Beyond Compare?

August 06, 2006

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.

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

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)