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Updated: September 20th, 2012 9:58am
Mackey: Despite lack of HRs, Joe Mauer is still better than you think

Mackey: Despite lack of HRs, Joe Mauer is still better than you think

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

Don't look now, but Joe Mauer has quietly emerged as a legitimate contender for the American League batting title -- a crown that, if worn again, would be the fourth of his career.

Mauer's average dipped by a point to .324 in the Minnesota Twins' 6-4 win over the Cleveland Indians on Wednesday night, which still puts him within an arm's reach of the red-hot Miguel Cabrera.

Catching Cabrera down the backstretch is a long-shot. And even if he does, there still seems to be a large contingent of Twins followers that sticks to the notion that Mauer's value as a hitter is overstated because he "hits mostly singles" -- that home runs and RBIs are the most important offensive factors.

Aside from one outlier season in 2009 in which he hit 28 home runs -- many of them landing in the first few rows of the left-field bleachers at the Metrodome -- Mauer really hasn't displayed much power in his nine years as a big leaguer. His 10 home runs in 2012 are the third-highest total of his career.

But over that same nine-year stretch, no hitter owns a higher batting average than Mauer (.324). Only a handful have reached base at a higher rate than Mauer (.405).

Those higher OBPs are held by Barry Bonds (.519), Albert Pujols (.415), Joey Votto (.414), Todd Helton (.413), Lance Berkman (.409), Manny Ramirez (.408) and Nick Johnson (.407).

This year, Mauer (.419) leads the major leagues in on-base percentage by a fairly comfortable margin over Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen (.410). Joey Votto owns an astronomical .471 on-base percentage, but he doesn't have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.

Mauer has limited power, but his ability to reach base is nothing short of elite.

So, in its simplest form, the debate over Mauer's value as a hitter comes down to one main question: What carries more importance? Hitting home runs or getting on base?

If recent history is any indication, the answer might surprise people.

Since 2001 (a span of 11 seasons), the top run-scoring team in the major leagues each year has also ranked No. 1 in on-base percentage nine times while finishing No. 2 twice. Meanwhile, those top run-scoring teams led the majors in home runs only once.

2012: Rangers (2nd in OBP, 6th in HR)
2011: Red Sox (1st in OBP, 3rd in HR)
2010: Yankees (1st in OBP, 3rd in HR)
2009: Yankees (1st in OBP, 1st in HR)
2008: Rangers (2nd in OBP, 6th in HR)
2007: Yankees (1st in OBP, 4th in HR)
2006: Yankees (1st in OBP, 5th in HR)
2005: Red Sox (1st in OBP, 6th in HR)
2004: Red Sox (1st in OBP, 5th in HR)
2003: Red Sox (1st in OBP, 2nd in HR)
2002: Yankees (1st in OBP, 2nd in HR)
2001: Mariners (1st in OBP, 18th in HR)

Pretty startling evidence for the importance of on-base percentage.

That's not to say hitting home runs doesn't play a key role in run production. They obviously do.

But Mauer leads the major leagues in a category (OBP) that appears to be the most important factor for scoring runs, and it seems to go underappreciated by a large segment of the people who follow him on a regular basis.

What about his $23 million salary?

Well, for one, Fangraphs estimates Mauer will be worth over $23 million once the season is over. And even if he is overpaid, anger should be directed at the Twins, not Mauer. That said, the Twins really had no choice, considering Mauer won the American League MVP award in 2009 as the team prepared for life, and an expanded payroll, in a new ballpark.

One could make the argument he isn't a prototypical No. 3 hitter, and that's probably valid. Mauer would seem to be a much better fit in the No. 2 hole. But that's not his fault.

What about the fact that he doesn't catch as often?

Mauer has caught in only 69 of his 134 games this season, and he has thrown out a career-low 11% of potential base stealers. But on the flip side, catching fewer games has put Mauer on pace to reach a career high in plate appearances. Catching fewer games decreases his overall value. But he is still on pace to be a 5-WAR (Wins Above Replacement) player. Only about 20 players will reach that plateau this year.

Shouldn't Mauer be more clutch?

Actually, he already is.

To go along with his .324/.419/.457 batting line this year, Mauer is hitting .368/.494/.507 with runners in scoring position, .349/.465/.485 with men on base, and .396/.522/.547 with two outs and runners in scoring position. In "high leverage" situations, Mauer is hitting .374/.496/.538.

And thanks to Mauer always being on base, Josh Willingham has batted with more runners on base this season than any hitter in baseball. Justin Morneau is 10th, despite missing two weeks with wrist soreness.

Mauer also ranks a respectable 18th in RBI% (the percentage of total baserunners driven in by a hitter) -- ahead of Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.

Do those three men hit more homers? Yes. But we've already covered that.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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