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Beyond Compare?

Aug. 07, 2006
Aug. 07, 2006

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Aug. 7, 2006

SI Players: Life On And Off The Field
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SURFING
  • LAIRD HAMILTON WAS ONCE ONE OF ONLY A HANDFUL OF MEN WITH THE SKILL AND THE GUTS TO RIDE THE MASSIVE AND MURDEROUS WAVE KNOWN AS JAWS. BUT THEN CAME THE BOUNTY HUNTERS AND THRILL-SEEKERS, AND THE WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS SPORT SUDDENLY GOT A WHOLE LOT SCARIER

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Beyond Compare?

One of thewonderful things about baseball is that there is rarely a situation in the gamethat doesn't have some historical precedent. Then along comes sweet-swinging,6'4" Joe Mauer.

This is an article from the Aug. 7, 2006 issue Original Layout

Catchers are notsupposed to win batting crowns--and certainly not 23-year-old catchers. SinceWorld War II, only two catchers age 24 or younger have even hit .310 over afull season--Joe Torre (.321 in 1964) and Ted Simmons (.310 in '73). Nor arecatchers supposed to be tall--the average height of catchers in the Hall ofFame is 5'11". Nor are they supposed to run well. But in less than two fullseasons Mauer already has more steals (21) than Mike Piazza has in his 17-yearcareer (17).

In trying todivine what the future holds for Mauer, projection systems like BaseballProspectus's PECOTA, which relies on identifying historical comparables, areleft in the dark. Before the start of this season PECOTA identified Torre,Simmons and Bill Freehan as Mauer's three closest comparables, but with hisperformance this year Mauer has lapped that field. Not even Ivan Rodriguez canmatch up with Mauer. When I-Rod was 23, his OPS was .776; Mauer's stands at.954. Perhaps the only other young catcher to display similar productivity atthe same age is Johnny Bench, an MVP at 22. But Bench was a very differenthitter than Mauer--much more power but less athleticism and ability to hit foraverage.

Mauer's offensiveprofile most resembles that of a young Derek Jeter. An even more appropriatecomparison would be with Rickey Henderson, whose talents (speed, power,exceptional patience) made him an anomaly. Similarly, Mauer boasts an array ofskills displayed by no other catcher. Bill James has written that the mark of atruly great player is his uniqueness. If that's the case, Mauer may wind upbeing the greatest player of his generation.

> Nate Silveris a Baseball Prospectus author.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAJohnny Bench