Piazza vs. Bench vs. Pudgeby Sky Kalkman
March 12, 2009
In case you missed it, Sean Smith introduced his historical WAR database last week, providing seasonal wins-above-replacement values for every significant player since 1955 (the retrosheet era). Since he was kind enough to include a measure of catcher defense (in addition to almost every other piece of data you might want, such as baserunning and outfield arms), we can take a look at one of many dead-horse debates:
Who was the better catcher? Mr. All-Hit Mike Piazza, Mr. All-Field Pudge Rodriguez, or Mr. A Lot of Each Johnny Bench?
Let's start with their hitting, shown in the graph below by sorting each player's seasonal batting runs above average from best to worst, left to right:
Piazza was definitely the best hitter of the three, and his 72 RAA season in 1997 was simply amazing (.362/.431/.638 with 40 home runs.) He had nine seasons at least 25 runs above average, while Bench had four, and Pudge, two. In total, Piazza accumulated 403 career hitting runs above average, to Bench's 245 and Pudge's 105. I should note that runs were scarcer (and thus more valuable) in Bench's heyday, and that Piazza rates 30 runs worse than either other player in baserunning over their careers.
Of course, I doubt anyone is surprised by the above results. We all know Piazza was a great hitter. It's his defensive skills that have always been questioned, and the reason why Bench is often taken to be the better overall player. And Pudge, well, some have claimed his cannon arm can darn near cure cancer. Here are their seasonal defensive runs above average as a catcher, again sorted from best to worst, left to right:
Nothing too surprising in those results, yet again. Piazza had just one season where he rated as an above average catcher, while Pudge had eight worth at least 10 runs above average and those four seasons at +19 to +25 runs are ridiculous. Bench, again, finished in the middle (+97 career catcher RAA), but this time was much closer to Pudge (+152 career catcher RAA) than Piazza (-61 career catcher RAA).
Let's put it together. And not just the hitting and catcher defense, but the baserunning, the GIDP avoidance, the position adjustments (Piazza and Bench spent some time out from behind the plate), the playing time, everything. Here's how the three players compare in seasonal WAR (wins above replacement) over their careers, according to Sean's calculations:
Hmm, all three rate pretty similarly, actually. From their third to 10th best seasons, all three players are indistinguishable by total value. Pudge lacks the dominant nine WAR seasons of Piazza and Bench, but the tail end of his career is better than both (and is still going). Bench hangs on to Pudge's long term pace when Piazza drops out at their 11th best seasons, but eventually falls off at season 14.
I don't want to tell you who had the better career—although I will mention that I prefer Bench's based on his peak being higher than Pudge's and his ability to hang near the four WAR level for more seasons than Piazza—because the data explains why the Piazza vs. Bench debate remains so fierce: the offensive advantages of Piazza exactly counter the defensive advantage of Bench. Yes, exactly. Piazza had 158 more hitting runs than Bench, while Bench had 158 more catching runs than Piazza. And Pudge? He has nearly the same career WAR total as Bench, thanks to his ability to remain behind the plate longer. When Bench tried his hand at other positions, especially at third base in 1982, he wasn't too successful.
Moral of the story? A run on offense is a run on defense, and the Piazza vs. Bench debate is as valid as chocolate vs. vanilla. I'll take both, thanks.
Sky Kalkman manages and writes for Beyond the Box Score, a baseball community for saber-slanted discussion.
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