Monday, February 10, 2014

Ranking Joe Mauer among first basemen

The Twins have seen enough of Joe Mauer getting dinged and dented behind the plate and will make him the team's permanent first baseman. While most will lament that Mauer's extraordinary contract makes sense only if he is an elite catcher, the money is not the point here. It is better for the Twins to get some value for their money with Mauer at first for years than to see him ground into dust within two or three years behind the plate. The question being pondered today is: What kind of value will Mauer bring to first base?
Fortunately, this is possible because over the years, Mauer has put in some time at first and has logged 471+ innings there. While the Twin City's star will lose his positional value as a catcher to one considered of little value at first, the extra playing time should close the gap pretty smartly.
Let's take a look at where he could stand around the Majors for first basemen. The starting point is defense.
One site gives his his time at first a 2.6 runs above average which translates to 8.6 runs over the course of 150 games. Another site puts that number at 3 and 7. Where would that rank among the first basemen of last season? Would you believe that the higher number would have ranked him second and the lower number fourth?
If you add in the positional part of the equation, his overall fielding worth as a first baseman will end up somewhere between the -2.5 to -4.0 range. That sounds awful, but for first basemen, it is very good.
Let's move to base running. The two big sites have a discrepancy of two runs. One says that the last three years have been at -1 while the other says it is a plus one. Average them together and you basically get a league average base runner. Where does that put him among first basemen based on last year?
Would you believe tied for fifth? Mauer has always been a great athlete and not your typical lead-pants catcher. Since first basemen are not known for their speed either, Mauer rates quite favorably.
Now everyone's favorite part--offense. If you throw out Mauer's first cup-of-coffee season and divide his batting runs above average by nine, Mauer has averaged 23.4 runs a season. But since he was mainly a catcher, he has averaged only 127 games a season.
Last season, Mauer compiled 25 runs (or 26 depending on the site) in only 113 games! With perhaps 150 games possible or more playing first base, would not 30 runs be a reasonable expectation? It could go higher. In 2012, Mauer played 147 games and compiled 31 runs. Thirty to thirty-five runs above average seems the sweet spot here.
If we stick with the lower number, that would place Mauer sixth in the Majors among last year's first basemen. Out of thirty teams, that's pretty darned good.
If you average the three skill sets together and do the division, Joe Mauer seems likely to finish as either the fourth or fifth best first basemen in baseball. If he has a really good and healthy season at the plate, he could end up as high as third.
Fourth seems the likely destination. Since two of the three projection systems I looked at for this piece have him at an estimated 5.5 WAR, then fourth seems very logical. And by the way, with the way a win is valued these days, that is a $26 to $28 million player and above his contract value ($23 million) for the season.
Pushing Joe Mauer to first base makes perfect sense for the Twins. He will still be the team's best player and they get to keep him in the lineup more often (barring some fluke injury). And contrary to all the naysayers, if Mauer hits like he always has or even slightly less, he will still earn his contract, first baseman or not.

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