Joe Mauer’s Hall of Fame candidacy will test the power of last impressions.
He spent the 2010s recovering from injuries, changing positions and failing to maintain a level of excellence that might have made him the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history. He finished his career as a first baseman whose greatest asset was the ability to draw walks.
Anyone wanting to dismiss him as a potential Hall of Fame inductee need only activate their short-term memory.
Should Mauer’s resume be that easily discarded?
A look at Twins history reveals the difficulty and unpredictability of judging players whose careers were damaged by injuries.
After the first seven years of his career, the key question regarding Mauer was not whether he would make the Hall of Fame, but whether he’d be given a corner office. Even factoring in the years he dealt with concussions or other physical problems, Mauer ranks third all-time in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) based on games played as a catcher.
After 10 seasons in the big leagues — including 2004, when he was injured after 35 games — Mauer was on an historic path. By the end of the 2013 season, he had, in the previous eight seasons, made six All-Star teams, won an MVP award, finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting three other times, won three Gold Gloves and five Silver Sluggers.
Even his mystery ailments and the lost 2011 season couldn’t tarnish that resume.
Then concussions forced him to become a first baseman, and probably diminished his ability to be a better player as a first baseman, and only once in his last five seasons did he post an OPS of better than .800 — at .801, in 2017.
His career OPS before 2014: A remarkable .873.
Compare Mauer’s resume to those of Hall of Fame catchers, and he looks like he belongs, whether you count merely the games he played at catcher or his overall offensive statistics.
It’s Twins history that makes Mauer’s case so fascinating. He may be just as qualified as Kirby Puckett, who was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he may have been no more dominant in his prime than Tony Oliva, who did not make it.
Puckett played 12 seasons. His OPS-plus (the statistic adjusted for ballpark factors and other variables) was 124. Mauer’s career OPS-plus was also 124.
Puckett finished in the top 10 in MVP voting seven times but never won the award. He made 10 straight All-Star teams and won six Gold Gloves. He won one batting title to Mauer’s three while playing a less-taxing position.
I believe Puckett was deserving of the Hall because he:
• Was consistently excellent.
• Reached 2,000 hits faster than anyone other than Wee Willie Keeler.
• Was the best player on two World Series winners.
Puckett also benefited from sentimentalism. Voters viewed him as an ambassador for the sport and remembered Game 6 in 1991, and saw the tragic end of his career as all that kept him from 3,000 hits and certain enshrinement.
Mauer was a demonstrably more valuable player during the first six years of his career than was Puckett during his first six seasons, and the two were of similar value for the next four years of their careers. If Puckett’s 12 years of excellent were good enough, wouldn’t 10 years of history-making excellence at a more difficult position be qualifying?
For the first 10 seasons of his career, Oliva, like Mauer, was well on his way to enshrinement. Before he suffered the knee injury that would depress his career, Oliva had an OPS-plus of 141 and an OPS of .867.
In his first eight full seasons, he was an All-Star eight times, finished in the top 20 of the MVP voting each year and won one Gold Glove and a rookie of the year award.
Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is not a perfect statistic but it is the most common reference point in the modern age gauging a player’s overall value, including defense.
Mauer’s career WAR: 55.1. Puckett’s: 51.1. Oliva’s: 43.1, in part because of the years he played after his injury and the fact that he played a less-important defensive position.
All three played like Hall of Famers for about a decade before their careers were altered.
Should Mauer be voted into the Hall? Should he receive the benefit of the doubt — like Puckett and unlike Oliva?
The numbers say yes, and numbers are more trustworthy than our short-term memory.