Does Joe Mauer's Uniqueness Hurt His MVP Chances?

Dan WadeSenior Analyst IAugust 22, 2009

Albert Pujols is a machine: See ball, hit ball.

That he's also the best player in the NL is pretty much a given. His name is often the one mentioned in terms of "Possible Triple Crown Winners" and "Players I'll Tell My Kids About," so there's almost no noise made when Pujols' name is already getting etched on the MVP plaque for the second year in a row and the third time in his career; he is, after all, The Machine.

Albert's march to MVP status lacks nothing: He's in the top five in the National League for all three slash stat categories—batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage—while also leading in HR and ranking second in RBI.

Stepping out of the realm of the traditional stats, he also boasts the highest Value over Replacement Player, the best Equivalent Average, and (among position players) the most Wins above Replacement Player in all of baseball. No one bests Fat Albert, no matter what the metric.

Add in that he plays Gold Glove defense for a team that is headed for the postseason and you've got a basically bulletproof case for the 2009 NL MVP.

Joe Mauer is a machine: See ball, hit ball.

Like Pujols, he's mentioned as potential achiever of the rare accomplishment (Mauer's would be hitting .400) and being a player whose legacy will live on well past his playing days.

Where Pujols is a top five NL player for the slash stats, Mauer is in the top two for the whole of baseball for all three categories, the same is true for the expanded stats used above. While I'm not about to say that I'd rather have Joe Mauer on my team than Albert Pujols, you can make that case and find good backing for it.

In fact, the only substantive difference in terms of their resume is that little tailing phrase "for a team that is headed for the postseason."

But if you listen to the rhetoric, it sounds like the two players are worlds apart. You never hear, for example, "Assuming the Cardinals continue their hot play and win the NL Central, Albert Pujols will win the MVP award."

Similarly, while you might hear that line about Joe Mauer, it's usually phrased as "If the Twins were a serious contender in the AL Central, the MVP would probably go Joe Mauer."

That key word probably indicates that, even if Mauer had what seems to be the missing piece to his resume, he still wouldn't have the certainty of winning the award that Pujols does, and that's odd.

Is it because the quality of competition in the AL is better?

Far from it, in fact.

Pujols and Mauer are 1-2 in the VORP rankings at 75.1 and 72.6 respectively. Four of the next five players come from the NL with Jason Bartlett's 52.4 mark the only fly in the NL's ointment.

Add in defense and the AL improves a bit, but the story stays largely the same. Pujols and Mauer secure the top, then two NL players a tick behind, followed by two AL members almost a full run behind them.

Pujols is being chased by a pack of extremely top-shelf players. He's almost a win better than his closest competitor, Hanley Ramirez, in terms of VORP, 8.1 points to be exact. By contrast, Joe Mauer leads Jason Bartlett, his closest pursuer and former teammate, by 20.2 points, a full two wins with a little left over.

By all rights, there should be a discussion about the NL MVP race that just isn't occuring. I don't at all mean to say that he shouldn't win it, he clearly should, but Han-Ram and others deserve at least a cursory glance for the seasons they've put in.

Meanwhile, the man who ought to be clearing space on his mantle is actually fading from the lead, despite hitting .483/.545/.931 over the last week, a critical stretch for his team. Simply remarkable.

The question itself is interesting enough, and I hope to hear alternate theories in the comments, but I've got an answer of my own.

Simply put: Joe Mauer is a paradigm shift the average fan doesn't fully comprehend.

First base, in either division, is a stocked position; the NL is almost unfair.

Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Derek Lee, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Howard, and others form a formidable barrier to any player who wants to be considered great at the position. The top five NL first basemen in terms of VORP are: Pujols (75.1), Fielder (54.3), Gonzalez (45.5), Berkman (30.7), and Lee (30.6).

Two things stand out right away: first, the central division is stocked at first base. Second, none of those guys is bad. Every one of them is making a positive impact for their team, yet Pujols is the best of the bunch and it isn't really all that close.

Having a background like that provides a really useful piece of context. Most fans (and writers) watch one team a lot more than the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball. They've got a sense of how good their favorite players are and can use that as a scale to better understand how good players they see less often really are.

Imagine if you were a Padres fan. You'd have a pretty clear idea of what Adrian Gonzalez means to your team; now imagine if he was almost twice that good. That's Pujols. If someone then told you that he was the best player in the NL, you wouldn't argue too much.

Hence, Albert Pujols is a runaway MVP train. Undeterable. Undeniable.

That context is exactly what Joe Mauer lacks.

Doing the same exercise, here are Mauer's peers (and I use the term loosely).

Top 5 AL Catchers: Joe Mauer (72.6), Mike Napoli (28.7), A.J. Pierzynski (24.6), Victor Martinez (22.3), and Jorge Posada (18.7). Remember, VORP is a measure of total offensive contribution and is weighted by position making it possible to compare players across positions.

Asking a fan of the Padres to imagine a player that was almost twice as good as Adrian Gonzalez is useful, it can be done and it yields a pretty clear result. Asking a Yankees to imagine a player four times better than Posada isn't nearly so useful. It's hard to come up with exactly what that kind of improvement would do to your team; you'd be better off imagining what would happen if Posada has wings and could breath fire.

The Red Sox could roll together the third, fourth, and fifth best catchers in the AL this season and still not have a player of Mauer's capability.

If context is the key to understanding how good Joe Mauer is, maybe the only real way to do it is to start duplicating positional players and imposing them on the catcher position.

Tigers fans, imagine if Miguel Cabrera was catching in addition to playing first. How much better would your team be?

Brewer backers: Wouldn't it be sweet to have Ryan Bruan behind the dish?

Rays supporters: You know how Evan Longoria is already really good? Imagine if he caught, called games, and was offensively AND defensively improved.

There isn't even a good historical player for Mauer to look good in comparison to.

Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system is built around the idea that players tend to follow similar career paths as those who came before them. How similar a player is to a group of his predecessors is called his Similarity Index. A score of 50 or higher means that the player is common in the sense of having a loosely predictable career path, players with a score under 20 are considered historically uncommon.

It's important to note, similarity doesn't mean good or bad. Mark Teixeira, plenty good in his own right, has an SI of 53. Dan Uggla's 58 makes him even more historically common.

Even a physical freak like Tim Lincecum has a score of 23; getting into rare territory, but still comparable.

Albert Pujols will end his career as one of the greatest hitters of all time; His SI: 13. Incredibly low.

Joe Mauer has an SI of 6. It's a very lonely group photo at the annual "Players who are similar to Joe Mauer" picnic. Very Lonely.

Unless you have the privilege of watching Mauer play on a consistent basis, it's probably hard to understand what it means to have a catcher this good. If he manned a corner, his numbers would be the same (or better, honestly, due to fewer physical demands), but he'd fit the paradigm. He'd be extraordinary in a place fans have come to expect extraordinary things from.

As a catcher, hitting around .380, getting on base in 45 percent of his PAs, hitting more home runs than any DH this season, it just doesn't make sense. That's not how being a Gold Glove catcher works.

Given that the Twins are slowly bleeding their way out of playoff contention, I can abide the idea that some voters will look at contenders for their MVP choice. Mongrels. What simply baffles me is the idea that even if the Twins make a late season surge, Mauer could be passed over.

The best explanation I can find is that voters simply lack the proper perspective.


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