Joe Mauer’s problem with bi-lateral leg weakness this year has led to him occasionally playing first base in order to get a break from behind the plate. Given the strong likelihood that this will continue not only this year but in subsequent years, a question arises: If Joe Mauer permanently stops catching for the Twins in the next year or two and becomes a first-baseman/third-baseman/corner-outfielder, how much value will he contribute in the future?
That’s where John Olerud comes in. Before looking at Mauer’s possible future contributions, we need to set a baseline, and Olerud appears to be a good one.
John Olerud was a 6’5”, 225 pound, sweet-swinging lefty first-baseman who won a batting title and walked more than he struck out. Joe Mauer is a 6’5”, 230 pound, sweet-swinging lefty catcher who’s won three batting titles and walks more than he strikes out. Given those similarities between the two, also consider each player’s average batting line from their age 22-27 seasons (for Olerud ’91-’96, for Mauer ’05 to ’10):
- Mauer – age 22-27 averages: .328/.409/.478 with 12 HR, 76 RBI, 1.25 BB/K, 5.4 WAR in 576 PA
- Olerud – age 22-27 averages: .297/.399/.477 with 16 HR, 70 RBI, 1.29 BB/K, 3.9 WAR in 543 PA
Their numbers are quite similar. The OBP and SLG are only a few points apart and the BB/K ratio is almost identical. There are also a few small differences; Mauer has a 30-point edge in batting while Olerud averaged four more home runs. The largest statistical difference is WAR, where Mauer has a 1.5 win edge. That WAR gap is pretty siginifcant, but it’s partially due to Mauer playing a much tougher defensive position than Olerud. If you remove the positional advantage Mauer received as a catcher and add back what Olerud lost for being a first-baseman, Mauer would have a WAR of approximately 4.6 while Olerud would have a 4.5 WAR. So, from age 22 to 27, Mauer and Olerud made almost the exact same contribution to their respective teams, if you remove the positional adjustments.
The exception to the similarities has been Mauer’s age 28 season (2011).It has been marred by injuries and general soreness that has limited him to .287/.347/.349 with only 1 HR this year. Olerud hit .294/.400/489 with 22 HR in his age 28 year. However, if 2011 is ignored, Olerud is a safe baseline to use to answer the original question: If Joe Mauer permanently stops catching for the Twins in the next year or two and becomes a first-baseman/third-baseman/corner-outfielder, how much value will he contribute in the future?
Mauer’s currently in year one of an eight-year deal with the Twins. With seven seasons remaining after 2011, Olerud’s age 29 to 35 seasons should be a good point of comparison. In those seasons, not only was Olerud a solid contributor, but he also slightly improved his value as he was able to stay healthy. Take a look at his line:
- Olerud – age 29-35 averages: .297/.402/.457, with 17 HR, 89 RBI, 1.32 K/BB, 4.4 WAR in 650 PA
Along with a good eye and a sweet swing, one of the main keys to Olerud’s ability to maintain his value into his mid-thirties was getting more plate appearances by simply staying healthy. And that’s the point where the Twins are at with Joe. Do you try to get as much value from “Mauer the catcher” right now and possibly lose some or all of his contribution in years 6 to 8 of his contract? Or, do you take the steps after 2011 to move him to another position and get as much value as you can over the life of the contract? Even in Olerud’s age 33 to 35 seasons (years 6 to 8 of Mauer’s contract) he still averaged a 2.7 WAR. That value is a definite possibility if Mauer permanently moves from behind the plate soon; if he remains as a catcher, that level of contribution becomes a remote, and unlikely, possibility.
*All WAR values from FanGraphs.com