Joe Mauer Wins American League Most Valuable Player in Landslide

Dan WadeSenior Analyst INovember 23, 2009

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 09:  Joe Mauer #7 of the Minnesota Twins bats against the New York Yankees in Game Two of the ALDS during the 2009 MLB Playoffs at Yankee Stadium on October 9, 2009 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

For years, the BBWAA picks for the Cy Young Awards and MVP were the subject of incredible scorn, especially among the sabermetric community.

The 2005 AL Cy Young, for example, saw Bartolo Colon, armed with a 21-8 record, beat Johan Santana despite being subordinate to him in every category besides wins—three wins worse according to Baseball Prospectus’ Wins Above Replacement Player. Every team has their example, every year seems to bring new controversy, but 2009 seems to have been a big step in the right direction.

Zack Greinke netted the AL Cy Young, despite winning just 16 games, the lowest win totals for a Cy Young winner since 1994. There was some controversy over the NL award, but that was a choice among three deserving candidates, someone had to lose.

The BBWAA’s strong year continued Monday with the selection of Joe Mauer as the American League’s Most Valuable Player. Mauer garnered 27 of the 28 first-place votes, making him a nearly unanimous winner. 

When I wrote about Mauer’s candidacy in mid-August , the primary argument against Mauer was that he didn’t play for a winning team. Had the season ended there, there would have been a big argument over whether Mauer’s superior numbers for a team that finished below .500 and in third place in a comparatively weaker division would be enough to propel him ahead of Mark Teixeira or Derek Jeter, who played a key role on a superior squad.

Fortunately for the Twins, that argument was done in by two months of solid play led by Mauer’s strong close to the season. With friend and fellow All-Star Justin Morneau on the pine, Mauer closed the season with a .391/.449/.652 line in August and .354/.471/.487 in September and a few games in October, simultaneously making the Twins a winning team and showing himself to be a clutch performer.

Philosophical arguments aside, Mauer was nothing short of dominant. He won the slash stat triple crown, boasting the highest batting average (.365), on-base percentage (.444), and slugging percentage (.587) in the AL, with only Albert Pujols’ and Prince Fielder’s slugging percentage preventing him from the major league mark.

In the last 70 years, this has only been done nine times. Of those nine, seven were achieved by a first baseman, a left fielder, or a right fielder (hat tip to Ken Funck at Baseball Prospectus ). Just twice coming into the season had an up-the-middle player hit anything approaching this well. Add in his 28 home runs, best among catchers, and 19.2 percent OBI percent (percentage of runners on-base ahead of him that he successfully drove in), and it’s easy to see just how big a role he played in the Twins’ success.

But traditional stats can paint false pictures, perhaps advanced metrics will reveal Mauer’s flaw.

It looks as though Ben Zobrist won FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement crown at first blush, except that Joe Mauer gets no credit for his defense, since the defensive component of WAR (Ultimate Zone Rating or UZR) doesn’t categorize catchers. Giving Mauer credit for even average defense would push him over the top there.

Baseball Prospectus’ Value over Replacement Player has Mauer just a tick behind Albert Pujols and well ahead of the rest of the field, 20 runs ahead of Jeter and close to double Teixeira’s contribution. Tex chipped in a few more Equivalent Runs, but Mauer’s Equivalent Average was much, much higher.

Among position players, Mauer ran away with the AL WARP-1 crown, though he did finish behind Zack Greinke. (To be honest, there’s a debate to be had as to whether Mauer or Greinke was more valuable to his team, a question that just isn’t salient when the players are Mauer and…any other player in the AL.)

When positional considerations are included, Mauer blows away the rest of the field. His contributions in terms of controlling a young pitching staff and adjusting to an uncharacteristically unsettled rotation are just two of the things that make catching uniquely difficult. The fact that other positions don’t have to deal with these issues shouldn’t take away from players like Jeter and Teixeira, but it is something that makes Mauer that much more valuable to his team.

I would love to tell you that this was a close vote, or that there are a lot of things that make this a difficult decision, and if the voters would actually vote for pitchers, it might have been. Between Mauer and Greinke, I’m inclined to say that Mauer is still the MVP, but I’m certainly willing to hear arguments to the contrary. Irrespective, the voters have made it abundantly clear that a pitcher’s place is not in the MVP voting. In a battle between Joe Mauer and the rest of the position players in the American League, it just isn’t close.

The voters got this one right, continuing their strong showing in 2009, Joe Mauer truly is the American League’s Most Valuable Player.