Looking back through my childhood, I see a common theme. In the 90′s I couldn’t stand the Chicago Bulls, and specifically Michael Jordan. Why? Well, they won all the time and I just wanted to see them lose. I never was a fan of Wayne Gretzky, because he was the best player in the NHL. I didn’t like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neill, Isaiah Thomas, Larry Bird, the Duke Blue Devils, Miami Hurricans, or Nebraska Cornhuskers football. I always cheered for the underdog, and in that I missed out on appreciating greatness. Now, I wish I would have just embraced watching Jordan play, and I’m even learning to enjoy watching LeBron James, Josh Hamilton, and Aaron Rodgers excel at their sport.
Right in front of my nose stands a baseball player by the name of Joe Mauer who will potentially be looked back on as one of the greatest ball players of all time. Before we get too uptight about how few home runs he hits now, how he’s “always” injured, how he grounds into too many double plays, he makes too much money, and refuses to switch positions so he can play every day; I wanted to take a look and try to compare who he is to some of the greatest catchers of all time. When I started considering baseball’s best catchers, here are the names that came to mind: Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk, and Mickey Cochrane. How does Joe stack up against these guys?
At Age 29: Games Avg. OPS 2B HR R RBI Starts@Catcher WAR MVP
Mauer 1065 .323 .873 247 94 626 587 812 37.0 1
Bench 1513 .268 .827 294 287 824 1038 1300 57.6 2
Berra 1053 .296 .851 177 181 646 790 920 30.2 2
Piazza 840 .333 .972 148 200 511 644 786 35.8 0
Rodriguez 1371 .304 .826 312 196 785 769 1282 44.7 1
Fisk 699 .285 .849 120 114 411 376 671 27.4 0
Cochrane 1037 .321 .894 220 93 719 620 986 31.9 1
Of those seven great catchers through the age of 29, Mauer ranks: 3rd in games played, 2nd in batting average, 3rd in OPS, 3rd in doubles, 6th in home runs, 5th in runs scored, 6th in RBI’s, 5th in starts as a catcher, 3rd in wins above replacement, and only Bench and Berra had won more league MVP’s.
One other thing I found interesting was that Mauer has started the lowest percentage of his career games (76%) at catcher, meaning that he is getting an earlier start than the other six at prolonging his career as much as possible. Bench retired at age 35, Berra at 40, Piazza 38, Rodriguez 39, Fisk 45, and Cochrane 34. Due to some injuries, Mauer has been forced to play more DH, first base, and even a little right field. That reduction in strain on the body this early in his career could lead to 10 or more years in baseball.
On a side note, Mauer has grounded into 130 double plays in his career. However, through age 29, Rodriguez hit into 174 double plays – 31 in 1999. 1999 was the year Ivan Rodriguez was the MVP in the American League.
None of the other six catchers ever hit better than .365, which was Mauer’s career best in 2009.
Bench, Berra, Fisk, and Cochrane are all Hall of Famers, with it only being a matter of time before Rodriguez and Piazza are elected. Berra won 10 World Series’, Cochrane won 3, Bench 2, and Rodriguez 1. Piazza and Fisk never did win a World Series, although both played in one and lost. Mauer has made three trips to the postseason so far, failing to win even a series yet. He has struggled to hit just .286 in his 9 playoff games, all losses.
The biggest elephant in the room with Mauer is his current contract, in which he enters the third season of eight at $23M per year. That contract ends after 2018, when Mauer will be 35 years old. With this size of a contract, there is an expectation of perfection. Michael Jordan missed only half of his shots, while Mauer gets out two-thirds of his at-bats, making the idea of perfection hard to live up to in the moment. When we compare what he has done so far through his career, however, he stacks up right there with the best there has ever been in the history of baseball.
Follow Twins Rubes on Twitter @twinsrubes.