MINNEAPOLIS — Part of what made Joe Mauer so valuable for Minnesota was his ability to hit so well at baseball’s most physically demanding position. So now that Mauer has moved from catcher to first base, how do his offensive numbers compare to others at his new position?
For starters, it’s evident that Mauer doesn’t possess the type of home run power typically associated with first basemen. He belted 11 homers in 113 games this past season, an average of 40.5 at-bats per home run. Even for catchers that ratio ranks near the bottom, but it would have put Mauer second-to-last among major league first basemen, ahead of only James Loney (who homered once every 42.2 at-bats).
In 2013, there were 31 other first basemen who homered more than Mauer. Some of the biggest power hitters in the game play this position, led by Baltimore’s Chris Davis, who led the league with 53 homers as well as 138 RBI. Edwin Encarnacion of Toronto and Paul Goldschmidt of Arizona both hit 36 homers, the Angels’ Mark Trumbo belted 34 and Brandon Moss of Oakland also joined the 30 home run club.
Mauer’s career high in home runs came in 2009 when he hit 29 en route to earning the American League’s Most Valuable Player. It’s unlikely he’ll ever reach that number again, especially playing his home games at Target Field, but let’s take a look at some of Mauer’s other numbers and how they compare to first basemen around the league.
Even with just 11 home runs, Mauer slugged .476 in 2013, which would rank 10th among all major league first basemen and sixth in the AL at the position. His on-base percentage of .404 was bested only by only one first baseman, Cincinnati’s Joey Votto. And Mauer had 35 doubles this past season, the third-most in a season during his career. He would have finished eighth among first basemen in doubles and fourth in the American League.
Of course, it’s possible to think that Mauer’s offensive numbers could improve as his body receives less wear and tear that was brought on by catching. After all, a concussion sustained by a foul tip off the face mask is the main reason why Mauer is making the switch from catcher to first.
“I think I’ll be in the lineup more, that’s for sure,” Mauer said Monday when the position change was announced. “I think above all, just playing a lot more. I think when I’m allowed to do that, I definitely could maybe put up some bigger numbers.”
Mauer has 55 career games at first base, so it’s no doubt a small sample size, but his numbers have actually been just a bit lower as a first baseman compared to his career splits at catcher. As a first baseman, Mauer has batted .324/.397/.435 since he first played the position in 2011. Compare those numbers to his slash line as a catcher over his 10-year career: .328/.408/.481. Again, it’s important to keep in mind the disparity in number of games played at each position (he’s caught 897 career games).
Last season, Mauer had a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 5.2, according to FanGraphs. That ranked 21st in all of baseball. Only three first basemen — Davis, Goldschmidt and Votto — had a higher WAR than Mauer in 2013. Mauer’s WAR might drop slightly given the position change, but it’s clear that he still has the potential to rank offensively as one of the top first basemen in the game — even with a lack of home runs.
Mauer has maintained his pure swing throughout his career without much change in his approach. Might things be different now that Mauer will be hitting as a first baseman rather than a catcher?
“I think I’ll probably be a lot more healthy. There’s been many a time when I went up to the plate with foul tips off the shoulder, off the legs, can’t feel my hand, things like that,” Mauer said. “Whether hitting, catching, or first base, I’m always trying to get better. Once I get down to spring training, I’ll keep working and try to become the best first baseman I can. I’ll have a lot more time to get in those cages and do some other things that I normally wouldn’t have being a catcher.”