Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Mauer Formula: Finding Time to Catch

The biggest topic of conversation (or at least one of the biggest) to come out of TwinsFest weekend surrounded Joe Mauer and how much he should be catching in the coming season. Mauer came out in multiple interviews and said that he wants to catch more next year. There are always positives and negatives when it comes to getting his 6-foot-5 frame crouched down behind the plate and it is up to the Twins to find the balanced formula for their All-Star player.

One year ago, there were plenty of questions surrounding Mauer's health. The 2011 season had been a nightmare for the catcher and the team was looking for ways to keep him productive and on the field. With all of the guaranteed money the club had invested in Mauer, the team had to head back to the drawing board to find a solution to their problem.

Mauer would finish back near the top of the AL in batting average (4th) and on-base percentage (1st). It took some creativity to get him to those numbers. He would play in 147 contests, the most games of his career, but he caught less than 100 games for only the second time. He played in 74 games at catcher, 42 as DH, and 30 at first base. This formula seemed to be one that worked to keep Mauer on the field.

Last year in the American League, the leader board for games played at catcher looked like this:

Defensive Games as C (AL)
1. Wieters (BAL): 134
2. Martin (NYY): 128
3. Pierzynski (CHW): 126
4. Avila (DET): 113
5. Saltalamacchia (BOS): 104

Mauer's game totals at catcher from 2005-2010 would have put him on this list. In fact, he finished second in the AL in games played in 2008 and he finished fifth back in 2010. Only 12 active players have caught more games than Mauer. Of those 12 other players, Brian McCann and Russell Martin are the only players with less years of experience and more time at catcher.

The earliest Mauer can reach free agency is 2019 so this means he will most likely be in a Twins uniform for most of (if not all of) his career. It would seems that the most important thing is to find a way to get the most value out of him over the next six seasons. During that time, the debate will continue to rage over how much to use the hometown hero behind the plate.

For the Twins to get the most value out of Mauer, he needs to play catcher as much as possible. His top four seasons for WAR have all been when he has been behind the plate for over 105 games. Terry Ryan said he would like to get Mauer back where he is close to the top of the leader board listed above and that will mean seeing Mauer behind the plate for close to 120 games.

One idea brought up over the weekend was the thought of having Mauer catch as much as possible over the beginning portion of his current contract. His ticket to the Hall of Fame centers on his ability to continue to perform at a high level while still playing catcher. The problem with this method could be his knees holding up for the long haul. Twins fans will remember that Tony Oliva looked like he was bound for Cooperstown before injuries slowed down his career.

The real value for Mauer comes from his ability to stay behind the plate especially with the type of player he has become. There were always hopes of Mauer developing more power as he was starting his professional career but that's not the Mauer fans are accustom to seeing. He is going to hit for a high average and get on base with a sprinkle of power mixed in.

At his other major positions (first base and DH), his skills that are listed above are great but a little more power in those spots would be nice. He is also such a good athlete that it seems his skills get wasted when he is forced to DH for a game. He started more games at DH last season than in any other year. Look for that number to come down a little in 2013 and for his catching totals to increase.

Finding the perfect formula for Mauer isn't any easy task but the Twins need to find someway to balance his health with getting him behind the plate for more games. To put it simply, Minnesota is a better team when Mauer is the catcher. His value is highest when he can control the pitching staff and put up consistent numbers at the plate.

No matter what the Twins do to get to that point..... That is the solution to the Mauer Formula.

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