw

keefer
Member
keefer

Great. Now we have conspiracy theory loonies haunting Fangraphs, too.

Go back to Breitbart, dude.

Red
Member

I NEED A HAIR CUT

SenorGato
Member
SenorGato

I can’t keep up with who is who and for which side…which one is Breitbart?

Rereading that I have to admit to maybe coming in a little hot. It’s true but also a little extra

Sonny L
Member
Member
Sonny L

Genuinely have no idea what David Wright’s injury has to do with 9/11 but you do you.

sadbucsfan
Member
sadbucsfan

Prince Fielder anybody?