After going 2-for-4 in last night's 4-0 loss in Oakland raised his batting average to .362, Joe Mauer is flying high. He now leads the majors in batting average. As a Twins fan who has followed Mauer's progress since he was dominating high school pitchers at Cretin Derham Hall, of course I'm tempted to exclaim that Mauer is the best catcher in the bigs, but I'll try to be objective here. While his numbers are extremely impressive, it is possible that Mauer is just on a major hot streak and will come back down to Earth. It's also possible that he'll finish the year hitting .330 with a .900 OPS. Instead of hypothesizing too much about what's going to happen for the rest of the season, I'll compare Mauer with another promising young backstop.
When talking about the best young catcher in the American League, the discussion begins and ends with two players: Mauer and Victor Martinez. These two provide a middle-of-the-lineup presence from a typically weak offensive position that few players in their age range have matched in baseball history. Both are off to good (though very different) starts this year, but a .942 OPS for 34-year-old Jorge Posada through the first two months of the season may leave room for only one of the two on the All-Star roster (you know how the voters love their Yankees). So it might be interesting to examine the two players, who both have very bright futures and will be seeing a lot of eachother over the next several years.
Martinez got off to a torrid start this season. In April, he hit .398/.467/.667 with five home runs and 20 RBIs. In May, it was a 180-degree turn-around. Martinez slumped badly, hitting just .165/.232/.220 for a Rondell-like OPS of .452. He did not hit a home run and had just nine RBIs.
Mauer's season has taken the opposite path. In April he was solid but unspectacular, hitting .319 but with just one homer and a slugging percentage just north of .400. In May he was one of the best hitters in the league with a line of .386/.432/.554 to go along with three home runs and 18 RBIs. Mauer's line on the season is now .361/.421/.494.
Mauer has been fairly consistent and slump-proof throughout his career to this point, while streaky play is nothing new for Martinez. The Indians' catcher hit just .236/.312/.380 before the All Star break last year then broke out and hit .380/.449/.578 thereafter, helping the Tribe to the best record in baseball in the second half. In April it looked like Martinez had carried over his terrific play from the second half of '05, but in May his performance was simply terrible. Who knows what to expect from Martinez over the next four months.
Just looking at offensive metrics, Mauer has a pretty clear advantage over Martinez at this point. Of course, if Martinez gets hot again and finishes with a final line similar to the one he had last year (.305/.374/.475) or better, things could get interesting.
Then again, when you look at some other aspects outside of offensive production, Mauer really starts to pull away. Defensively, Mauer is far superior. Forty-three runners have attempted to steal on Martinez this year, and he has thrown out only six, meaning he's only caught 14% of potential base-stealers. Mauer has been far more effective at throwing out base-stealers, as he has gunned down 11 in 25 attempts for an excellent 46%. Martinez has also committed five errors already this season (matching his total from last season) while Mauer has yet to commit his first. Do All Star voters look at defensive statistics for catchers? Probably not -- it seems like even Gold Glove voters don't considering that Jason Varitek won the award last year. Still, it helps builds Mauer's case as the league's best catcher.
Then there are other intangibles. Mauer can run; he's 4/5 on stolen bases attempts and was 13/14 last year. Martinez has successfully stolen one base in his entire career. And then of course there is the small matter of Mauer being only 23 years old while Martinez is 27, which might not mean much toward their All Star chances this year but certainly bodes well for Joe's future.
It's difficult to really criticize any aspect of Mauer's game. Mauer can hit, run and defend. He's developing power. He's even learning to hit lefties (.339/.371/.393). I've heard the complaint that he does a poor job of running the pitching staff and I've heard an ESPN analyst (can't remember which one, but they're all the same really) blame Mauer for the staff's awful performance this year. To me, that is a flawed argument, seeing as how it was the same Mauer last year who guided this pitching staff to being one of the league's best. Twins' pitchers have thrown up some equally bad performances with Mike Redmond behind the plate as well, and we'll see how Shawn Wooten does.
Unless Mauer hits some kind of unprecedented slump or sees a serious decline in his play over the next four months, it's looking like a breakout year. Players like Martinez and Atlanta's Brian McCann are good young catchers with a big future ahead of them, but Mauer is on a totally different plane. This kid is going to be really fun to watch. Let's just hope his knee holds together and allows him to stay at catcher for the majority of his career.