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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

August 20, 2009 at 12:48 PM

Joe Mauer is the MVP…but can he hit .400?

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Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, who used to cover the Mariners for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (that was a newspaper, for all you kids out there), caused quite a stir with an innocent “tweet” on Aug. 14. That was the night that Mark Teixeira hit a solo homer in the ninth off Mark Lowe in the ninth inning at Safeco to break a 2-2 tie as the Yankees went on to a 4-2 win over the Mariners. That moved Tyler — a great reporter and great guy — to put this on his Twitter:

“By the way, this is probably obvious by now, but Mark Teixeira’s the AL MVP. No question, as Joe Torre would say.”

The internet backlash was immediate, with columns like this and this pointing out that, no, Teixeira is not so obviously the MVP.

In fact, if there’s an obvious MVP candidate — and right now, there most certainly is — it’s Joe Mauer of the Twins, who is having one of the best years a catcher has ever had. Mauer is out-performing Teixeira mano-a-mano; if you factor in that he’s doing it as a catcher, while Teixeira is a first baseman (and aided tremendously by the homer haven that is new Yankee Stadium, as Fox’s Dayn Perry points out), there’s little question in my mind that as we speak, Mauer is the hands-down MVP.

In fact, I’m not sure that Teixeira is MVP on the Yankees. There’s a lot of growing support for his teammate, Derek Jeter, whose numbers as a shortstop are more impressive than Teixeira’s as a first baseman. As Posnanski points out, the chronically over-rated Jeter is actually under-rated this year.

I have a say in the matter, by the way. The voting assignments of the Baseball Writers Association of America came out this week, and I will be one of two from the Seattle chapter voting for MVP. Each chapter gets two votes for each award — MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year. While voters are asked to vote for the top three for the latter awards, the MVP asks for a top 10, which are weighted 10 points for a first, nine for a second, etc.

With a month-plus to go, I’m certainly not locked into my vote, but Mauer is the man right now. He is hitting .380, with an on-base percentage of .448, a slugging percentage of .648, and an OPS of 1.092. His OPS-plus (adjusted for ballparks) is an ungodly 192 (Ted Williams’ career OPS-plus of 191 is second in history; Babe Ruth is No. 1 at 207, and Barry Bonds is third at 182, though Bonds has the three best OPS-plus seasons in history at 268, 263 and 259 in the heart of the BALCO years). Teixeira is hitting .283 with a .381 on-base, .557 slugging and .937 OPS, with a 142 OPS-plus.

This is not to say Teixeira isn’t having a great year; he is. Those 31 homers, 33 doubles and 89 runs batted in are impressive (aided by a significant home-field advantage). But Mauer is having a stupendous year. I didn’t even mention his clutch stats, which are off the charts: .444 with two outs and runners in scoring position; .339 “late and close”; .368 in a tie game; .395 with RISP; .395 with men on base; et al.

If I had to mark Mauer down for one thing in the Teixeira/Jeter race, it’s probably not what you’re thinking. It’s not because the Twins are four games under .500, and the Yankees have the best record in baseball. I have voted MVP numerous times, and each time I do, I get the same letter with these guidelines:

“Dear Voter:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense. 2. Number of games played. 3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort. 4. Former winners are eligible. 5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from one to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot.

Those instructions are vague enough that voters can opt to favor a player from a contending team over one from a last-place team. But I don’t see how anyone can argue Mauer’s value to a team that still is hanging on the fringes of the AL Central race, 5 1/2 games behind the Tigers despite being four games under .500. Mauer has Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan. Teixeira is surrounded by a veritable All-Star team.

No, the one ding for Mauer is the fact that he missed the first 22 games the season fighting a lower back injury. That’s 14 percent of the Twins’ season. If someone wants to argue that he can’t be MVP while missing so much time, I could buy that. And if that same person points out that the Twins were 11-11 without Mauer, and 47-51 after he came off the DL, that would seem to be a fairly compelling point. Yet I would counter that without Mauer, the Twins — whose starters ranke 12th out of 14 AL teams with a 5.09 ERA — would have fallen out of sight in the AL Central.

Now, to get to the final point: Can Mauer turn in the first .400 season since Ted Williams in 1941?

The short answer is, no way. But the fact that he’s even causing the debate, as a catcher, is remarkable. In the pursuit of .400, missing April is actually a benefit, because the fewer at-bats one has, the easier it is for a hitter to raise one’s batting average. That’s why Ichiro’s was fighting such an uphill battle, even in 2004, when he set the hits record with 262. Ichiro had 704 at-bats that year and hit .372. With the same number of at-bats, he would have needed 20 more hits — 282 — to hit .400.

As Baseball Musings points out, Mauer projects to 523 at-bats, meaning he’ll need 209 hits for a .400 average. That would require him to go 70 for 157 the rest of the way, which is a .446 average. They project the odds of that at 1 in 2,100. I’d say it’s far more likely that Ichiro will catch Mauer for the batting title than Mauer will hit .447 over a 42-game span. In his first 42 games of this season, Mauer was ridiculously hot, and he hit “just” .429. To get four hits in every nine at-bats the rest of the season is asking too much.

But he’s still the MVP, as we speak. No question, as Joe Torre would say.

(Photo by Associated Press)

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