The San Diego Padres recently hired Ted Simmons as their bench coach for 2009. Over at Ducksnorts, I quipped that if they could turn the clock back 30 years, the Padres would have their catching problem solved as well. One of my readers took it a step further and wondered why Simmons never got more serious consideration for the Hall of Fame.
It’s a good question and one that’s worthy of at least attempting to answer. Rather than run Simmons through the Keltner Test, I thought we might try something a little different and maybe more in-depth.
The St. Louis Cardinals selected Simmons out of Southfield (Mich.) High School with the 10th overall pick of the 1967 draft. He was the third catcher taken in that draft; the two ahead of him (John Jones, Rangers, No. 5 and Mike Nunn, Angels, No. 9) didn’t reach the big leagues.
Simmons was in St. Louis by the end of 1968, at age 18. He had spent the bulk of that season playing for Modesto of the California League, where he hit .331 with 30 doubles and 28 home runs. The following year at Tulsa of the American Association, Simmons hit .317/.365/.495 with 33 doubles and 16 home runs—not too shabby for a teenager in Triple-A.
After another cup of coffee with the big club at the end of ’69, Simmons spent most of the following season in St. Louis. He backed up Joe Torre that year, but took over behind the dish in ’71, pushing Torre (another who deserves more serious consideration for the Hall of Fame based solely on his hitting exploits—obviously Torre will get in anyway for other reasons) to third base.
Upon moving into the starting lineup, Simmons almost immediately became an offensive beast. Here are some pertinent numbers for his first decade as a full-time player in the big leagues:
Because Simmons occasionally played first base or the outfield, I’ve broken out the number of games he caught (represented as GC in the table) from the total number he played. We’ll use this a little later in comparisons with other Hall of Fame catchers. For now, just know that it’s there.
A few quick observations based on the above:
- Simmons caught 130-plus games seven times in those 10 years; he broke the 140-game threshold four times and the 150-game mark twice.
- During the entire stretch, he averaged 135 games caught per year, accounting for just under 92 percent of all games played.
- He had 600 or more plate appearances in seven straight seasons, from 1972 to 1978.
- His OPS+ was 114 or better in each of those 10 years. What is a 114 OPS+? In today’s game, that’s Dmitri Young. If you’re looking for Hall of Famers, it’s Ryne Sandberg. (Robin Yount and Gary Carter are at 115.) Remember, this is Simmons’ low-water mark over a decade.
The ’80s were less kind to Simmons, who had been worked extremely hard the previous decade at a demanding position. Still, he managed to put together a few decent seasons:
Clearly this is a different player than the one who dominated in his youth. The only strong seasons in which he caught more games than not came in ’82 and ’83. One of those would have been a middle-of-the-pack performance during his prime (and even that required him to play a then-career-low percentage of games at catcher), while the other would have just missed the cut.
That said, as decline years go, this isn’t damning. His ’81 and ’84 seasons were awful, and I’m at a loss to understand why he hung around with the Braves for those final three years, but still, better players have aged worse.
Okay, there’s some raw data. Now that we know a little about Simmons, let’s look at some other catchers, shall we?
Here are the career numbers of catchers (50 percent or more games at the position) voted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA on the basis of their playing exploits (i.e., no Branch Rickey, Rick Ferrell, Wilbert Robinson, et al.). The metrics are the same as above, with Bill James’ ranking (through 2000) thrown in for good measure. Players are presented by OPS+ in descending order.
Cochrane, Dickey and Campanella were full-time catchers, and all were studs. Hartnett, Fisk and Carter saw their career percentages of games caught hover around 90; Hartnett put up big numbers, while Fisk and Carter played forever. The rest of these guys spent at least 15 percent of their time somewhere other than behind the plate.
Okay, how about some of the backstops who aren’t in the Hall of Fame? We’ll limit ourselves to guys who roughly meet the minimum requirements established above (5,000 PA, 115 OPS+):
Piazza is a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Tenace and Tettleton are in the Bresnahan class of catchers, and neither has a chance of so much as sniffing Cooperstown. If Posada can put together a few more good seasons (tough duty for a 37-year-old), he has a chance.
As for the rest? Schang was a less accomplished Fisk, Munson a less accomplished Campanella, Burgess a less accomplished Tettleton, and Cooper a less accomplished Schang. That’s a gross oversimplification, of course, but we’re just trying to get a general idea of how these pieces all fit together.
(As an aside, it’s amusing to note that Simmons finished his career with exactly as many Win Shares as the man he replaced behind the plate, Torre, who ranks No. 11 among catchers in the Historical Abstract.)
Anyway, let’s consolidate and clean up those last two tables. Here is the list of catchers in big-league history to amass 300 or more career Win Shares (sorted in descending order by—you guessed it—Win Shares):
This gives us a better sense of the argument for Simmons. Only six catchers in history have more Win Shares. Quantitatively, Simmons is right there with Carter.
Unfortunately, this also gives us a better sense of the argument against Simmons. His percentage of games caught is well below that of the others. In that regard, he’s more like Bresnahan—and probably every bit as deserving of enshrinement, which is to say… maybe, maybe not.
At the same time, if we move beyond percentages and look at raw totals, we see that Simmons caught 1,771 games, which puts him ahead of all but three of the Hall of Famers (and he’s barely behind Hartnett). That is no small achievement.
Yes, Simmons spent a lot of time at other positions, but how much did this help his offensive numbers? As Milwaukee’s full-time designated hitter in 1984, he managed to accumulate just one Win Share. That’s hardly damning evidence that he padded his offensive stats by moving out from behind the dish.
Would it have been better for Simmons to pad his defensive stats by remaining behind the plate after he had ceased being a useful hitter? Possibly. Carter, for example, caught 534 games over his final six seasons, during which he contributed almost nothing offensively (.234/.299/.366 in more than 2,000 plate appearances) and nobody has a real problem with that.
Simmons versus Carter
Because Carter seems to be the closest analog to Simmons, we’ll use him as our measuring stick. Simmons played 21 seasons, Carter 19. Simmons received a total of 20 plate appearances during his first two years, while Carter received 29 in his first, so I’ve eliminated those from the following table, which presents individual seasons for both players in descending order of OPS+.
Simmons is ahead of Carter every step of the way until we get to their 14th-best season, when both check in at 93. This isn’t entirely fair because Simmons played one more season and essentially gets to discard his 61 OPS+ in a head-to-head comparison.
One way to help compensate for this is by examining the number of plate appearances each player spent at each “level” of OPS+. Okay, then, let’s do that:
|PA is pretty self-explanatory. Pct is the percentage of all career plate appearances that get credited to a particular level of production.|
A couple of items stand out here:
- Simmons performed at his best for about as long as Carter did his worst.
- Carter’s “mid-range” is a bit longer than Simmons'; looking only at 111-140 OPS+ seasons, Simmons checks in at 50.9, while Carter is at 57.9.
The main takeaway for me is that if we’re going to give Carter credit for remaining a full-time catcher longer than Simmons, then we also should penalize Carter for being lousy in some of those years. Yeah, Simmons had a miserable 1984, but how was Carter helping the Expos in ’76, or the Mets in ’87 or ’88? At least most of Simmons’ bad years came when he wasn’t getting a lot of playing time.
This is all well and good, if a bit theoretical. What did the only folks’ whose opinion on the subject matters, i.e., the voters, have to say when put to the task? To put it bluntly, they weren’t the least bit impressed with Simmons’ candidacy. He received 17 votes (3.7 percent) in 1994, his first year of eligibility, and subsequently was bounced from the ballot for further consideration.
That same year, Steve Carlton was the only player selected for enshrinement. Orlando Cepeda, Phil Niekro, Tony Perez, Don Sutton, and Bruce Sutter (whose election still boggles the imagination) all fell short but eventually made it into Cooperstown. Here is the list of players that aren’t in the Hall of Fame but that received more votes than Simmons in his only year of eligibility:
Now, even granting that no man is the sum of his production, how were guys like Garvey, Oliva, Concepcion, and Guidry allowed to linger on the ballot for years while Simmons was dismissed with a wave of the hand? Take Concepcion, for example. His name first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in ’94, same as Simmons; unlike Simmons, however, Concepcion continued to receive support for the next 14 years, receiving nine to 17 percent of the vote in any given year.
Heck, he picked up 16.2% of the vote in 2008, his final year of eligibility. Concepcion was a fine baseball player, but why were 15 years of debate needed to determine that yes, in fact, he should be kicked off the island? Wouldn’t that time and energy have been better spent making the case for more worthy candidates such as Santo, Allen, and yes, Ted Simmons?
From page 375 of the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract:
An exceptional hitter, an underrated defensive catcher. Simmons was on OK catcher his first five years in the league; Bill Deane has studied the records at great length, and demonstrated that Simmons threw out an above-average percentage of opposing base stealers in his prime seasons. But the Cardinals weren’t a very good team in those years; they spent most of the time fighting about something and criticizing one another for their failures, and then, too, Johnny Bench set an impossible standard for a young catcher…
Deane, incidentally, looked at actual and potential Hall of Famers some years ago using Win Shares and found that Simmons falls in the general vicinity of guys like Reggie Smith, Graig Nettles, Jack Clark, Jose Cruz, Willie Randolph, and Al Oliver — fine players, all, but not worthy of Cooperstown. Of course, none of them ever caught 1771 games.
There’s also some good discussion about Simmons’ qualifications over at Baseball Think Factory’s Hall of Merit.
Based on the above, I’m not sure that Simmons belongs in the Hall of Fame. I’m not sure that he doesn’t either. My instinct tells me that if Carter belongs, then so probably does Simmons. It’s not a strong instinct, though, and I’d be receptive to hearing further arguments from either side. What I am certain about, however, is that Simmons is an eminently worthy candidate who deserved far more serious consideration than he ever received.
References & Resources
Sources consulted include the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Win Shares, Hall of Merit, Baseball-Reference, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Thanks to Pat Styles for inspiring this line of inquiry.