Monday, March 22, 2010

WAR and the Joe Mauer Extension

Yesterday Joe Mauer signed an 8 year extension worth $184 million dollars.  By all acounts with Target Field set to open early next month this was a deal Minnesota had to get done if they wanted to be perceived as dedicated to their fanbase.  Breaking down this contract, Mauer will be paid $23 million dollars annually from 2011 till 2018 and will receive full no-trade protection through the duration of this deal.

Now the question is: Will Joe Mauer be worth it? 

This is the fourth largest contract in the history of baseball and one that could financially strap a small to medium market team like Minnesota if this deal goes sour.  Looking over the past four seasons we can break down Mauer's value in terms of wins he generated over that of an average replacement player.  The stat I'm using is called Wins Above Replacement or WAR for short and it seems to be a favorite among the statistically inclined.  Over a year ago, Dave Cameron at FanGraphs wrote a series of articles explaining how this stat is measured and how it can improve in the future and it's highly suggested that you read it to get a detailed explanation.

To be brief, WAR measures the number of wins a player generated next to the level performance expected from someone making a league minimun salary and playing to the minimum standards at a designated position.  For instance, Joe Mauer, after MLB seasons, is considered one of the best catchers in baseball and in 2009 contributed to 8.1 more wins for his team over any other below average "replacement level" player at that same position.  Sounds easy enough and I won't go into how it's calculated (go here, instead) but it does place a monetary value upon each win generated (in 2009 each win was calculated as being worth roughly $4.5 million dollars). 

So, in 2009 Joe Mauer, based upon his hitting, fielding, position scarcity, league, year and park factors, was calculated as being responsible for a net gain of 8.1 wins and at $4.5 million dollars a pop - he was worth $36.6 million dollars to his team.  Of course, Joe Mauer didn't receive a pay check for that amount of money since his 2009 salary paid him $10.5 million.  Obviously this turned out great for the Twins franchise and looking over the past four seasons we can see that Mauer was grossly underpaid due to the intial structure of his MLB contract:

2006: Joe Mauer had a 6.0 WAR which was calculated in '06 dollars as being worth $22.3M while his actual salary was $400K! 

In short, here are the rest:

2007: 2.9 WAR; $12.1M WAR dollars; $3.8M actual salary
2008: 5.8 WAR; $26M; $6.3M actual salary
2009: 8.1 WAR; $36.6M; $10.5M actual salary

According to Sean Smith's CHONE 2010 projections, Mauer should regress a bit and produce a WAR total of 7.3 all worth about $32.8M.  Mauer's contract doesn't kick in until 2011 but at $23M per year he should be closer to what his actual worth is... but can he sustain this level of play until 2018? 

Predicting a stat like WAR is fuzzy at best especially for catchers who aren't properly measured through any defensive metric but we can assume that if Joe Mauer stays healthy he should be an above average producer for at least a majority of this contract.  Mauer will be 27 years old and 28 when this new contract kicks in.  Last season he did injure his lower back before the start of the season and before then he missed some time in '07 due to a strained left quad muscle.  And talk has centered on him playing a lot more 1B as he gets older (Justin Mourneau doesn't become a free agent until after the 2013 season) in order to preserve his body.

At $23M annually, Mauer will be expected to produce 5 wins per season until 2018.  As a catcher Mauer's bat will more than make up for his cost but a move to 1B will diminish his value since he doesn't have quite the power necessary to be considered elite.  In '09 Mauer did hit a career high 28 HR's and made good on the promise by many scouts would predicted this ability would eventually develop.  However, his skills don't necessarily suggest a hitter showing consistent power development. To hit for consistent power, a hitter must do two things:

1). he must hit the ball hard and that is usually measured by a hitter's linedrive rate.  Mauer does excell in this aspect as his LD rate has been excellent throughout his career (as he stays around 20-22%, well above the MLB average)

2). a hitter must hit a sufficient number of flyballs to the outfield.  Mauer hits far too many groundballs (48% last season) and unless he dramatically builds upon last season's flyball percentage (30%) his power ceiling looks to have already arrived.

Don't get me wrong, I think this is great news for the Minnesota franchise but I do wonder what Mauer's value will be as he ages.  Like I said, he does have an excellent linedrive rate but his high batting average (arguably his best skill from an offensive standpoint) seems to be elevated from a very high BABIP (.342 in '08; .373 last season) and with Mauer's speed being about average, I don't see how the combination of high groundballs + average speed can keep producing a favorable BABIP...

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