Admission: When Joe Mauer was about to step into the box for the at-bat that ended with him picking up his 2,000th career hit, I was angrily mashing portions of my iPhone screen in a fruitless attempt to make MLBtv load faster. I didn’t make it, and my phone almost didn’t either. Shame. Despite recent efforts to discount the value of any and all “counting stats”, 2,000 hits is still 2,000 hits, and not many players reach that benchmark.
Maybe the mark has lost some of its luster, but it’s not every day that you see a catcher reach 2,000 hits. Take a moment to enjoy it, because it will be a while before another one even gets close to that mark. Of MLB’s active leaders in hits, there are only 5 catchers in the top 50. Based on age and playing time, only Yadier Molina (1,743) and Posey (1,178) have decent odds of reaching 2,000. Molina could be knocking on that particular door by the end of 2019, but even at 150 per year Posey’s goal line projects out to 2023 or so.
Given the rarefied nature of Mauer’s accomplishment, it was no surprise that it spawned renewed interest in discussing his potential Hall of Fame case. This in turn led to conjecture regarding the respective cases for and against Mauer’s contemporaries – specifically Posey and Molina. Such conversations can get quite spirited, but among the people I most frequently discuss such things, there is a building consensus.
- Mauer probably gets in, but injuries derailed him and kept him from being a slam dunk.
- Posey just needs a few more solid years to get in, and his playoff resume helps a lot.
- Molina should get in simply because he’s Yadier Molina, but he doesn’t have the offensive numbers to justify his selection.
The challenge I face in forming a cohesive argument on any particular side is that I no longer view Posey or Mauer as full-time catchers. That makes it difficult to compare them to recent inductees like Mike Piazza or Ivan Rodriguez. I think of Mauer as a guy who was a great hitting catcher through 2010 and then morphed into a C/1B/DH hybrid role before settling on being a pretty productive 1B. He basically stopped being a full-time catcher after 2010, and he hasn’t worn the tools of ignorance since 2013.
On the sliding scale I unintentionally created in my mind, Posey is still more of a catcher now, but even during his peak “catcher-ness” years, he spent a lot of time at 1B. As a matter of fact, Posey has only caught 1,000 or more innings in a year twice. Same for Mauer.
That’s not meant to be a knock on either. The position is physically demanding, mentally draining, and few rational people choose the rigors of playing catcher over standing around at 1B waiting on a ball to come your way. In a way, it’s a compliment to both that their teams needed their bats in the lineup enough that they made certain accommodations to get them in the lineup as much as possible.
However, I think it also means that comparing them to guys who spent 90% of their time as catchers actually doing catcher things is unfair. There needs to be a change in perspective to adjust at least qualitatively for changes in workload or level of difficulty. Sure, positional adjustment handles much of the quantitative work, but those mathematical acrobatics do practically nothing to impact the way comparisons are done.
Consider this chart:
If you think of both Piazza and Mauer as catchers, then as long as you don’t view Piazza as representative of the HoF “floor”, Mauer has a really good shot. If you compare Mauer somehow to the unholy lovechild of Piazza and a recent 1B Hall of Fame player like Jeff Bagwell, then Mauer looks slightly more pedestrian.
With this Bagiazza lovechild in mind as the reference, Posey probably fairs a lot better than Mauer. Even if Posey switches to strictly 1B in a year or two, it’s plausible that he ages gracefully enough to get into Piazza’s orbit even with a significantly lower games caught percentage.
That leaves Yadier Molina who at a games caught percentage of 99.46% has the misfortune of having Ivan Rodriguez as his Hall of Fame comp. I’d put Pudge on baseball’s Mt. Rushmore of backstops, so that’s a really lofty standard for comparison. Of course, you can lower the standard a bit and compare Molina and Piazza, but then you have to decide how much of a difference the number or percentage of games caught actually matters.
In my mind, Yadi would need roughly 1 win above replacement per season to get within range of Piazza, and I find it difficult to make the case that spending more time at 1B instead of catcher would’ve gotten him that. Maybe someone else can.
None of this diminishes my appreciation of Posey, Mauer, or Molina one bit. If the voters ultimately determine that guys like Molina should represent the new floor for Cooperstown induction, I won’t argue one bit. But I won’t argue in favor of it either. Maybe the Hall of Fame should have more than 18 catchers, but maybe a much higher level of difficult with respect to Cooperstown just means that catching full time is the path of most resistance.