Joe Mauer vs. Kirby Puckett: Who's the Better No. 3 Hitter?
A funny thing happened as I was watching the Minnesota Twins play against the Red Sox in Boston on Saturday night. The Twins were down by a run in the top of the ninth, with two outs and runners on second and third.
Joe Mauer was at the plate, and like he does so often, he was having a "good at-bat." That's how the Twins' broadcast team continually describe a Mauer at-bat when he works the count to 3-2.
Now here's the unusual part. Instead of working out a walk to load the bases and give Justin Morneau a shot to tie, or win the game, Mauer hits a three-run home run and the Twins go on to win 6-4—incredibly, their third straight win in Boston.
I know many of you are probably thinking, "Come on, give the guy a break, what do you want, he hit a home run and won the game."
Sure, Mauer has been criticized, repeatedly, for his lack of power, his penchant for hitting into double plays and waiting until he has two strikes called before taking the bat off his shoulder. But he is still a great hitter.
There's a "feeling" out there that Mauer is under-performing as the Twins' No. 3 hitter, and that this is a position that demands more power and RBIs. That Mauer needs to be more like other great hitters that regularly batted third, such as Kirby Puckett.
When I started the research for this piece, my goal was to add to the pile of criticism thrown Mauer's way. The truth is, when you look at the numbers, Puckett and Mauer are incredibly similar.
While Puckett started his career as a lead-off hitter, he would very quickly wind up batting third for the Twins. On the other hand, Mauer was destined to be the third hitter in the order almost from the start.
Here's a head-to-head comparison between Puckett and Mauer on some of the key offensive statistics.
Their Statistics Averaged over 162 Games
There's a great website out there if you want to look up baseball stats called baseball-reference.com.
For every player, they normalize their numbers for 162 games. When you compare the numbers of Joe Mauer and Kirby Puckett, they are eerily similar:
From these results, Puckett has a slight advantage over Mauer in the power statistics, but Mauer is better at average and on-base percentage, taking more walks and striking out less.
Unfortunately, players rarely appear in all 162 games in a season. When you normalize the numbers based on the average games played per season, you get a more realistic picture as to the contributions of a player.
The following slides take a closer look at these results.
Kirby Puckett made his major league debut in 1984 and batted .296 as a rookie.
In 1989, he won the American League batting title with a .339 average. He became only the third player since the Twins moved to Minnesota to win a title, with the last coming in 1978 when Rod Carew won his sixth.
While Puckett never won another title in his 12 seasons with the Twins, he finished with a .318 career batting average. He was the model of consistency. The lowest average he ever finished a season with was .288 in 1985. His average ranged from a low of .288 to a high in .356 in 1988, when he finished second in the batting race to Wade Boggs.
It didn't take him long to make it to the majors, making the jump from Single-A to Triple-A, where he only played in 21 games before making his debut.
His minor league batting average was .330 over three seasons.
Like Puckett, Joe Mauer also hit .330 in the minors. But unlike Puckett, he spent three seasons in the Twins farm system, making the jump from Double-A to the majors with only five games at Triple-A. Of course he, also started out of high school.
Mauer's rookie season in 2004 was cut short after only 35 games with a knee injury. He was hitting .308 at the time. In 2006, Mauer won his first batting title when he finished with a .347 average. He would add two more titles in 2008 and 2009, joining Tony Oliva and Rod Carew as the only Twins to win back-to-back titles.
In his nine seasons, Mauer has a .323 average, only five points higher than Puckett.
Like Puckett, Mauer has been an extremely consistent hitter. His batting average has ranged from .287 to .365.
Batting Average: This one is very close. If it were an election, Mauer would win 52 percent to 48 for Puckett.
Batting Titles vs. Leading the League in Hits
While a comparison of career batting averages favors Joe Mauer over Kirby Puckett, a closer look at the results paints a slightly different picture.
Although Mauer has three batting titles, he has never had more than 200 hits in a season, or led the league in hits. The closest he came was in 2009 when he led the American League with a .365 average, but finished sixth in hits.
Puckett, who only has one batting title, led the league in hits four times and had five seasons with more 200 hits and a sixth with 1999. Between 1986 and 1989, he averaged 220 hits each season with a high of 234 in 1988.
Batting Titles: Mauer get the edge, three titles to one.
When you look at the numbers over a 162-game average, Joe Mauer and Kirby Puckett both come out with 97 runs scored.
The problem is, and I realize it has to do with the position played, is that Mauer averages only 107 games per season, while Puckett played in 149 contests a year.
When you normalize the data per season, Puckett averaged comes out on top with 1,071 runs scored over 12 seasons—an average of 89 runs per season.
Mauer's number drops to 64 runs scored with a total of 606 runs over his 9.5 seasons.
An argument can be made that Puckett started his career as the lead-off hitter, and with the team's best hitters behind him, it's only expected that the number of runs scored would be higher.
Scoring Runs: The edge goes to Puckett with the difference this great.
RBIs and Power Stats
The difference in RBIs over a 162-game average slightly favors Kirby Puckett over Joe Mauer, 99 to 88.
Again, when these totals account for the number of games played in a season, the difference gets bigger.
Over his 12 seasons with the Twins, Puckett drove in 1,085 RBIs, an average of 90 per season.
In 1988, when Puckett led the league with 657 at-bats and 234 hits, he set his career high with 121 RBIs while batting .356.
In 1994, he led the American League with 112 RBIs. What really makes this number impressive is that the season was shortened to only 113 games due to a labor disagreement. Puckett drove in .99 runs per game. That number increases to 1.04 RBIs per game when you consider he played in only 108 games.
Over his 9.5 seasons, Mauer is averaging 58 RBIs per season.
His greatest total came in 2009 when he was named the American League MVP. That season, he drove in 96 runs and led the league with a .365 average, a .444 OBP, a career-high 28 home runs and a .587 slugging percentage.
If Mauer could replicate these kind of results, or even come close to them, there would be little criticism for the All-Star catcher.
Power Stats: Puckett wins this battle.
The Best at Their Position
There can be no argument that when it comes to the toughest position in all of sports, catching is near the top.
In baseball, it's the one position where being in hit is a regular occurrence. Foul balls, broken bats and the occasional runner trying to score from third make this a tough position to stay healthy.
Comparing a center fielder to a catcher is the ultimate apples-to-oranges comparison.
Silver Slugger awards and Gold Gloves are given to the best player at their position for both their offensive ability and defensive prowess, in comparison to their peers.
In 12 major league seasons, Kirby Puckett was awarded six Gold Gloves and six Silver Slugger Awards. That's a straight-up 50 percent of his career.
For Joe Mauer, I didn't include his rookie season of 2004 when he only played in 35 games, and because nothing has been awarded yet, I also excluded 2012.
In the seven seasons Mauer has played, he has four Silver Sluggers and three Gold Gloves.
Better at their position: Mauer gets the edge in both categories with a better-than-50 percent rate for the Silver Slugger and three Gold Gloves at the most difficult position in baseball.
While Gold Gloves and Silver Slugger Awards are determined by players' peers and the MVP award is determined by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA), All-Star selections are determined (in part) by fan voting.
In one of the smaller markets, like Minnesota, it's more difficult for the local faithful to stuff the ballot box for their hometown players. This means the player will need to have a greater appreciation from opposing fans to be considered one of the best.
Again, if you exclude Mauer's rookie season, he has been named to five All-Star Games in in eight seasons and was voted the AL starting catcher three times. While very impressive, it's not quite as impressive as Kirby Puckett's accomplishments.
In his 12 seasons in the major leagues, Puckett appeared in 10 All-Star games and was voted the starter in six of them. In 1993, in his eighth All-Star Game appearance, Puckett was named the MVP.
All-Star: Even though Puckett has the advantage of being considered for one of three outfield slots, he gets the edge here.
Influence on Team's Record
A quick comparison of the Twins' record over the years when Kirby Puckett and Joe Mauer played favors Mauer, for the time being.
From 1984 to 1995, when Puckett was a member of the Twins, the team had a 926-953 record, a .493 winning percentage. Over those 12 seasons, the Twins finished above .500 five times.
Since Mauer made his debut in 2004, the Twins are 729-676, a .519 winning percentage. Even if you exclude his rookie season, when the Twins finished 92-70, and he only played in 35 games, the Twins are 637-606, dropping the winning percentage to .512.
The Mauer-led Twins have done much better in the regular season.
Of course, this could be due to the fact that when Puckett played, the league had a balanced schedule. The Twins faced the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox and A's 12 times each year instead of six to nine times.
Only two of Puckett's 12 seasons were played in the AL Central, considered one of the weaker divisions in the American League.
Still, Mauer gets the edge here over Puckett.
But, then again, the goal is not to only win in the regular season...
The Contribution in the Postseason
Here's where the real difference between Joe Mauer and Kirby Puckett is accentuated.
While Mauer has led the Twins to the postseason three times, he has only played in three series.
Puckett only made it to the postseason twice, but he made the most of them by playing, and winning, in four series.
Puckett played 24 games in the postseason with 97 at-bats. His postseason numbers include a .309 batting average and a .536 slugging percentage. While his postseason batting average is nine points lower than his regular-season mark, Puckett's slugging percentage is 59 points higher.
Mauer's numbers have gone in the opposite direction. In only about one-third of the postseason games played, his batting average is 37 points lower at .286, and his slugging percentage, at only .314, is 154 points off his regular season mark.
But this goes beyond just numbers.
Puckett raised his game to a higher level in the postseason. In the ALCS, Puckett led the Twins to a 4-1 series win over the Blue Jays. Puckett was named the ALCS MVP after hitting .429 with two home runs and six RBIs.
In the 1991 World Series, when the Twins were down four games to three, he put the team on his back and willed the Twins to victory.
In the top of the third, Puckett made a great leaping catch against the plexiglass in center field, robbing Ron Gant of an extra-base hit.
He finished the game with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 11th inning.
Post Season Influence: As a member of both of Minnesota's World Series-winning teams, Puckett gets the nod over Mauer.
Joe Mauer has taken a lot of criticism since signing the contract extension that pays him $23 million per year. He is currently the fifth highest paid player in baseball.
In the two seasons he has played under his current contract, his performance has taken a nose dive.
From 2004 to 2009, his batting average was .327, and he averaged 16 home runs and 92 RBIs per 162 games. Since then, his average gas dropped to .305 with 10 home runs and 75 RBIs per 162 games.
In 1990, Kirby Puckett signed a contract that paid him $2.8 million. It would make him the second-highest paid player in baseball.
Over the six seasons that preceded the contract, he had a .323 average, with 17 home runs and 89 RBIs per 162 games.
After the big contract, Puckett's numbers improved. While his average over his last six seasons dropped to .312, his home runs increased to 21 and his RBIs to 110 per 162 games.
The styles of the two players is very different. Puckett was someone that was always in the middle of things in the clubhouse, a vocal leader that backed it up on the field.
Mauer has been a brilliant hitter and an exceptional catcher, but he has a quiet demeanor that doesn't present itself well in the public eye. He may the most respected veteran in the Twins' locker room, but nobody sees it.
Overall: While Mauer has Puckett beat on average, Puckett brought more to the Twins and made the players around him a lot better than Mauer has been able to do.