BL, TR (Part 2:  The best left-handed hitting catchers in major league history)

Previously, we introduced the concept of the rarity of right-handed throwers who bat left-handed. Specifically, we identified how rare it has been over the past half-century for players at the defensive positions which nearly universally demand right-handed throwers (catcher, third base, second base, and shortstop) to be left-handed hitters—not switch-hitters (though they’re rare too), but straight full-on left-handed hitters, batting lefty even against southpaws.

Now we’ll examine these rare birds at each of these positions more closely, and profile the very best of the exotic breed. Let’s start with catchers.

How rare are they?

As a reminder, here’s what we saw last time, the proportion of major league catcher plate appearances taken by straight left-handed batters (not switch-hitters) from 1957 through 2006:

image
We see that over the half-century, the proportion has usually been around 20 percent. Not since the mid-1960s has it been above 30 percent. We don’t know exactly what it was before 1957, but perusal of the Baseball Encyclopedia indicates that it’s never been very high. The late 1950s/early 1960s appears to have been the peak (and we’ll be meeting most of the key figures contributing to it).

As for why this population rose as it did in that mid-century period, that’s a good question. In the discussion of last week’s article, the suggestion was forwarded that the proportion of lefty-hitting catchers may have been higher for a long time, but was abruptly reduced in the 1960s in response to the revival of the running game, as teams strove to deploy stronger-throwing catchers. While there may be an element of validity to this, the evidence doesn’t strongly support it, from any number of angles. Instead I’m inclined to think the high proportion of lefty-hitting catchers in the ’50s was largely just a coincidence.

The best

I’ve identified every left-handed hitting catcher with a career of any significance in big league history, and done my best to rank them. My criteria aren’t rigorous, and one can easily take issue with the precision of this or that ranking: the essential issues I’ve considered are total games played (at catcher, and overall), total Win Shares, and Win Shares per game, filtered through a mild degree of Time Line Adjustment.

Here are the best of the also-rans:

Honorable mentions

  Rank  Catcher           Years                G by Pos                  G   WS  WS/G
   25   Darrin Fletcher 1989-2002               C1143                 1245   93  .075
   24   Rich Gedman     1980-1992                C979                 1033   90  .087
   23   Clay Dalrymple  1960-1971               C1003                 1079   96  .089
   22   Earl Smith      1919-1930             C720, 2B1                860   94  .109
   21   Mike Lavalliere 1984-1995             C850, 3B1                879   95  .108
   20   Johnny Bassler  1913-1927           C756, 3B1, OF1             811  100  .123
   19   Milt May        1970-1984               C1034                 1192  112  .094
   18   Ivey Wingo      1911-1929       C1233, OF12, 1B6, 2B2         1327  115  .087
   17   A.J. Pierzynski 1998-2008               C1055                 1099  116  .106
   16   Ernie Whitt     1976-1991               C1246                 1328  126  .095
   15   B.J. Surhoff    1987-2005 OF991, C704, 3B316, 1B158, SS1, 2B1 2313  230  .099
   14   Joe Mauer       2004-2008                C498                  561  113  .201
   13   Terry Kennedy   1978-1991         C1378, OF28, 1B25           1491  150  .101
   12   Johnny Edwards  1961-1974               C1392                 1470  149  .101
   11   Ed Bailey       1953-1966          C1064, 1B5, OF1            1212  145  .120

It’s an interesing collection of good-but-not-great talents. The one exception to that would be Joe Mauer, who’s on a trajectory to produce a great career, but he’s got a long way to go, having not yet caught 500 games. The other active guy, A.J. Pierzynski, will probably surpass Ernie Whitt, but neither has ever been confused with a great player.

We see our friend Terry Kennedy, whom we remember last time explaining that he was guided by his father to hit left-handed, and “regrets to this day” not having become a switch-hitter instead.

Two of these guys, Clay Dalrymple and Johnny Edwards, were defensive standouts with mediocre-to-problematic bats, while the rest generally hit pretty well, but sometimes had a problem in the other half of the inning.

Perhaps the most interesting case is that of B.J. Surhoff. I debated whether to include him or not, given that he played a plurality of his games in the outfield. But he caught over 700 games, and from there he was converted to third base, another of the positions of interest in this series, so how could I leave him out? Surhoff was never great by any means, but he was good for a very long time, and in an evolving series of modes, which has made his career look a lot more impressive upon its completion than he ever appeared to be while active.

So, on to the cream of the crop.

The 10th-best left-handed hitting catcher in major league history

Smoky Burgess

Years: 1949-1967
Games: 1,691
Games by position: catcher 1,139
Win shares: 172
Win shares/game: .102

Nothing more vividly illustrates Burgess’s defensive capacity than the fact that he not only spent the last several years of his career as a pure pinch-hitting specialist, he also broke in to the major leagues in that manner, an exceptionally unusual mode of usage for a 22-year-old rookie. But in the years between, Burgess’s bat was so robust that several ball clubs combined to give him the opportunity to catch in over 1,100 games.

He was the quintessential “pure hitter”: Burgess wasn’t big, and didn’t have particular power (though through his peak years he produced home runs at a healthy rate, assisted by a cozy Crosley Field right field fence). He didn’t draw a whole lot of walks, and most emphatically he wasn’t beating out any infield hits. What he did was make line-drive contact, with astounding regularity. I never saw him hit (curse my just missing him!), but I’m sure he was the type of hitter who just made the exercise look ridiculously easy; both in style and in roly-poly build the guy I’ve always thought Burgess must have been like is Tony Gwynn.

We mentioned earlier that the 1950s appear to have been the peak era for the proportion of left-handed hitting catchers, and obviously Burgess played a part in that. The situation was amplified when Burgess was with Cincinnati, and Ed Bailey (see above) emerged as power-hitting star, forcing the Reds to deal with the exceedingly unusual “problem” of having two excellent left-handed hitting catchers on the same roster. Somehow they managed to work it out all right:

1956:

Catcher     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
Bailey    118  383   59  115    8    2   28   75   52   50 .300 .385 .551  143
Burgess    90  229   28   63   10    0   12   39   26   18 .275 .346 .476  114
TOTAL          612   87  178   18    2   40  114   78   68 .291 .371 .523  132


1957:

Catcher     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
Bailey    122  391   54  102   15    2   20   48   73   69 .261 .377 .463  119
Burgess    90  205   29   58   14    1   14   39   24   16 .283 .353 .566  137
TOTAL          596   83  160   29    3   34   87   97   85 .268 .369 .497  125


1958:

Catcher     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
Bailey    112  360   39   90   23    1   11   59   47   61 .250 .337 .411   93
Burgess    99  251   28   71   12    1    6   31   22   20 .283 .343 .410   94
TOTAL          611   67  161   35    2   17   90   69   81 .264 .339 .411   93

Let’s give The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book the last classic words on Smoky:

Smoky Burgess was fat. Not baseball fat like Mickey Lolich or Early Wynn. But FAT fat. Like the mailman or your Uncle Dwight. Putsy Fat. Slobby Fat. Just Plain Fat. In fact I would venture to say that Smoky Burgess was probably the fattest man ever to play professional baseball …. The sight of him standing in the batters’ box, his voluminous avoirdupois impinging on a full 45 per cent of the natural strike zone, his stubby arms flailing out in that curiously hitched and compacted swing which made him look for all the world like a spastic rhinoceros beating a rug, and then tootling on down the first base line as another of his seeing-eye bleeders wends its way through a befuddled infield, is one that those who have been gifted to witness it are not likely to forget.

The ninth-best left-handed hitting catcher in major league history

Mike Scioscia

Years: 1980-1992
Games: 1,441
Games by position: catcher 1,395
Win shares: 168
Win shares/game: .117

His run as manager of the Angels has been so long and so successful that the memory and image of Scioscia the player is being crowded out. I strongly suspect a large proportion of younger fans are barely aware that Scioscia was a big-league player at all. But he was a doggone good big-league player; not quite a star, perhaps, but close to it, and his on-field presence as a player was virtually identical to that which he’s forged as a manager: massive, solid, poised, determined, imperturbable.

Though he was an impressive physical specimen, at the plate Scioscia didn’t leverage his strength into power; indeed he hit rather like a slappy 160 pound middle infielder, with an extreme focus on contact, hitting the ball up the middle, getting on base. The result wasn’t a bad offensive player, but nothing special or particularly memorable either.

But defensively Scioscia leveraged his strength in a manner that was exquisitely memorable. Here the notion of Scioscia’s imperturbability takes on a vividly physical dimension: one of the dictionary definitions of the term reads “incapable of being upset,” and of course it’s using “upset” in its figurative, emotional sense. But think of it in its entirely physical sense, as in “knocked over.”

On the tag play at the plate, Scioscia was absolutely, positively incapable of being upset, knocked over, or in any sense budged. He was the Rock of Gibraltar, El Capitan, Stone Mountain. Race straight on into him at top speed, I don’t care how big you were, you were going to bounce off like a tennis ball against a concrete bridge abutment.

It was uncanny. Apparently there was a loophole in the fine print of the laws of physics: the Mike Scioscia Exemption. He was big, but he wasn’t enormous; there were and are plenty of other catchers of equal or greater mass. And many of the baserunners smashing into him were of equal or greater mass, and they of course had the full benefit of momentum behind them—or at least they were supposed to.

It didn’t matter. You could be Frank Howard flying along at the speed of Willie Wilson, and when you ran into Scioscia at the plate, you were going to be violently expelled backward, awkwardly crumpling to the dirt, where you would writhe for a while before finally gathering yourself and limping toward the dugout, and probably to the DL. Meanwhile you’d be out, as Scioscia had casually tossed the ball back to the pitcher, making no indication of even noticing that he’d been touched.

In my more than 40 years of closely observing baseball, there are truly very few skills or attributes of players that I can honestly say are uniquely the best. There are lots of guys I’ve watched who would compete for the title of most powerful at the plate, or most blazing fastball, or most scintillating outfield arm, or most lightning fast around the bases. But there are only two who did a certain thing so amazingly that all I can say to fans who never had the privilege of witnessing it themselves is, “You’re going to have to take my word on this. It was better than anything you’ve ever seen.”

Those two are these:

{exp:list_maker}Bill Mazeroski turning the double play
Mike Scioscia blocking the plate {/exp:list_maker}

The eighth-best left-handed hitting catcher in major league history

Darren Daulton

Years: 1983-1997
Games: 1,161
Games by position: catcher 965, outfield 78, first base 44
Win shares: 159
Win shares/game: .137

Daulton had one of those careers that just never seemed to be able to make up its mind which direction it wanted to go.

He spent his first several years in the majors as a light-hitting backup catcher. Finally, in his fifth season, Daulton was awarded the Phillies’ first-string catcher job, but he continued to hit poorly.

The next season, at age 28, Daulton hit well, at last. He wasn’t sensational, but he was very good. Then in the year after that, bothered by injuries sustained in a car accident, Daulton’s hitting fell back to the doldrums.

And then in the year after that, now hugely bulked up through weight training (and let’s just say there mi-i-ight have been some chemical boost involved), Daulton suddenly broke out as a tremendous-hitting catcher. He would hold that status for a couple of years, before being nagged by chronic knee trouble.

Finally, perhaps just because it was the one thing he hadn’t done yet, Daulton finished his career as an outfielder-first baseman.

The seventh-best left-handed hitting catcher in major league history

John Roseboro

Years: 1957-1970
Games: 1,585
Games by position: catcher 1,476, first base 6, outfield 5, third base 2
Win shares: 181
Win shares/game: .114

A third baseman as an amateur, converted to catcher in the minor leagues, Roseboro was quick and agile: his triples and stolen bases columns for the first half of his big league career don’t resemble those typically produced by catchers.

Roseboro’s hitting wasn’t bad, but it was kind of up and down. His strongest asset was his defense, which was first-rate in every regard, earning him two Gold Gloves. On a Dodgers team that excelled at Deadball-style “small ball” tactics, Roseboro’s smart, assertive work behind the plate was a cornerstone of their success. Through a period in which the Dodgers were annually leading the National League in stolen bases, often pilfering well over 100, the most steals Roseboro ever permitted in a season was 42. In his ten seasons as the regular Los Angeles catcher (1958-67), opponents stole a grand total of 297 bases against Roseboro, while he threw out 250, a remarkable 46% cut-down rate.

Discussion of Roseboro frequently focuses on the nasty 1965 rhubarb in which Juan Marichal whacked him on the head with a bat. Though that was an assuredly ugly incident, many seem to make a bigger deal of it than is warranted: Roseboro wasn’t significantly injured (he was back in the lineup within three days), and he and Marichal became genuine friends. The appropriate way in which to remember Roseboro isn’t for that, but is instead for what a fine ballplayer he was.

The sixth-best left-handed hitting catcher in major league history

Tom Haller

Years: 1961-1972
Games: 1,294
Games by position: catcher 1,199, outfield 11, first base 4
Win shares: 179
Win shares/game: .138

At six-foot-four, Haller was very tall for a catcher. He was also very tall for a quarterback, which is what he’d been at the University of Illinois before choosing baseball and signing with the Giants’ organization.

The Giants had high expectations for the big 21-year-old, assigning him directly to triple-A in his first pro season. But he disappointed, producing only so-so hitting results, not just that year but over the next two as well, even when demoted to double-A.

Nonetheless after three years of not-bad-but-not-impressive minor league performance, the Giants decided to give Haller a chance with the big club: he opened the 1961 season as their starting catcher. But he went 4-for-30, and the Giants thought better of it, sending Haller back to the minors and executing a late-April trade to acquire our friend Ed Bailey.

This time in triple-A Haller’s hitting wasn’t so-so, it was downright bad. The Giants called him back up and gave him a some more starts in the majors but he continued to struggle; they sent him back down and he struggled some more in the minor leagues, and wound up the season warming the triple-A bench. Overall, majors and minors combined in 1961, Haller hit just .188 with six home runs in 223 at-bats. He would be 25 years old in 1962, and as he’d failed to develop, it appeared that the Giants had a 6-foot-4-inch turkey on their hands.

But ’twas not the case. In ’62 the Giants gave Haller the role of Bailey’s backup. But in this season Haller for the first time hit with the authority that had long been expected of him, and as the year progressed he elbowed the established veteran Bailey aside for an increasing portion of playing time; the two would settle into a co-equal job share.

For the second time in his career, Bailey was engaged in an exceptionally atypical situation: left-handed hitting catchers are, as we know, rare, yet first the Reds and now the Giants had not one but two, simultaneously hitting up a storm. The San Francisco arrangement lasted over the two full seasons of 1962 and ’63, and was it amazing, or what:

1962:

Catcher     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
Bailey     96  254   32   59    9    1   17   45   42   42 .232 .351 .476  121
Haller     99  272   53   71   13    1   18   55   51   59 .261 .384 .515  141
TOTAL          526   85  130   22    2   35  100   93  101 .247 .368 .496  131


1963:

Catcher     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
Bailey    105  308   41   81    8    0   21   68   50   64 .263 .366 .494  147
Haller     98  298   32   76    8    1   14   44   34   45 .255 .332 .430  119
TOTAL          606   73  157   16    1   35  112   84  109 .259 .350 .463  134

The Giants finally traded Bailey, and Haller would step forward as a first-stringer for the next seven years, consistently among the better catchers in the game.

The fifth-best left-handed hitting catcher in major league history

Tim McCarver

Years: 1959-1980
Games: 1,909
Games by position: catcher 1,387, first base 103, outfield 15, third base 6
Win shares: 204
Win shares/game: .107

Irritating though his long-winded, self-referential commentaries (and tiresome puns) may often be, it is the case that McCarver’s combined career as a player and broadcaster—which completed its 50th continuous year in 2008—is among the most remarkable in the history of the sport. Being the regular receiver through the heart of Bob Gibson’s scintillating peak, and then the “personal catcher” to Steve Carlton for several of that all-time great’s most successful seasons, are a couple of pretty cool bullet points on the resumé. McCarver was never a great player, but he was a very good one for a very long time.

And it’s also the case that before his on-air style devolved into self-parody, McCarver was an excellent color man: erudite, insightful, and witty, he was anything but your typical ex-jock. While his entire body of work has, well, not sustained that standard, very, very few individuals have gained his breadth of baseball experience and knowledge.

The fourth-best left-handed hitting catcher in major league history

Darrell Porter

Years: 1971-1987
Games: 1,782
Games by position: catcher 1,506, first base 5
Win shares: 222
Win shares/game: .125

He met several of the conditions tending to contribute to an underrated player (a broad-based offensive profile with little emphasis in the triple crown categories, almost no “black ink” of any kind, playing in cities generally outside of the media spotlight), and Porter was indeed significantly overlooked for nearly his entire career. While he did attain some national renown by playing in the post-season multiple times for a couple of different franchises, the attribute for which Porter became best-known was his struggle with substance abuse (the condition which eventually cost him his life).

Yet Porter was a terrific player, far better than his rather modest trophy case would suggest (four All-Star teams, two distant MVP mentions). He suffered one severe off-season in mid-career (1976), but otherwise was generally consistent, durable, and remarkably productive. While Porter will almost certainly never be elected to the Hall of Fame, he’s clearly superior to several catchers enshrined in Cooperstown (not that this in itself should justify Porter’s election, but still). I was a bit surprised that the Hall of Merit didn’t elect him.

How about this …

So far we’ve encountered zero Hall of Famers, but the next guy and the two following him are not only Hall of Famers, they’re all-time greats. They’re on the short list of anybody’s accounting of the best catchers in history; Bill James, for instance, had all three within his top seven in his New Historical Baseball Abstract. That would be three out of seven, or 43%, in other words far higher than the overall proportion of left-handed hitting catchers.

I don’t know what this means. Most likely nothing at all. But it’s quite interesting nonetheless.

The third-best left-handed hitting catcher in major league history

Mickey Cochrane

Years: 1925-1937
Games: 1,482
Games by position: catcher 1,451, outfield 1
Win shares: 275
Win shares/game: .186

This guy simply had nothing resembling a weakness. He was good at some things, and great at others, and less than good at nothing at all. Oh, okay, as a baserunner he was merely average, but for a catcher that’s good.

Cochrane is a particular player I’d just love to have had the opportunity to watch. He was one of those guys for whom there’s really never been a comparable talent; the closest we can envision him is something along the lines of Mark Grace playing catcher like Ivan Rodriguez. How cool would that be?

The second-best left-handed hitting catcher in major league history

Bill Dickey

Years: 1928-1946
Games: 1,789
Games by position: catcher 1,708
Win shares: 314
Win shares/game: .176

A more recognizable “type” than Cochrane, Dickey was a bit bigger, not nearly as quick, not as exceptional defensively, but a very damn good player: a first-rate contact hitter with pull-hitting power (Yankee Stadium maximally amplified his home run rates; two-thirds were hit at home), consistent and durable for a mighty long time. The only reason I rank Dickey ahead of Cochrane is for career length, but in any case the quality difference between them is negligible; I could easily be persuaded to switch them around. They were both tremendous talents, and the fact that they came along in the same league at almost the same time (both batting left-handed!) is one of the delightful surprises of history.

The best left-handed hitting catcher in major league history

Yogi Berra

Years: 1946-1965
Games: 2,120
Games by position: catcher 1,699, outfield 260, first base 2, third base 1
Win shares: 375
Win shares/game: .177

There are so many ways in which this exceptionally great baseball player is fascinating to ponder. How about we consider this one for today: what a perfect match Berra and baseball were.

It’s quite easy to imagine almost any other all-time great position player excelling in a different sport, under the proper circumstances: Honus Wagner or Ty Cobb or Rogers Hornsby or Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig or Ted Williams or Stan Musial or Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays or Johnny Bench or Mike Schmidt or Rickey Henderson or Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez or Albert Pujols or I don’t know, you name who, any one of them you can plausibly, easily see as a star in football and/or basketball and/or hockey.

But Yogi Berra? No way. Phenomenal athlete though he was, his 5-foot-8, 195-pound body, lacking foot speed, wasn’t going to allow him to excel in any other sport than baseball. Moreover, his unique combination of tremendous strengths and hard limitations meant that the only possible position he could have mastered within baseball was catcher. How fortunate we are that the optimal outlet for Berra’s amazing-but-narrowly-channeled athleticism was available to him (and better yet, that he was able to play in the ideal home ballpark; he hit 210 homers in Yankee Stadium, and 148 on the road).

I’m sure there are others, but the only guy who comes to mind as a similarly ideal match between such a rare combination of skills/attributes and the challenges/rewards of baseball is Joe Morgan.

Next installment:

The best left-handed hitting third basemen in major league history.

References & Resources
Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book, Little, Brown, Boston: 1973, p. 110.

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