The path to Cooperstown: The catchers (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series looking at the best catchers of the post-1920 period, I focused on catchers whose prime years ran eight or more seasons. In this followup, I will look at the top catchers whose major league primes were shorter than that. The pickings, as you will see, get much thinner in a hurry.

The six- or seven-year primes

Catcher              Yrs   Oth Ages    GC/Year  PA    Avg    Slg   OBP  SB   CS   DP   Rate  Hall?
Mickey Tettleton      6    *3 28-33        90   594  .246   .489  .377   2    4    7   109.4  Out
Gene Tenace           7    *1 27-33        91   548  .244   .479  .399   4    5    8   104.8  Out
Roy Campanella        7     0 27-33       133   549  .277   .527  .349   3   *3   16   101.1   IN
Darren Daulton        6    *1 28-33       121   499  .254   .472  .362   6    1    4    85.2  Out
Earl Battey           6     0 25-30       137   530  .283   .440  .352   1    2   17    82.0  Out
Terry Kennedy         6     0 25-30       139   570  .276   .442  .319   1    2   12    80.5  Out
Jim Sundberg          6     0 26-31       147   565  .274   .399  .352   2    4   13    79.3  Out
Gus Triandos          6    *1 25-30       119   495  .256   .464  .326   0    0   16    75.0  Out
Jason Varitek         6     1 30-35       125   508  .257   .427  .340   4    2   11    73.7  Act
Johnny Romano         7     0 25-31       108   435  .265   .473  .356   1    1    9    73.2  Out
Harry Danning         6     0 25-30       122   501  .278   .450  .323   2   na   14    72.9  Out
Joe Ferguson          7     0 26-32        87   439  .244   .451  .359   3    1    9    71.1  Out
Andy Seminick         7     0 25-31       114   439  .249   .458  .345   2    2   11    69.4  Out
Bubbles Hargrave      6     0 29-34        98   381  .288   .483  .361   3   *4   na    66.4  Out
Ernie Whitt           7     0 31-37       124   438  .254   .446  .332   2    3   10    64.8  Out
Al Lopez              7     0 21-27       131   467  .253   .371  .320   3   na  *12    55.3   IN
Catcher            Seasons    Years      GC    GC/Year  SB%     SBA/162C  Adj Att  ADJ%
Gus Triandos         5.75    1956-61     685     119   49.5         71     141    54.3
Earl Battey          5.95    1960-65     813     137   56.5         69     127    57.0
Jim Sundberg         5.65    1977-82     828     147   56.5        143     138    59.0
Roy Campanella       6.65    1949-55     884     133     na         na     116    61.1
Gene Tenace          7.00    1974-80     637      91   62.4        153     144    63.1
Joe Ferguson         7.00    1973-79     606      87   64.1        145     141    64.2
Ernie Whitt          7.00    1983-89     869     124   66.9        128     140    65.6
Johnny Romano        6.95    1960-66     750     108   64.9         92     164    65.9
Terry Kennedy        5.68    1981-86     792     139   68.7        188     141    66.4
Darren Daulton       5.60    1990-95     677     121   70.0        162     136    67.0
Mickey Tettleton     5.71    1989-94     512      90   70.4        152     148    69.8
Jason Varitek        6.00    2002-07     748     125     75        113     144    70.4

Al Lopez             6.65    1930-36     870     131    na         na      na      na
Andy Seminick        6.65    1946-52     761     114    na         na      na      na
Harry Danning        5.70    1937-42     695     122    na         na      na      na
Bubbles Hargrave     5.70    1922-27     556      98    na         na      na      na

Mickey Tettleton and Gene Tenace are essentially two variations on the same theme, although Tettleton was a markedly weaker defensive catcher against the run. Besides their short primes, the main drawback of both in comparison to other catchers is that they spent so little of their time behind the plate, barely more than half their teams’ games over the years of their primes. That said, both overcame low batting averages and high strikeout rates to be highly productive hitters.

Roy Campanella arrived in the majors at age 26, but like a number of Negro League players took a year to adjust before he kicked into high gear in the majors; presumably his prime would have been longer otherwise. Even so, Campy in his prime was a terror in his best years but prone to occasionally not hitting (he batted .207 in 1954 in between two MVP seasons) due to being banged up. The stolen base data I list here are after his offensive prime, when he was physically broken down due to hand injuries; one would assume his numbers in his best years were no worse. Campanella was 36 when he was paralyzed in a car crash, and spent the second half of his life in a wheelchair.

Darren Daulton had similar skills to Tettleton and Tenace, but spent more time behind the plate and less in the lineup. The dropoff to Daulton is steep, but in his case it’s mainly due to the time he missed. Daulton’s absurdly low GIDP totals reflect the fact that he didn’t hit the ball on the ground much.

Earl Battey, the catcher for the Twins in the 1960s, was an excellent throwing catcher in addition to being a consistent producer with the bat.

Terry Kennedy was a workhorse who could hit but lacked any semblance of plate patience and fell apart pretty quickly.

Jim Sundberg’s 147 games caught per 162 team games is the highest of any catcher in this study unless you count the seven years of Yogi Berra’s peak. Sundberg remained a solid but not-as-feared defensive catcher after his prime, going on to start for the World Champion 1985 Royals, but as a hitter he was finished after his prime years.

Gus Triandos, the Orioles’ catcher in the late ’50s and early ’60s, was sort of the poor man’s Ernie Lombardi, great power and arm but no mobility at all.

Jason Varitek’s prime is arguably just three years from 2003-05, but I stretched a bit. Varitek’s throwing record is poor even by the standards of the 21st century American League.

Johnny Romano, another 1960s catcher, is yet another guy who had the bat to play with some of the best at his position, but not the durability.

Harry Danning was the Giants’ catcher until World War II, and was 30 years old and coming off two mildly off years when he went off to war after the 1942 season. He never came back to play major league baseball, although the cause was not combat but a knee injury suffered playing baseball while serving stateside during the war.

Joe Ferguson was another catcher in the Tenace mold, plus he played in Dodger Stadium in the 70s, plus the Dodgers kept giving his playing time to Steve Yeager. All that’s not a recipe for posting impressive batting numbers. But he could hit. Ferguson was the primary catcher for the vastly underrated 1974 Dodgers.

Andy Seminick was the catcher for the Phillies in the 1950s, and joins a long line of good-hit, not-play-enough backstops. That goes double for Bubbles Hargrave, the first catcher in the post-1890 period to win a batting title.

By the time we reach Ernie Whitt, the catcher for the Bobby Cox Blue Jays, we have landed at “ordinary.” But ordinary, in a catcher, remains valuable.

Al Lopez is best considered solely as a manager.

The four- to five-year catchers

Catcher            Yrs   Oth    Ages   GC/Year   PA   Avg    Slg   OBP  SB   CS   DP    Rate  Hall?
Joe Mauer             4     0  22-25      117   567  .311   .442  .393   7    2   16    98.6  Act
Elston Howard         4    *3  32-35      130   540  .311   .517  .353   1    1   13    98.3  Out
Victor Martinez       5     0  25-29      117   561  .291   .457  .361   0    0   18    92.5  Act
Todd Hundley          4     1  25-28      123   496  .258   .513  .351   2    2    7    89.4  Out
Mike Stanley          4    *3  30-33      113   492  .277   .502  .361   1    1   12    89.0  Out
Earl Williams         4     0  22-25       90   554  .253   .480  .326   0    1   13    86.8  Out
Dick Dietz            4     0  26-29      109   453  .270   .477  .388   1    1   10    83.8  Out
Chris Hoiles          5     1  27-31      120   477  .259   .485  .360   1    1    9    83.2  Out
Steve O'Neill         4     0  27-30      136   517  .278   .433  .369   2   *3   na    82.6  Out
Frankie Hayes         4     2  23-26      121   497  .273   .473  .344   4    2  *16    81.1  Out
Bob Brenly            4     0  30-33      112   516  .260   .460  .341   7    7    7    81.0  Out
Tony Pena             5     1  25-29      143   569  .281   .436  .321   8    8   17    79.7  Out
Spud Davis            5     1  26-30      114   455  .294   .467  .361   1   na  *13    76.7  Out
Brian Harper          5     0  29-33      121   502  .302   .447  .332   1    2   15    74.6  Out
Ramon Hernandez       4     0  27-30      120   480  .275   .455  .329   1    0   14    71.8  Act
Johnny Bassler        4     1  26-29      127   487  .285   .383  .382   2    1   na    71.2  Out
Babe Phelps           5     1  28-32       96   375  .291   .483  .346   1   na   12    62.8  Out

Catcher            Seasons    Years       GC   GC/Year  SB%    SBA/162C  Adj Att  ADJ%
Elston Howard        4.00    1961-64     518     130   51.2         54     100    51.5
Joe Mauer            4.00    2005-08     466     117   58.6         82     101    53.8
Tony Pena            5.00    1982-86     717     143   60.6        178     130    58.3
Bob Brenly           4.00    1984-87     446     112   64.1        190     153    60.9
Ramon Hernandez      4.00    2003-06     479     120   66.6        118     155    61.9
Earl Williams        3.96    1971-74     358      90   66.9        142     173    68.5
Chris Hoiles         4.58    1992-96     550     120   70.7        152     149    69.0
Brian Harper         5.00    1989-93     607     121   69.0        181     177    69.0
Victor Martinez      5.00    2004-08     583     117   74.8        140     175    69.5
Todd Hundley         3.59    1994-98     443     123   73.6        135     123    69.6
Mike Stanley         3.59    1993-96     406     113   72.6        144     148    70.7
Dick Dietz           4.00    1968-71     437     109   75.6        114     151    78.2

Spud Davis           4.75    1931-35     541     114    na         na      na      na
Steve O'Neill        3.71    1919-22     506     136    na         na      na      na
Johnny Bassler       3.80    1921-24     482     127    na         na      na      na
Frankie Hayes        3.80    1938-41     461     121    na         na      na      na
Babe Phelps          4.75    1936-40     455      96    na         na      na      na

Joe Mauer isn’t quite yet at the level of a really historic offensive player for his position; he may seem like the modern Mickey Cochrane, but he still needs to add some power to move up from the Bill Dickey class into the real inner circle. But you may not realize—I didn’t—that Mauer is already a defensive catcher of historic proportions, in terms of throwing out opposing base thieves.

It’s tempting to assume that Elston Howard would have been that good for a much longer period of time if his career hadn’t had a late start due to the color line and a late start as a catcher behind Berra. The fact is, however, that Howard through age 31 had more than 2,200 major league plate appearances over five seasons and batted .273/.425/.314 (Avg/Slg/OBP) over that period. Maybe he was not used properly, but even so it appears he was simply a late bloomer. Howard was an excellent thrower in his prime.

Victor Martinez would have much more impressive numbers than .294/.469/.366 and a “Rate” of 107.7 if you left off 2008, but if he’s going to make a run at Cooperstown, he’ll have to live down last season. Martinez has the bat but is very weak against the running game; the contrast to his divisional rival Mauer is stark in that regard.

Todd Hundley emerged for only a brief moment in time as an outstanding hitter, peaking with a 41-homer season at age 27, before he fell apart physically. When the Mets got Mike Piazza they tried Hundley—then 29 years old—briefly in the outfield, where he was the worst outfielder I have ever seen. As the son of Gold Glove catcher Randy Hundley, Todd probably had almost never seen a batted ball coming toward him. As a catcher, Hundley saw few stolen base attempts but at a fairly high success rate, suggesting that he was living off his defensive reputation by the time he started to hit.

Mike Stanley joins the list of good hitters who might have been better but less valuable hitters elsewhere but occasionally were able to make a living behind the plate.

Earl Williams went downhill in almost a straight line from his Rookie of the Year season for the Braves in 1971; Williams through age 25 had a great foundation for a great career, but he’d already been in reverse gear for years.

Dick Deitz had some power and great plate patience, and turned in one of the great years with the bat for the Giants in 1970, but he couldn’t throw out opposing baserunners to save his life.

I could have included two more years for Chris Hoiles at little downgrade offensively, but his playing time was falling off by 1997-’98 and, relatedly, opposing base thieves just abused him his last two years in the league. Hoiles could certainly hit, though.

Steve O’Neill had a very long career in baseball, both as a player and a manager (O’Neill managed a World Champion in Detroit in 1945; he took over a team in midseason three times and all three played .600 ball for him). Like so many catchers, though, he was a star for only a few of those—the only years when he was really a full-time regular. He had his best year as the catcher for the World Champion 1920 Indians.

Frankie Hayes was one of a number of catchers to log a few good years with the bat at the end of the 1930s, but probably the most obscure, as it was a terrible time to be playing for Connie Mack’s cellar-dwelling A’s.

Bob Brenly was a late arrival to star-quality offensive production as a catcher, but an underappreciated contributor to the Giants of the mid-’80s.

Tony Pena was regarded when playing as a defensive star first, and had the thankless job of taking on the Vince Coleman Cardinals. His defensive numbers are indeed good, and his workloads were high for a guy with that unusual, sitting-on-the-ground crouch. A poor man’s Manny Sanguillen even in his best years as a hitter, Pena was an offensive liability for all but a handful of seasons.

Spud Davis, the catcher for the 1934 Gashouse Gang Cardinals (but also the No. 1 catcher for the 1930 Phillies, the team that posted a modern record 6.71 team ERA), was a solid hitter whose numbers soared to eye-popping levels in the Baker Bowl in the early ’30s before going to St. Louis.

Brian Harper took a long time and was on his sixth organization before his bat convinced a team to let him catch regularly, but made it worth the Twins’ while, helping anchor the 1991 World Champions. He didn’t walk enough or have enough power that you’d consider him a major star even before you addressed his defensive vulnerabilities, but if there’s one theme to this series, it’s the short supply of consistent, year-to-year hitting talent at the catching position; you don’t lightly discard a catcher who can do that.

Ramon Hernandez is the other type of catcher who emerges in mid-career; whereas Harper was a good bat waiting for a regular job, Hernandez was a guy with a job who developed some power after playing regularly for a few seasons, peaking in his late 20s and early 30s.

Johnny Bassler was a typical high-OBP-and-little-else catcher, but had the good fortune to play for a high-OBP team in a high-OBP era, so the usefulness of his skills was maximized. Typical of his day, Bassler did not carry what we would regard today as everyday workloads, but he played more than the usual catcher of the era.

For five years, Babe Phelps—the last man on this list—was not really that far off, as a hitter, from some of the guys near the very top; what separates the Dodgers catcher of the late 30s from immortality was more durability and longevity than talent. Which is really the story of so many of these guys—at this position, talent may be important but durability, consistency and longevity are the real hallmarks of a guy who is not just a contributor but a Hall of Famer.

The not-to-be forgotten man

Finally, while he’s not directly relevant to this discussion, you can’t talk about the great catchers in the modern game without mentioning the guy who was almost certainly the best of them all: Josh Gibson, the greatest slugger of the Negro Leagues. We don’t have definitive stats for Negro League players, let alone a context to measure them against, so Gibson doesn’t assist us in evaluating anybody else’s resume here.

But I have to give him his due. The numbers we do have are consistent with the consensus that Gibson was a better hitter than any catcher to play in the major leagues, being more comparable to someone like Lou Gehrig (at least) than to Mike Piazza, and over an extended period.

Gibson broke into league play at 18 and played through age 34, and appears to have had a prime as a catcher ending around age 32. A combination of factors (weight, mileage, drug and alcohol problems) seem to have finished his ability to catch by that point, but while his Negro League stats show a dropoff with the bat as well, he was still a fearsome hitter those last two years.

Fifteen seasons is a long prime for a catcher. Gibson died of a brain ailment (probably a stroke) before his age 35 season, the year the color line was broken; had he survived, he might have had a Luke Easter-like last act as a slugger in the majors and given us a better taste of his abilities even in their decline.

The numbers for Gibson’s career as a whole—only 2,305 at bats, given that only a fraction of a Negro League player’s games were against league competition—show him with a batting/slugging/OBP of .366/.678/.449 between the Negro Leagues and the Mexican League from 1930-46 (.365 batting and .674 slugging in 2,529 at bats if you count the Cuban league, but walks are not available for Cuba). Defensive data are nonexistent, and getting good information about Gibson’s defense is like getting hard data about Paul Bunyan, but he was reputed to have a strong arm and be at least an able defensive catcher in his younger years.

We can never know for sure, but I feel comfortable saying on the basis of the evidence we do have that I’d take Gibson over any man who ever played the position in the majors.

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