Joe Mauer won the AL Gold Glove at catcher last week. Silver Slugger also, not that that has anything to do with defense; it's "just" a coincidence that only two of the AL Gold Gloves (Placido Polanco and Adam Jones) didn't also win a silver bat trophy as the best hitter at the position.
OK, maybe it's NOT coincidence. Is Mauer another in a long line of Gold Glove winners who essentially won the award with his bat? Should the honor really have gone to Detroit's Gerald Laird?
A few statistical facts:
- Laird and Mauer were each charged with nine passed balls. This didn't lead baseball — Miguel Oliva (Kansas City) had 10 — but it was close.
- Laird threw out 42 of 101 base stealers, 40 percent, the best rate among regular catchers and nine more CS than any other catcher in baseball. Mauer threw out 19 of 72, 23 percent.
- Laird caught 1,090-plus innings, third most in the AL; Mauer, 939, fourth.
- Laird's catcher ERA — the team ERA with him behind the plate — was 4.23. Mauer's was 4.29.
Now the counter case, which relies on putting these numbers into context:
First point: Managers and coaches are probably more concerned, when figuring out whether to try to steal, with the skills involved. This is why you will often see them with stopwatch in hand — they're trying to recheck "pop time" — the time between when a pitch hits the catcher's mitt and the time the catcher's throw reaches the infielder.
Opposing teams tried to steal against Laird 0.83 times per nine innings. They tried to run against Mauer 0.7 times per nine innings. I suspect that managers respect Mauer's pop times more than they do Laird's.
Second point: Carl Pavano. For the season, which he split between the Twins and the Cleveland Indians, Pavano allowed 33 steals in 39 attempts. He simply does not hold runners well.
With the Twins, basestealers were 10 of 10 against Pavano, seven of seven against the battery of Pavano/Mauer. (Two came with Jose Morales behind the dish, one with Mike Redmond.)
Take Pavano out of Mauer's stats, and he's 19 of 66, 29 percent, a considerable improvement, but still short of Laird's 40 percent.
Wild pitches are deemed to be the pitcher's fault, passed balls the catcher's.
This distinction falls apart utterly when a knuckleball pitcher enters the mix. It becomes an official scorer's fiction that the pitcher is irrelevant to passed balls. (George Kottaras, a reserve catcher for the Red Sox, handled Tim Wakefield for most of the veteran's 129-plus innings; Kottaras had eight passed balls. I don't know if he can catch or not; it's just not a fair evaluation.)
Mauer had a knuckleballer, R.A. Dickey, on the staff for part of the season. I went through Dickey's appearances and found four passed balls charged to Twins catchers when he was pitching (64 innings) — one each for Morales and Redmond, two for Mauer.
Oddly enough, I found six or seven of Mauer's passed balls in those games. He had a few games, mostly blowouts, with more than one passed ball; and Dickey, of course, did most of his pitching in blowouts. Mauer's multiple PB games were generally followed by a day of rest — perhaps Ron Gardenhire took such games as a sign that Mauer needed a break.
Laird's CERA was roughly the same as the Tigers' team ERA (4.23 for Laird, 4.29 for the pitchers) — not much change. Mauer's was almost a quarter of a run lower than the team ERA (4.29 Mauer, 4.50 team.)
Laird's a good defensive catcher. He has to be to stay in the lineup, considering his weakness at the plate. He wouldn't have been a terrible Gold Glove choice.
Mauer's better. And the other managers know it.