The path to Cooperstown: the catchersby Dan McLaughlin
January 30, 2009
For my fourth annual THT column on position players and the Hall of Fame, I’m taking an in-depth look at a group not represented on this year’s BBWAA ballot and with only one post-1920 representative on the Veterans’ Committee ballot (Joe Torre, who got just 29.7 percent of the vote, well short of the 75 percent of required): the catchers. This column, Part 1 of 2, will focus on the catchers with primes of eight years or more—the core of any Hall of Fame discussion—and Part 2 will deal with the rest.
As with my prior looks at slugging outfielders/first basemen, middle infielders and leadoff men, I’ll be presenting offensive statistical profiles of these players with three adjustments:
1) I focus on the block of "prime" seasons of a player’s career, rather than career totals or "peak" seasons;
2) within those seasons, I adjust batting stats for offensive context; and
3) I present those adjusted batting lines in per-162-team-games notation.
I’m also introducing something different for the catchers: context-adjusted defensive stolen base numbers for the post-1956 catchers (baseball-reference.com has data on stolen bases and caught stealing against catchers beginning only in 1956). You can examine my offensive method in detail as discussed in the column on sluggers, but I will review it here briefly before moving on to the defensive data.
My view of the Hall of Fame is that it’s fundamentally about the stars of the game, and accordingly that the core of a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy should focus on the years he was a star. Thus, at least in evaluating non-pitchers, the key inquiry for the Hall of Fame should be neither "peak value" (how good the guy was at his very best) nor "career value" (the sum total of his career) but "prime value." Prime value is, roughly, looking at the number of years a guy had when he was a legitimate star and how good he was in those years.
In other words, when I look at a potential Hall of Famer, the first question I ask is, "How many seasons did this guy have where he was a Hall of Fame quality ballplayer?" And the second is, "How good was he in those years—just around or above the line, or way above it?"
Now, I wouldn’t argue that you should throw peak or career value entirely out the window, but both have their flaws. Peak value really doesn’t capture the way most of us think about the Hall: as a shrine to a player’s sustained accomplishments of a period of years, not his very best day. Career value, on the other hand, has two drawbacks.
One is that that looking only at career value ends up putting too much emphasis on which guy played passably well when he was 38 and playing out the string as a part-timer, rather than the years when he was doing the things we’ll remember him for. I’m a big believer that you don’t play your way out of the Hall in your old age, and neither should you get inordinate credit for padding the career totals with mediocre or part-time seasons. This is a particular issue with the catchers.
Second, baseball is played in seasons. If you look just at career totals, you miss that—you miss the fact that, at least for a star player, two seasons of 600 plate appearances really are worth more than three seasons of 400 PA at the same level of production, because the 600-PA seasons move the team closer to winning championships. In-season durability is a very important measurement of value, as it minimizes the amount of playing time that needs to be given to weak second-string catchers.
As a result, what I have tried to do here is excerpt out the consecutive series of seasons, ranging here from four to 17 years, when each guy was a star and weigh that chunk against other guys’ primes. As you will see, I do look in some cases at the years beyond the prime years, for purposes of distinguishing between the catchers who tacked on extra seasons as part-time contributors and those who just stopped hitting or stopped playing. But I zero in mainly on the prime.
I varied slightly the criteria for picking players and seasons over the first three columns, so I’ll flag here what I did differently this time:
1. In prior columns I defined "prime" seasons—or seasons listed under the "other" column—as seasons at a certain level of OPS+ over a certain number of plate appearances. For the primes here, I gave myself more latitude with the catchers, since catching careers tend to be a little different, but essentially I tried to isolate the part that let each guy put his best foot forward. For the "other" column with the catchers, I tallied up the non-"prime" seasons when the player had 500 or more plate appearances with an OPS+ of 95 or better, or 400 PA with an OPS+ of 100 or better, or 300 PA/110 OPS+, or 250 PA/120/OPS+ (I went down as far as 250 because it’s common for older catchers to become productive half-time players).
2. Previously, I presented two separate charts for players with a prime of eight or more years and those of, say, five to seven years to avoid mixing apples and oranges. With the catchers, I ended up looking at enough guys with really short primes—so many talented backstops burn out so quickly—that I break the charts in three rather than two: the "long prime" group of guys whose primes lasted eight seasons or more (in one case as many as 17 years, but most are eight to 12), a second group of six or seven-year primes, and a "short prime" group of guys I evaluate over four or five years (unsurprisingly, nobody on the third list is a serious Hall of Fame candidate, although a few active catchers are included for the interest of the reader).
3. As with the tablesetters, I included three catchers here (Ray Schalk Wally Schang, and Steve O’Neill) whose careers straddled 1920. But catchers who played their whole primes before 1920—including Hall of Famers Buck Ewing, King Kelly, Roger Bresnahan and Wilbert Robinson—are not discussed here, as they really aren’t a useful yardstick for evaluating contemporary Hall of Fame candidates who played in the lively ball era. Regardless of the merits of comparing players from that era with sophisticated statistical analysis, the shape of their statistics is simply too different to make them meaningful yardsticks in real-world arguments about putting modern players in the Hall.
On the whole, I looked at 69 catchers, sweeping broadly precisely to give some indication both of the rarity of the players at the top of the pyramid and to give context to the relative ordinariness of the guys further down who are surrounded by people you don’t think of as immortals. The list consists of 12 Hall of Famers (one of whom, Al Lopez, is in as a manager), one guy on the Veterans Committee ballot (Torre), seven active catchers, four who recently retired and have yet to join the ballot, and 45 who are off the writers' ballot, most of whom I assume won’t be revisited by the Veterans. The last list includes Todd Hundley, who would have been on the ballot this year but didn’t make the cut under the new rules for eliminating marginal candidates who meet the minimum 10-year eligibility.
The first caution I would emphasize here is that this is just a study of batting stats and of one quantifiable aspect of a catcher’s defense. I have scrapped my rough, seat-of-the-pants defensive grading system from the prior columns, which didn’t add anything analytical but simply congealed conventional wisdom for convenience.
The batting percentages here (batting average, slugging average, on-base percentage) are translated statistics. You can read a detailed explanation of the method in the slugging outfielders article; for consistency with the earlier pieces I used the 2005 National League as the average "season." All stats are from Baseball-Reference.com. (Unlike Baseball Reference’s own translation system, I translate based on differentials in league Avg/Slg/OBP rather than runs-per-game, thus reducing the distorting influence of variation over time in the volume of unearned runs). The essential idea of translations is to show what a player’s performance in Year X and Park X was equivalent to in Year and Park Y, not to project what a guy would have hit under other circumstances, which is unknowable.
The other offensive numbers—plate appearances, steals and caught stealing, double plays—are actual, not translated (I included base stealing and GIDP figures because they’re the two main components of offense that aren’t captured by Slugging and OBP), but are averaged per 162-game season, so as to put players whose careers were in the 154-game era or were interrupted by strikes on a common footing. (Thus, 1981 is counted as two-thirds of a season in the averaging). As you’ll see below, offensive stolen base data doesn’t add much anyway to the evaluation of the catchers, only three of whom averaged double figures in steals.
The "Rate" column in the chart is simply (translated Slg)*( translated OBP)*( translated PA). It’s not any kind of scientific formula, just a handy metric to organize the data on the table by the three main variables. I prefer multiplying rather than adding slugging and OBP (as is done with OPS), since a single point of OBP is worth more than a single point of slugging. As you can see, this metric organizes the data very strongly in favor of guys who were very durable in-season and against guys with low OBPs.
Of course, besides not counting defense, the "Rate" metric doesn’t count the baserunning and double play numbers on the chart, so don’t treat the rankings as holy writ. But they’re a good rule of thumb.
With those lengthy preliminaries out of the way, let’s run the offensive numbers, starting with the longer-prime guys as well as the seven-year peak numbers for Bench and Berra:
Catcher Yrs Oth Ages GC/Yr PA Avg Slg OBP SB CS DP Rate Status Mike Piazza 10 #4 24-33 135 590 .319 .572 .379 2 2 18 127.9 N/Y Joe Torre 8 #6 22-29 80 599 .301 .503 .366 1 2 19 110.2 Vets Ted Simmons 10 #3 21-30 136 613 .298 .497 .360 1 3 18 109.8 Off Johnny Bench 12 1 20-31 134 603 .269 .520 .341 5 3 13 107.0 IN Mickey Cochrane 9 1 24-32 132 581 .291 .482 .382 6 4 na 107.0 IN Gary Carter 10 #1 23-32 144 614 .273 .506 .344 3 3 13 106.9 IN Yogi Berra 12 #3 23-34 131 592 .286 .517 .336 2 2 10 102.9 IN Jorge Posada 8 1 28-35 136 574 .275 .474 .377 2 2 15 102.5 Act Bill Dickey 9 3 24-32 126 540 .294 .514 .356 2 2 *9 98.8 IN Thurman Munson 9 0 23-31 130 601 .300 .457 .351 5 5 16 96.5 Off Ivan Rodriguez 9 4 24-32 125 559 .303 .491 .340 9 4 18 93.3 Act Jason Kendall 8 1 23-30 135 601 .296 .398 .368 17 8 11 88.0 Act Bill Freehan 8 1 25-32 117 530 .274 .468 .354 1 2 11 87.9 Off Lance Parrish 8 1 23-30 124 563 .264 .489 .319 3 4 14 87.7 Off Carlton Fisk 14 5 24-37 114 499 .268 .488 .339 8 3 10 82.4 IN Gabby Hartnett 14 2 23-36 113 452 .274 .505 .349 2 *4 *14 79.7 IN Manny Sanguillen 8 0 25-32 123 541 .306 .445 .330 4 4 15 79.5 Off Darrell Porter 11 0 21-31 116 499 .250 .440 .355 2 3 8 77.9 Off Ernie Lombardi 11 ^3 24-34 109 443 .298 .500 .352 1 *0 *21 77.9 IN Wally Schang 9 5 24-32 88 451 .280 .456 .379 11 *6 na 77.9 Off Javy Lopez 10 #1 24-33 116 472 .282 .483 .326 1 2 14 74.3 N/Y Walker Cooper ^9 0 27/36 107 447 .288 .513 .324 2 *1 14 74.3 Off Del Crandall 8 0 23-30 131 509 .261 .444 .318 3 2 14 71.9 Off Tom Haller 9 0 25-33 119 453 .263 .454 .347 2 3 6 71.3 Off Sherm Lollar 10 0 25-34 117 478 .261 .432 .343 2 1 14 70.9 Off Rick Ferrell 8 0 25-32 129 522 .266 .386 .350 2 3 na 70.5 IN Terry Steinbach 10 0 25-34 109 474 .278 .440 .326 2 2 14 68.1 Off Tim McCarver 9 0 21-29 118 475 .277 .425 .334 5 4 7 67.4 Off Ed Bailey 8 0 25-32 109 438 .254 .443 .347 2 2 8 67.4 Off Mike Scioscia 8 0 25-32 126 465 .270 .400 .356 3 3 10 66.2 Off Mike Lieberthal 8 0 25-32 110 453 .270 .438 .326 1 1 12 64.5 N/Y Benito Santiago 10 1 22-31 123 491 .259 .432 .295 8 6 12 62.5 N/Y Ray Schalk 10 0 20-29 141 521 .246 .363 .325 16 *9 na 61.5 IN Smokey Burgess 12 0 25-36 88 371 .295 .464 .355 1 1 8 61.2 Off Johnny Roseboro 10 0 25-34 122 459 .254 .401 .330 6 5 6 60.7 Off Bob Boone 17 0 25-42 130 477 .251 .362 .309 2 3 11 53.4 Off Johnny Bench 7 6 21-27 136 646 .274 .537 .344 6 3 15 119.5 IN Yogi Berra 7 #8 25-31 149 643 .293 .532 .346 2 2 11 118.1 IN
* - Statistic not available for all seasons
^ - Includes seasons during World War II
# - Includes seasons at other positions
The defensive stats
The addition to this year’s column is defensive lines showing the number of games caught (not just played) per 162 team games (a number important enough that I run it in both the offensive and defensive charts), and averages of opposition stolen bases and opposition stolen base attempts per 162 games caught.
The number of attempts is important because a catcher’s reputation can be as important in deterring opposing running games as his arm is in stopping them. Those are first presented as raw data, since the average reader may not have seen these numbers before in this format, and you will notice a very large variation in the number of attempts faced by the catchers in the study. Some part of that is indeed individual in nature, but some is the great variation over time in the number of stolen base attempts per game in different eras.
So, I also presented translated stolen base percentages and translated attempts (technical note related to how I produced the study and not for any rational reason: for the raw numbers I used attempts per game, for the translated numbers I used per 1,458 innings caught, as innings caught was also available for post-1956 catchers). I used a 66 percent stolen base success rate and 150 steal attempts per 162 games caught as the baseline for the translations, as those are round numbers close to the historical averages for the 1956-2008 period.
If you are interested in looking at the chart I used for the baselines, I posted it here on my blog. The results:
Catcher Seasons Years GC GC/Year SBA/162C SB% Adj Att ADJ% Ivan Rodriguez 9.00 1996-04 1124 125 86 50.8 94 48.7 Johnny Bench 11.95 1968-79 1598 134 95 54.6 105 55.6 Yogi Berra 11.41 1948-59 1496 131 *79 *48.9 *148 *55.6 Lance Parrish 7.67 1979-86 948 124 129 56 130 56.9 Del Crandall 7.60 1953-60 997 131 *57 *54.1 *117 *58.1 Johnny Roseboro 9.82 1958-67 1199 122 74 54.3 112 58.3 Thurman Munson 8.96 1970-78 1165 130 123 55.7 123 59.3 Bob Boone 16.66 1973-89 2171 130 133 59.9 129 59.4 Gary Carter 9.67 1977-86 1390 144 175 61.5 130 59.9 Sherm Lollar 9.51 1950-59 1116 117 *70 *53.0 *135 *60.1 Benito Santiago 9.60 1987-96 1183 123 143 63.8 118 60.6 Terry Steinbach 9.59 1987-96 1045 109 146 62.5 148 60.9 Mike Scioscia 8.00 1984-91 1008 126 164 65.1 131 61.8 Manny Sanguillen 7.96 1969-76 983 123 113 61.2 129 62.0 Darrell Porter 10.64 1973-83 1230 116 154 60.9 135 62.7 Ed Bailey 7.75 1956-63 844 109 75 59.2 124 63.5 Jason Kendall 8.00 1997-04 1076 135 130 67.3 142 64.6 Joe Torre 8.00 1963-70 638 80 115 60.4 140 65.2 Ted Simmons 9.96 1971-80 1354 136 161 65.6 155 65.6 Jorge Posada 8.00 2000-07 1087 136 134 70.6 163 66.4 Mike Lieberthal 8.00 1997-04 883 110 115 69.6 124 66.4 Bill Freehan 7.96 1967-74 929 117 134 62.8 168 67.2 Javy Lopez 9.89 1995-04 1147 116 127 70.7 137 67.7 Carlton Fisk 13.61 1972-85 1553 114 98 65.6 136 68.0 Smokey Burgess 11.51 1952-63 1016 88 *85 *64.3 *140 *68.5 Tom Haller 9.00 1962-70 1071 119 100 64.9 141 69.8 Tim McCarver 9.00 1963-71 1066 118 103 65.3 139 70.7 Mike Piazza 9.59 1993-02 1299 135 184 75.6 179 72.4 Johnny Bench 6.95 1969-75 948 136 75 50.5 91 51.5 Yogi Berra 6.65 1950-56 991 149 *60 *52.0 *118 *59.3
* - Statistic not available for all seasons
And the pre-1956 catchers:
Catcher Seasons Years GC GC/Year Gabby Hartnett 13.31 1924-37 1502 113 Ernie Lombardi 10.46 1932-42 1138 109 Ray Schalk 9.23 1913-22 1301 141 Mickey Cochrane 8.56 1927-35 1134 132 Bill Dickey 8.56 1931-39 1078 126 Walker Cooper 8.56 1942-51 916 107 Wally Schang 8.28 1914-22 726 88 Rick Ferrell 7.60 1931-38 978 129
Individual catcher comments
Of the catchers to play in major league baseball after 1920, Mike Piazza was clearly the best with the bat in his hands, as he ranks first by a healthy margin among all the backstops I studied in batting and slugging while rating second only to Mickey Cochrane in OBP among the long-prime group.
Piazza’s defense is another story. Other aspects of his defense may have gotten a bad rap—Piazza handled balls in the dirt well enough and took his share of lumps blocking the plate—but when it came to gunning down baserunners, his record was just bad, the worst opposition stolen base percentage among the long-prime catchers. Opposing baserunners gave Piazza no respect and no quarter, as he was victimized by the most steal attempts relative to the league of any catcher in the study. Piazza ended up confounding expectations that he’d eventually move to another position—an experiment at first base went badly (Piazza’s the only first baseman I have ever seen who blocked throws in the dirt with his shins) and he broke down physically by the time he was tried as a DH.
Piazza is probably the only catcher in the game’s history who could make the Hall on the strength of the same hitting numbers even if he’d been a first baseman or corner outfielder.
Joe Torre is neither fish nor fowl in this discussion—he’s the second-best hitter among the long-prime catchers, but only over an eight-year prime, and, like Rod Carew and Robin Yount among the middle infielders, he’s hard to describe as a catcher without cutting off some of his best years with the bat. Torre spent a year as a full-time first baseman at age 28 before his last season as about a half-time catcher, but I have left out his age 30 season when he moved to third base and won the batting title and MVP award. (If you add that season, his adjusted batting line goes to .308/.514/.373 in 611 PA and his "Rate" shoots up to 117.)
Yet even in his prime, Torre never caught more than 114 games in a season; he was always squeezing in time at first base to keep his bat in the lineup. This despite the fact that, as you can see, at least in gunning down baserunners Torre was slightly better than a league-average catcher (other aspects of his defensive reputation are poor). Like most people, I tend not to give a lot of thought to Torre as a Hall of Fame candidate since everyone assumes he’ll go in as a manager anyway, but despite a relatively short prime (Torre had about three more solid years with the bat after 1971 but was never quite the same offensive force and had to move at last to settle at first) and the difficulty of classifying him defensively, he actually has a fairly decent case.
This is a little off topic, but the Cardinals catching situation in 1969-71 has a lot of interesting threads connecting four of the catchers in this study: Torre was traded to the Cards in ‘69 for Orlando Cepeda to play first base, then after Tim McCarver had his second straight off year, Torre was moved back behind the plate and McCarver was sent to Philly in a package for Dick Allen in the fateful Curt Flood trade. After a year catching, Torre was moved to third base to make room for Ted Simmons, with Torre winning the MVP and Simmons emerging as a star. Meanwhile, McCarver fared poorly in Philly and was replaced by Bob Boone.
If you don’t count Torre as a full-time catcher, Ted Simmons then comes up as the guy who, until Piazza, ranked as the most valuable bat to play the position. Geoff Young has looked favorably at Simmons’ case at greater length in these pages, using a somewhat similar methodology here, but if anything I think Geoff is underselling how rare a catcher with Simmons’ combination of offensive gifts, consistency and durability really is.
Simmons in the decade of his prime was a workhorse, averaging 136 games a year behind the plate; only Gary Carter averaged more plate appearances over that long a stretch, and only Carter and Ray Schalk caught more games. That durability and his dependable bat tend to get overlooked by analyses that focus only on career totals and percentages. And statistically, Simmons caught a little more than a league-average number of baserunners against only slightly more than a league-average number of attempts; at least in that aspect of his defense, there’s no sign that Simmons was a liability. Simmons tends to get the 1-2-3 punch of the fact that (1) he has a poor defensive reputation, (2) he played for a team that won before he got there, underachieved with a lot of talent while he was there, and won after he left, and (3) so many of the great catchers played for so many winning teams that we tend particularly to equate a catcher’s skills with his team’s success.
Perhaps he did contribute to the club’s attitude problem in the late '70s, but many of those Cardinal teams were not as strong across the board as their handful of stars would have you think, and it’s worth noting that Simmons did, outside of his prime years, contribute significantly to a pennant-winning team in Milwaukee. To truly appreciate Simmons, you need to sit back and read the rest of this list—catchers who bring as much to the table as he did, year in and year out for a decade without injuries or off years, are extremely hard to come by.
The best all-around catcher in major league history isn’t a clear-cut thing, between the great weight of Piazza’s bat and the cases one can make for Cochrane and Yogi Berra, but you can’t go far wrong with Johnny Bench.
Offensively, Bench was basically a match for Piazza in the power and walks department, lacking only in batting average; defensively, only Ivan Rodriguez compares to Bench in the combination of low opposing stolen base percentages and sheer intimidation of the running game. (When you look at the numbers for his seven-year peak, it’s even more impressive and closer to Rodriguez—runners started pushing Bench more in the late '70s). And Bench, too, was durable, although prone to occasional off years. Here’s an amazing fact: If you look at the all-time leaders in RBI through age 29, Bench ranks 10th—not among catchers but among everybody, with 1,038 RBI. For a catcher to show up anywhere on those lists in mid-career is amazingly impressive.
In terms of durability, when measured per 162 scheduled games, Cochrane is just a hair behind his more modern contemporaries, but he was way ahead of his time—in 1929 he was the first player to notch 600 plate appearances in a season while playing at least half his games at catcher (in Cochrane’s case, nearly all his games), and through the beginning of World War II the feat had been accomplished just three times, by Cochrane twice and Bill Dickey once.
Cochrane rang up 550 plate appearances four times in five years. He was basically a player without flaw—consistent and durable, hit for average and a fair amount of power (when you translate him out of the 1920s-'30s, Cochrane’s averages come down but his power goes up) with great strike zone judgment, ran well for a catcher, and was well-regarded defensively. On top of that, Cochrane was the field general of a three-pennant/two World Championship dynasty in Philadelphia and player-manager of a two-pennant/one World Championship team in Detroit.
In fact, Cochrane is historically unique: He’s the only guy to win World Championships with two franchises as a genuine everyday catcher. I’ll discuss Wally Schang below; of the two other guys besides Cochrane and Schang who could kinda sorta lay claim to having done so, Earl Smith (like Schang) played for teams that used more of a rotation than a single everyday catcher; Smith was the No. 1 catcher for the 1925 Pirates and the No. 2 for the 1921 Giants. The other, Jimmy Wilson, is even more tenuous; Wilson was the catcher for the 1931 Cardinals and came out of retirement to start (and star) in the World Series for the 1940 Reds after starting catcher Ernie Lombardi got injured and his backup, Willard Herschberger, committed suicide. But Wilson spent nearly all the regular season as a coach.
Gary Carter carried the heaviest catching workload of anybody whose prime spans eight or more years—a staggering 144 games caught per 162 team games (and this for a team, in Montreal, that often stacked up doubleheaders in August due to April snow-outs). If you watched Carter at the tail end of those years and the seasons that followed, you saw what a brutal toll the workload took on his body, as every aspect of his game unraveled. Carter is the classic guy whose numbers make more sense when you extract his prime from the wreckage that followed. Besides being a devastating power hitter, Carter was a very tough guy to run on until his last year in Montreal, and in an age when base thieving was running rampant in the National League. In New York he also mentored a talented young pitching staff, or rather shared that role with Keith Hernandez.
By contrast, for whatever reason, probably nobody had catching take as little out of him as it did to Yogi Berra. In the seven-year peak within his 12-year prime, Yogi just never came out of the lineup, averaging just shy of 150 games caught per 162 games played (not for nothing did Casey note that he never managed an important game without Yogi behind the plate). Yet he still was able to swing the bat well enough and move his legs enough to go on to a few more years as an outfielder.
Yogi was not a notably patient hitter, having the Vladimir Guerrero-like gift of being able to hit basically any ball thrown anywhere. We have stolen base data for only a four-year period of Yogi’s prime, but even adjusting for the piteous state of base stealing in the American League of the late 1950s, Yogi shows up as having been a very tough catcher to steal on. It’s another day’s debate to what extent that means he should get some credit for the high number of double plays turned by the Yankees of Casey’s era. At the same time, Yogi hit into very few double plays for a guy who was slow, batted with a ton of men on base, hit the ball hard and rarely struck out. Yogi, of course, was the starting catcher for seven World Championship teams and nine pennant winners, plus being a part-time catcher or outfielder for three other World Championship teams and four pennant winners, plus managing pennant-winning Yankees and Mets teams.
Bill Dickey is another data point for the argument that catchers, like pitchers, tend to last longer if they don’t carry as heavy a workload in their younger years—he caught 130 games for the first time at age 30. Dickey enjoyed a last hurrah at 36 in 1943, playing half time and pounding war-weakened pitching to a .351/.492/.445 Avg/Slg/OBP and leading a DiMaggio-less Yankee team to the last World Championship of that era, Dickey’s seventh as a starting catcher.
Jorge Posada may not be the most glamorous offensive player, but his high-OBP, grind-it out game has been a key element in the Yankees’ success over his career. Posada’s prime, at eight years, is a little on the light side—without his monster 2007 season, he’d clearly be an also-ran, and it doesn’t help him that his first year as a full-time starter was the last one of the Yankees’ postseason dominance, or that Posada has not put up good numbers overall in October.
But his offensive game, for a guy who was a durable catcher for eight seasons and never has a serious off year, is solid. Posada’s success against base thieves has been less than impressive (slightly worse than league average) despite a reputation as a guy with a good arm. He’ll be a legitimate contender for the Hall even if he isn’t able to have a second act behind the plate beginning in 2009.
Besides Simmons and maybe Torre, Thurman Munson is the guy whose stock went up the most in my estimation from this exercise. Munson tends to be a favorite of non-stat-oriented fans, and there’s something to the argument that his high batting averages weren’t really matched by secondary offensive skills. But (1) Munson was enormously durable, carrying very heavy workloads, (2) Munson played much of his prime in a low-scoring era in a hostile park, and (3) Munson’s batting averages, in context, are even more impressive than those of Cochrane or Dickey. I rate 1978 as Munson’s last "prime" season here; his productivity was in decline in 1978 (albeit somewhat offset by playing an awful lot in a famously tight pennant race) and accelerated in 1979. And he was very tough on opposing baserunners.
Ivan Rodriguez has claimed from Bench the distinction of setting the gold standard for stopping the running game; Rodriguez’ numbers are simply eye-popping when you adjust for the high success rates of modern base thieves. His offensive game has had enough flaws (few walks, many GIDP) to keep him south of the top tier of catchers when combined with time out of the lineup in his prime years (Pudge’s games caught don’t really live up to his reputation as an every-single-day guy due to injuries in 2000-02), but when you add the bat, the glove, the championship in Florida, the pennant in Detroit and the division titles in Texas, it’s more than enough for an easy Hall of Fame case.
Jason Kendall is about the point where I expect that the reader is joining me in saying "we draw the line here." Through age 26, Kendall was basically a dead ringer for Cochrane, batting .314/.456/.402 Avg/Slg/OBP to Cochrane’s .314/.460/.398 (all raw numbers), and in a nearly identical number of games and plate appearances; Kendall even had a higher OPS+ and nearly twice as many steals. And mind you, Cochrane had already won his first MVP by that point. But Kendall was something of a perfect storm of injury risks at that point even aside from the freak foot injury that wrecked the 1999 season that should have been a career year: catcher who rarely takes time off, steals a lot and gets hit by a ton of pitches. First the power went, then the base stealing, then his arm, and eventually the batting average. For Cooperstown purposes, Kendall is a guy who didn’t stay on top long enough.
Bill Freehan was a fine catcher who peaked as a hitter under terribly adverse offensive conditions. Freehan was, however, obviously not respected by opposing baserunners, although their success rate against him was only slightly above average.
Lance Parrish had some Hall of Fame tools—power, a great arm—but didn’t get on base, was poorly regarded as a handler of pitchers, and was completely ruined by a back injury starting at age 30. At 31, Parrish went to the Phillies, and on top of his not hitting the new league suddenly started running completely wild on him, in sharp contrast to his success in that regard in Detroit.
When you adjust for context, Carlton Fisk actually had his best offensive season as a rookie in the now little-remembered epic 1972 AL East pennant race. Fisk made up in the length of his prime what he lost in time to injuries during it, especially in his early years, plus he lasted several more years as a productive half-time player. He was never especially good against base thieves.
Gabby Hartnett was the original home-run hitting catcher; among players playing at least half their games behind the plate in a season, Hartnett was the first to hit 20 homers, the first to hit 30, the first since 1893 to hit 15 and the first since 1891 to crack double figures twice. Hartnett’s productive career was also longer by a good stretch than those of his contemporaries. (He had two more years at the end of the 14-year prime where he was almost as good as a hitter but in declining playing time). Hartnett is docked here for missing nearly the whole 1929 season; if he and Rogers Hornsby had ever both been healthy in the same year for the 1929-30 Cubs, there’s no telling how many runs that team might have scored. He still managed to start for three more pennant winners besides the 1929 team.
From the early 1920s to the mid-1980s, the Pirates accumulated a distinct type of player: an aggressive, athletic, high-average hitter who rarely hit home runs, walked or came out of the lineup. Manny Sanguillen was the best Pirates catcher in that mold, and contributed to the Pirates’ 1971 World Championship. He didn’t do a lot besides hit for average and throw, but he did those plenty well enough to be useful to his teams.
Offensively, Darrell Porter was the opposite of Sanguillen, but did some of just everything to compensate for his low batting averages while playing in big ballparks in low-scoring seasons. He was not a Hall of Famer, but a really good player for more than a decade, catching for a Cardinals team that won a World Championship in 1982 and a pennant in 1985 and for a Royals team that won a pennant and two other division titles.
Ernie Lombardi was sort of like a catcher designed by a Dungeons & Dragons power gamer: He maximized all the attributes of strength (hitting for power, drilling line drives like they were shot out of cannons, strong hands, strong arms) while being perhaps the least mobile everyday player ever over a period of years. Given his relatively low (but characteristic of his times) numbers of plate appearances, legendarily slow baserunning, huge numbers of double plays and poor defensive mobility, I’m skeptical at best that Lombardi belongs in the Hall of Fame even though he was an outstanding hitter over a relatively long prime and then some. It’s pretty well impossible to argue that Lombardi was more valuable to his teams than Simmons or Torre.
Wally Schang was a winner, and not coincidentally a high-OBP guy. As I noted above, Schang doesn’t quite match Mickey Cochrane as a full-time starter for World Championship teams for multiple franchises, but only because Schang’s teams often (as was commonly the case at the time) split time among two or more catchers. But Schang was more or less the No. 1 catcher for six pennant winners in 11 years, including the World Series-winning 1913 A’s, 1918 Red Sox and 1923 Yankees; that he was regarded as the No. 1 is shown by the fact that he appeared in 32 of 34 World Series games for those teams (Schang was also Cochrane’s backup on the 1930 A’s, but he was about finished by then).
Schang’s games caught per year for his prime is artificially depressed by the fact that Connie Mack turned him into a third baseman-outfielder in 1915-16, but that was clearly a decision driven by Mack’s need to keep Schang’s bat in the lineup after Mack sold off the stars of the 1910-14 team. Given that the A’s posted an average record of 40-113 over those two seasons while Schang’s teams won the pennant nearly every year with him behind the plate, it’s safe to conclude he wasn’t moved because he was hurting his teams by catching. Schang’s not a Hall of Famer because of the limits on his playing time, but he was clearly a Cooperstown-quality player when he was on the field.
Javy Lopez, who will probably be best remembered as the answer to the question "who holds the single-season slugging percentage record for catchers" (.687 in 2003) was like Parrish as a hitter, but less durable and without Parrish’s arm. He probably has the easiest pitching staff to catch in the game’s history.
Walker Cooper is another high slugging/low OBP catcher. Cooper had most of his best years during the war, but he missed nearly all the 1945 season in the military (I left that year out) and did have one big year in 1947 for the Giants.
Del Crandall even appearing on a list like this illustrates the paucity of good hitters in the catching profession. Crandall was a valuable player but didn’t have any one especially impressive offensive skill. His stolen base-per-game numbers are a little screwy because baseball-reference.com is missing some games for a few NL teams for 1956, but the percentage figures show that he really was the top-shelf glove man his four Gold Gloves would suggest.
Tom Haller was a fine hitter but more like a platoon player. He was one of the poorest throwing catchers in this study.
Sherm Lollar was, like several of the guys immediately above him, an ordinary hitter whose ordinariness helped his White Sox teams be a perennial contender and a pennant winner in his best year in 1959.
Rick Ferrell has, superficially, an argument for being the kind of hitter who can get elected to the Hall of Fame as a glove man—18-year career, .377 career OBP. But a closer look at Ferrell’s career leaves us with reason to doubt that he was, or should have been, regarded when active as a star of any kind.
First, Ferrell’s offensive numbers, which are not that great to begin with (he had no power, unlike his brother and batterymate Wes), are hugely inflated by the 1930s American League context he played in, including a couple of years in Fenway. Second, Ferrell played for three organizations (the Red Sox, Senators and Browns) that kept shuttling him back and forth, and while the Red Sox had good teams and the Senators a pennant winner during his prime (the Browns also won a wartime pennant late in Ferrell’s career), all three franchises were miserable when Ferrell played for them.
Ferrell’s not the first guy on this list who never played in the postseason—Joe Torre is (until this year, Torre had just one postseason appearance in 32 years in the National League as a player and manager), but he’s the first who never even sniffed a pennant race. Third, Ferrell was traded in midseason three times in his career, two of those in his 1931-38 prime years; very few of the guys on this list had that happen to them even once in their primes (most changed teams at all in their primes only due to financial issues). Ferrell was a productive player but is simply a ridiculous choice for the Hall.
Terry Steinbach was another guy in the Crandall mode, and yet another catcher who was part of the quiet backbone of a multi-year championship team.
Tim McCarver was a surprisingly poor throwing catcher, especially given the help he got from catching Steve Carlton a lot (although less in McCarver’s prime with the Cardinals than later in his career). McCarver’s offensive and defensive games went downhill pretty quickly after having a big year in 1967 at age 25, including a 1970 season lost to injury, although he managed to play another 13 years.
Ed Bailey was a similar player to Haller, and even split time with him in San Francisco despite both being left-handed hitters. Dividing the catching duties 50/50 between the two, Giants catchers batted .250/.477/.370 with 32 HR, 101 runs and 92 RBI in 1962, .262/.465/.353 with 33 HR, 108 runs and 105 RBI in 1963.
Mike Scioscia was first and foremost a contact hitter, the one trait he’s consistently preferred among his Angels teams as a manager. He also blocked the plate like he was the last man holding the pass at Thermopylae.
Mike Lieberthal had an enormous amount of air to let out of his offensive numbers. A solid performer, but never really the star his raw numbers suggested—there’s no reason to think Steinbach or Crandall wouldn’t have done the same things in the same circumstances.
Benito Santiago was an impressive athlete, but swinging at everything and throwing from your knees may be a good way to show what you can accomplish with one hand tied behind your back, but it’s not equal to using both hands.
Ray Schalk is in the Hall of Fame partly for being one of the clean Black Sox, and partly because he was the first multi-year workhorse catcher. Even with all the adjustments for context in the world, Schalk was never a guy who’d bat higher than seventh in the lineup for a .500 team.
Smokey Burgess, the catcher for the 1960 Pirates, is yet another guy who had a Cooperstown-quality bat (for a catcher) and a long career, but never played enough or was good enough defensively to be a star. Burgess’ 1956 defensive data has the same problem as Crandall’s.
Johnny Roseboro was a member of multiple championship teams (he was the starting catcher for Dodgers teams that won four pennants and two World Championships, as well as for a division winner in Minnesota), an excellent defensive catcher and a better hitter than his numbers reflect, but he was never more than an adequate hitter.
If you were making a case for Bob Boone as a Hall of Famer, it would be all defense and durability; Boone was a good hitter for maybe three years, but a defensive contributor who stayed in the lineup for nearly two decades. His record against opposing base thieves improved markedly after moving to the Angels, which is consistent with the general notion that Boone’s and Gene Mauch’s experience fed off each other and made a really good team. As a hitter over the balance of his career, Boone was the poor man’s Ray Schalk.
Dan McLaughlin is a lawyer, Mets fan, and author of the Baseball Crank blog. He welcomes comments via e-mail.
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