Pudge Ponderings

December 7, 2016
Before we start, a couple of quick comments….
 
First, when I saw that Dave Fleming had posted an article on Jorge Posada, I muttered a brief "oh crap!", because I had some concerns that it might overlap with my article, which is also about a first-time Hall of Fame catcher candidate.  As I read it, though, my fears were diminished, and even though there might be a couple of minor points that are common to both,  they don’t really tackle the same topic, so I proceeded with finishing and posting my article.
 
Second, regarding Dave’s announcement regarding discontinuing the Bill James Online Hall of Fame voting….count me among the many who have expressed some sadness over that news.  I always enjoyed participating in that annual vote, although of course I understand his decision to discontinue it.
 
Along those same lines, some of you who have been members for the last couple of years may remember another Hall of Fame-related project we did called "The Hall of Fame Tournament", which was essentially a mockup of an idea Bill wrote about a couple of years ago regarding an alternate Hall of Fame voting method.  We performed several runs of it a couple of years ago, and last year we ran through another iteration of it, and we had over 100 members participate in the voting.  However, it too has run its course, and I see no reason to keep perpetuating it, so, like Dave, I am discontinuing the "Hall of Fame Tournament" project as well.
 
On to our regularly scheduled article……
 
The Pudge Dilemma
 
You probably have seen the article/contest I posted the other day soliciting predictions for what % of the vote each player on the Hall of Fame ballot will receive.  (By the way….the contest remains open through December 12 if you would like to submit an entry).  I would say the player whose vote % I feel the least confident about is that of Ivan Rodriguez.  I’m not quite sure how the voters will treat him in his debut on the ballot.
 
On the one hand, I think he’s one of the top 10 Major League catchers ever, and he might even be top 5, although with Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Mickey Cochrane, Carlton Fisk, Bill Dickey, Roy Campanella, Mike Piazza, Gabby Hartnett, and Gary Carter, the competition is pretty stiff at the top…..and it gets even tougher if you include the top consensus Negro League catchers such as Josh Gibson and Biz Mackey
 
On face value, he seems to have a slam dunk case for the Hall of Fame.  14-time All-Star, 13 Gold Gloves, an MVP award, a World Series ring.  His Hall of Fame Monitor score is a whopping 226, tied with Yogi Berra as the top score for a catcher.
 
However…..
 
Rodriguez does have that "cloud of suspicion" hanging around him….the Scarlet "S"…and that muddies the waters when it comes to predicting how much support he’ll receive.
 
I’m not sure how the voters will pigeonhole him.  He’s not a "known" or "admitted" steroid user, as his primary connection to steroids seems to be that Jose Canseco claims to have injected Rodriguez while they were teammates.  In addition, when he was asked later about whether or not his name was on the 2003 list of players who tested positive for steroids, he gave a rather weak, noncommittal response.  He didn’t exactly seem to deny using them.
 
The Hall of Fame candidacy of Rodriguez is a little different than others who have had various degrees of connection to steroids.  What’s different is that, aside from Roger Clemens, most of the other big names that have come up over the past 10 years with that cloud hanging over them (Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield, etc.) have been power hitters, which undoubtedly fed into some level of feeling on the voters’ part that there was some degree of illegitimacy to their numbers. 
 
Rodriguez, on the other hand, was not primarily known for his power (although he had decent pop)….he was known more as a very good offensive catcher and an outstanding defensive one.  So, the question is, how will the voters treat him?
 
Will he tend to reside in the neighborhood of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, two of the all-time most accomplished players at their respective positions, who have been hovering in the 35-50% range? 
 
Will they treat him like outcast sluggers Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Gary Sheffield, and Rafael Palmeiro, who have tended to get between 5 to 20% of the vote? 
 
Or, will they treat him more along the lines of Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell?  Piazza and Bagwell appear to be in a category where, despite some voters openly commenting that they have their "suspicions" about them, were still able to very quickly establish themselves with more than 50% of the vote, and then building from there. 
 
I don’t want to overstate this last effect, because, after all, Piazza did get in last year (on his 4th try), and Bagwell was up to 71.6% last year (his 6th try), and is likely on the brink of entry, so the suspicion certainly hasn’t destroyed their chances….at worst, it may have just delayed them a little, and even that may be subject to debate.
 
In any case, those seem to be the 3 basic levels we’ve seen so far when it comes to how the voters have treated candidates with that particular "cloud".  Honestly, I don’t know where Rodriguez will fall.  My gut is that he will tend to follow more of the Piazza/Bagwell path, where he gets a pretty healthy dose of support out of the gate and gets in within a few years, but I really don’t know.  That led to this article, and my thoughts on Ivan Rodriguez, and in particular his defensive prowess. 
 
But before I dive into those thoughts, I was reminded of this George Carlin routine in which he prefaced an observation he was about to make regarding New York by first reviewing his personal New York "credentials":
 
*******
 
"I want to mention my New York credentials, and they are as follows: I was born on this island, Manhattan Island, therefore I was born in New York City, New York County, and New York State.
City…..county…..state.
 
And besides that, on top of that, I was born at New York Hospital on East 63rd Street. But here's the capper, something you don't know. You know where I was conceived? Rockaway Beach.  Rockaway. That's right. In a hotel on Beach 116th Street called Curley's Hotel. 1936, so if you hear or see anything later from me about New York, you'll know my credentials are in good order."
 
 
*******
 
As I have mentioned numerous times (probably too many), I am a product of Southwest Ohio, deep in the heart of Reds Country.  What’s more, my initial exposure to baseball as well the development of my love for this sport perfectly coincides with the emergence of the Big Red Machine.  I lived and breathed the Reds.
 
When I started following baseball in the late 60’s, Johnny Bench had just arrived on the scene, and he famously was given a baseball personally signed by Ted Williams to Bench proclaiming Bench as "A future Hall of Famer".  I attended my first game in 1970, the same year that Riverfront Stadium had opened, the same year that the team got off to a blistering 70-30 record after 100 games.
 
I was spoiled rotten.  From 1970 to 1977, the Reds:
  • Made the playoffs 5 times
  • Reached the World Series 4 times
  • Won 2 World Championships
  • Took home 6 of the 8 NL MVP awards (Johnny Bench 2, Joe Morgan 2, Pete Rose and George Foster 1 each, and Tony Perez finished 3rd in 1970)
  • Perhaps the greatest 8-man lineup in history, featuring 3 Hall of Fame players, the all-time hit king, 3 more players who weren’t too far short of Hall of Fame careers, and a 4-time Gold Glove center fielder
 
I wanted to play like them.  I tried to emulate them….to flap my arm at the plate and to dominate on the basepaths like Joe Morgan, to drive in runs like Tony Perez, to skip a throw off the turf like Dave Concepcion (a trick that didn’t work nearly as well on the sandlot field as it did on Astroturf), to hustle and slide head-first like Pete Rose, to hit a screaming liner with a black bat like George Foster, to gallop after a fly ball and unleash cannon-like throws like Cesar Geronimo, and to slap a ball into the ground and beat out an infield hit like Ken Griffey.
 
Oh…..also, to try hold seven baseballs in my right hand and to catch like Johnny Bench.  I only came up about 4 baseballs short.
 
So…..I’m telling you this to help establish that, when it comes to the Reds, and to Johnny Bench in particular, my credentials are in "good order".  I followed the team, I fell asleep listening to games on the radio, I attended when I could, I watched them whenever they managed to be on TV.   
 
From early on in his career, Johnny Bench established himself as the gold standard of receivers.  He was quickly anointed as one of the best of all-time, and he ripped off 10 consecutive Gold Glove awards.  There was no question in my area (and many other areas as well)….Johnny Bench was the greatest of all time, especially defensively.
 
Despite all of that, and despite how much I admired Johnny Bench, I believe in the following statement:
 
 
I think Ivan Rodriguez was a better defensive catcher than Johnny Bench.
 
 
I suspect that if you were to poll experts, Bench would probably be named the top defensive catcher of all time.  There are plenty of worthy candidates….Yogi Berra, Gary Carter, Bob Boone, Jim Hegan, Roy Campanella, Jim Sundberg, Ray SchalkSteve Yeager, from my neck of the woods (Dayton, OH) was an exceptional defensive catcher, who would have played more if he had been a better hitter.  Charles Johnson was a terrific catcher.  Yadier Molina is still active, but has already made his case for inclusion in that group.  But, I think Bench would win such a vote.
 
However…..
 
I think, defensively, Rodriguez was even better than Bench.  A lot of this is the "eye test", and certainly subjective on my part.   I absolutely loved watching Rodriguez play catcher.  As good as Bench was, I think Rodriguez was quicker, and his arm was just as good.  I don’t think he’s much better defensively….I think it’s a fine line between them.  But, if forced to choose, taking everything into consideration, I’d go with Pudge.
 
I’m not just saying this to be contrary.  To even suggest that someone was better than Bench defensively is fightin’ words in these parts.  It would be like badmouthing Skyline Chili, Montgomery Inn ribs, or Graeter’s ice cream, and I’m sure I’ll get kicked out of some local Reds fan clubs for even suggesting it, but I happen to believe it.
 
Is there any other evidence to support that notion?  Let’s look at a few things, no one of which is overwhelming in isolation, but just to look at what’s out there:
 
Rodriguez was exclusively a catcher
 
In order to keep his bat in the lineup, Bench played a fair amount of other positions – 1B, 3B, OF.  He ended up with about 80% of his 2,193 career games at catcher, roughly 20% at other positions.  I wouldn’t have guessed that…..I would have guessed 90% catcher, 10% other positions.
 
Rodriguez almost never played another position.  He played 2,436 games, 2,427 of which were as a catcher (he played 8 at 1B, 1 at 2B).  In essence, he was exclusively a catcher.  It’s hard to conceive of him playing anywhere else.
 
To me, that has some meaning when we’re talking about key defensive positions.  Luis Aparicio played 100% of his time at SS.  They didn’t move him elsewhere when he got older….he just became an old shortstop.  Ozzie Smith was the same way…..no shifting to 2B….he played 100% at SS.
 
Same with Bill Mazeroski, and Brooks Robinson.  Well, Maz did play about 10 games at 3B in his last couple of seasons, but that’s pretty minor.  These defensive standouts didn’t move as they aged….they got old, but they stayed at their position. 
 
Now, I know they moved Bench around some to keep his bat in the lineup….that’s certainly part of it.  And, of course, it was a loony idea to try and make him the regular 3B late in his career.  But I think there is some significance to Rodriguez never being moved around.  They kept him at catcher.
 
OK…so that’s the kind of thinking that could just as easily be wrong.  What else?
 
What do the Metrics Imply?
 
I should mention, before going further, that defensive metrics aren’t always the most persuasive tool in the toolbox.  Relatively speaking, a lot of them are still in their infancy, and met with a high degree of skepticism.  I’m not going to try and convince you otherwise. 
 
However, I thought it might be interesting to look at catchers across a spectrum of defensive metrics, no one of which is the ultimate arbiter.  Still, sometimes looking across various metrics can provide some sense of who tends to do well, and maybe even offer some opportunities for a degree of consensus.
 
Defensive Games at Catcher
Source: Baserball-reference.com
 
Admittedly, this one’s pretty "basic".  But, a long career at catcher seems consistent with possessing a certain amount of defensive proficiency, doesn’t it?  Who has been entrusted with catching the most games?
 
Player 
Defensive
Games as C
Ivan Rodriguez 
2,427
Carlton Fisk
2,226
Bob Boone 
2,225
Gary Carter
2,056
Jason Kendall 
2,025
Tony Pena 
1,950
Brad Ausmus 
1,938
A.J. Pierzynski 
1,936
Jim Sundberg 
1,927
Al Lopez
1,918
 
I remember Al Lopez famously held the record for many years, but several more recent catchers have surpassed it, with Rodriguez sitting at the top.  Generally speaking, I would say that there are some catchers with pretty good defensive reputations on that list, with the possible exception of Kendall and Pierzynski.  (Of course, a skeptic might point out that, if Rodriguez were guilty of steroid use, that that could certainly help in this category).
 
 
Gold Glove Awards at Catcher
Source: Baseball-reference.com
 
Another "basic" category, and granted this one contains a high degree of subjectivity and is prone to being awarded more by reputation than anything else.  Plus, it only goes back about 60 years.  Still, it gives us some insight as to the perception of defensive prowess by those observing the game at a point in time. 
 
Here are the catchers who have won 4 or more.  Once again, Rodriguez is at the top with 13, the first 10 of which were consecutive.  Bench, of course, also famously won 10 in a row.  Molina won his 8 in a row, his string broken by Buster Posey in 2016.  Perez has won the last 4 AL Gold Gloves, and at 26 could be in line for a few more before he’s through.
 
Player
Gold Gloves
Ivan Rodriguez
13
Johnny Bench
10
Yadier Molina
8
Bob Boone
7
Jim Sundberg
6
Bill Freehan
5
Del Crandall
4
Charles Johnson
4
Mike Matheny
4
Tony Pena
4
Salvador Perez
4
 
 
Fielding Wins Above Replacement
Source: Seamheads.com
 
This metric is the same as dWAR that you would find on Baseball-reference.com, but with the "positional adjustment" removed, so if you’re comparing those figures, that will explain the difference.
 
Players
Fielding Wins above Replacement
Ivan Rodriguez
14.5
Gary Carter
14.3
Jim Sundberg
12.1
Charlie Bennett
12.0
Yadier Molina
11.9
Bob Boone
11.4
Johnny Bench
9.8
Steve Yeager
8.4
Brad Ausmus
7.9
Rick Dempsey
7.6
 
Once again, Rodriguez tops the list, edging out Carter.
 
A pretty good list….certainly contains several names you’d expect to see at the top, including that favorite of the "old-timey" crowd, Charlie Bennett.  Every catcher on the list won multiple Gold Gloves except for Bennett (who last played about 60 years before they started the award), Yeager, and Dempsey, but they were all outstanding defensive catchers by reputation.
 
The next 10 on that list includes defensive standouts such as Charles Johnson, Del Crandall, Ron Karkovice, Randy Hundley, and Tony Pena.
 
Fielding Win Shares
Source: Seamheads.com
 
Players
Fielding Win Shares
Ivan Rodriguez
150.1
Gary Carter
127.0
Bob Boone
117.4
Jim Sundberg
111.9
Johnny Bench
109.5
Gabby Hartnett
109.1
Brad Ausmus
106.2
Yogi Berra
105.7
Carlton Fisk
104.9
Tony Pena
103.8
 
There are several of the same names that appeared on the prior lists, and also includes others like Berra and Hartnett, both of whom had stellar defensive reputations as well . 
 
The next 10 names on that list includes catchers with stellar defensive reputations such as Lance Parrish, Yadier Molina, Ray Schalk, Bill Dickey, Al Lopez, Del Crandall, and Jim Hegan.
 
Total Zone Fielding Runs Above Average
Source: Baseball-reference.com as provided by BaseballProjection.com
Defined as "the number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of plays made."
 
Note – this has to be taken with a grain of salt, as it tends to exclude pre-1950’s catchers, so it’s more relevant for catchers over the past 60 years or so.  Still, it contains a lot of the familiar names you’d expect to find:
 
Player
Total Zone Runs as C
Ivan Rodriguez
167
Yadier Molina
130
Jim Sundberg
114
Bob Boone
107
Gary Carter
106
Brad Ausmus
99
Johnny Bench
97
Del Crandall
72
Charles Johnson
71
Rick Dempsey
70
Steve Yeager
70
 
Again, several players are common to the previous lists.  The next 10 on the list includes such names as Clay Dalrymple, Ron Karkovice, Mike Matheny, and Tom Pagnozzi.
 
Caught Stealing %
Source: Baseball-reference.com
 
Here’s one you may not have seen before – the # of times a catcher led his league in Caught Stealing %.
 
Player
Times Led League in Caught Stealing %
Ivan Rodriguez
9
Gabby Hartnett
6
Roy Campanella
5
Yadier Molina
4
Bill Dickey
3
Bob Boone
3
Buddy Rosar
3
Gary Carter
3
Hank Gowdy
3
Jim Hegan
3
Johnny Bench
3
Lou Criger
3
Ray Schalk
3
Ron Karkovice
3
 
Granted, caught stealing data is a little erratic over the full span of history, and for some seasons the data is incomplete. 
 
For what it’s worth, Rodriguez kind of dominates the field here in terms of how often he was the league leader.  His "bold ink" in this category is impressive, as are Gabby Hartnett’s and Roy Campanella’s.
 
It’s also interesting to look at career caught stealing %’s vs. league norms.  I compiled this table of some of the top catchers in history (not just the defensive standouts) and came up with CS% "Plus", which is sort of like ERA+ or OPS+, in that it indexes/normalizes the figure in context. 
 
In this case, I took the catcher’s caught stealing % and indexed it against the league average for the years of his career (according to baseball-reference.com).  If the catcher’s CS % is the same as the league average, CS%+ would be 100, as it is in Ted Simmons’ case.  The "+/-" in the final column is just the difference in percentage points between the catcher’s figure and the league average.  In other words, Rodriguez’s 46% CS% figure is 15 percentage points better than the league average during his career of 31%.
 
In this list, Rodriguez has one of the more impressive "relative" figures, behind only Molina (who’s still active).  Yes, others surpassed his 46% figure, but he did so in an era where the norm was 31%.   Campanella’s was an impressive 57%, but league CS norms were higher in his era (42%), which (at least looking at it in this way) makes Rodriguez’s figure a little more impressive.  Campanella and Hartnett do rate very high even by this measure, though. 
 
As you probably know, caught stealing %’s have been on the decline for quite a while.  They were around 45% or so for much of the early part of the 1900’s, then by the 1960’s they started dropping into the mid-to-high 30%’s, and in the past decade they’ve been mostly in the 25-30% range.
 
The less said about Piazza’s figure the better……
 
Player
CS %
League Avg
CS% +
+/- vs. Lg
Yadier Molina
42%
28%
150
14
Ivan Rodriguez
46%
31%
148
15
Roy Campanella
57%
42%
136
15
Gabby Hartnett
56%
44%
127
12
Charles Johnson
39%
31%
126
8
Salvador Perez
35%
28%
125
7
Johnny Bench
43%
35%
123
8
Joe Mauer
33%
27%
122
6
Bob Boone
40%
33%
121
7
Al Lopez
54%
45%
120
9
Lance Parrish
39%
33%
118
6
Jim Sundberg
41%
35%
117
6
Brad Ausmus
35%
30%
117
5
Ray Schalk
51%
44%
116
7
Thurman Munson
44%
38%
116
6
Steve Yeager
38%
33%
115
5
Del Crandall
46%
40%
115
6
Bill Dickey
47%
41%
115
6
Rick Dempsey
40%
35%
114
5
Gary Carter
35%
32%
109
3
Tony Pena
35%
32%
109
3
Yogi Berra
49%
45%
109
4
Jim Hegan
50%
46%
109
4
Rick Ferrell
44%
41%
107
3
Ernie Lombardi
48%
45%
107
3
Wally Schang
46%
44%
105
2
Gene Tenace
36%
35%
103
1
Ted Simmons
34%
34%
100
0
Roger Bresnahan
44%
45%
98
-1
Bill Freehan
37%
38%
97
-1
Carlton Fisk
34%
35%
97
-1
Jason Kendall
29%
30%
97
-1
Jorge Posada
28%
30%
93
-2
Mickey Cochrane
39%
42%
93
-3
Mike Piazza
23%
31%
74
-8
 
 
Fangraphs DEF (Defensive Runs Above Average)
Source: Fangraphs.com
 
Name
Def
Ivan Rodriguez
317.1
Bob Boone
232.2
Jim Sundberg
223.7
Gary Carter
222.1
Yadier Molina
193.6
Brad Ausmus
178.7
Charlie Bennett
168.7
Johnny Bench
161.4
Tony Pena
155.1
Rick Dempsey
154.5
 
This one’s pretty consistent with a couple of the other lists, repeating many of the same, familiar names.
 
Wrapping it Up
 
The point of all of this was not to overwhelm anyone with defensive statistics, or to even argue the merit or validity of them.  I think defensive metrics are still very much evolving very rapidly, and I’m sure they have a ways to go before they acquire the power of language.   We don’t have the same level of confidence in them that we do with offensive metrics, especially the further back we go in history. 
 
So, this wasn’t a statement on anything like that.  Bill once made a comment along the lines of how we tend to evaluate hitters by results.  We don’t evaluate hitters by how pretty their swing is.  But, we tend to evaluate fielders by how good they look doing their job.  I think there’s still a lot of truth to that, even as defensive metrics progress in their development.
 
The point of reviewing this spectrum of metrics and awards was merely to observe that:
 
a)      It sure seems like the same catchers tend to do well across a spectrum of these categories

b)      The catchers that seem to do well also seem to be ones that have good defensive reputations

c)       Ivan Rodriguez is consistently at or near the top of them.
 
So, Rodriguez appealed to the "eye test" side of me, and the metrics, such as they are at this point, certainly seem consistent with his reputation as a superior catcher.
 
So, take this for what you wish.  In my opinion, the top defensive catchers of all time are: Ivan Rodriguez, Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella, Bob Boone, and Jim Hegan.  By reputation, Biz Mackey should probably be in there somewhere too.  Gary Carter, Jim Sundberg, Gabby Hartnett, Yogi Berra, Ray Schalk, and Buck Ewing probably all merit honorable mention as well for their prowess and reputations earned in their various eras, and Yadier Molina might force his way into the upper echelon by the time he’s done.
 
For my money, though, this diehard Reds fan picks Ivan Rodriguez as the #1 defensive catcher that I’ve ever seen.  I’ll still take Bench overall, if we’re including both offense and defense.  But, if we’re strictly talking defense, I’m giving the nod to Rodriguez. 
 
Put in the simplest of terms….he checks all the boxes for me.  He’s got the awards.  He has the metrics.  But, most of all, as a fan, I thoroughly enjoyed watching him behind the plate. 
 
To paraphrase a quote….Rodriguez didn’t make you forget Bench….he made you remember him.  And then some.
 
That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.  I’m looking forward to see how the voters evaluate him.
 
Thanks for reading,
Dan 
 
 

COMMENTS (22 Comments, most recent shown first)

tigerlily
Hey Maris & Billsizer - I also took a look at the DH Billsizer mentioned. I'd always wondered about those 2 games in CF for Bench, but never checked into until now. I had assumed he'd ended up there as a defensive replacement, not as a starter. His second CF start was a week later - also in the second game of a doubleheader (this one against the Padres). In both games the OF was McRae LF, Bench CF, Rose RF.

One other thing I noticed when looking into this was how many doubleheaders were played back then. The Reds played in 11 doubleheaders as follows;

4/12 @SFG
5/17 ATL
5/26 SDP
6/21 LAD
7/3 HOU
7/10 @ATL
7/20 @STL
7/31 CHC
8/9 @LAD
8/23 @NYM
9/7 @SFG

They played more doubleheaders in a month than any team will play during the 2017 season.
12:44 PM Dec 9th
 
MarisFan61
@ Billsizer: (BTW, any relation to Ted Sizer? I imagine you've at least heard of him. I don't expect anyone else has.) :-)

Bench playing CF??? I had to check out that game. A few things about it:
It was one of 2 times he played the position, both in 1970. This game was the nightcap of the doubleheader. It went 15 innings. He stayed in CF through the 8th, caught a couple of fly balls. It seems nothing much happened out there. I'm guessing that one reason they felt OK putting him out there was that the starting pitcher was Wayne Simpson, who looks from his record like he might have been a "ground ball pitcher."
And also.....I'm not putting much on this, because of "small sampling" among other things, but since I saw it, I'm mentioning it:

The back-up catcher was Pat Corrales (who coincidentally was mentioned in a "Hey Bill" today, basically disparagingly).
For what it's worth, that starting pitcher (Simpson) had a much better record (career) with Corrales catching than with Bench. I better mention that the Simpson-Corrales data only cover 58 innings.
11:09 AM Dec 9th
 
337
One my constant thoughts about defensive ability concerns the players who held on to their jobs despite not hitting very much. There are a lot of great hitting catchers on these lists, and I believe they certainly COULD have held onto their jobs while being below-average defensively. I suspect that many of them did exactly that. I also think a guy like Jerry Grote held onto his job (securely for over a decade) despite his batting ability. I'm skeptical, let's say, about lists of defensive wizards who also happened to be good hitters. It's possible, sure, that some of them excelled in both areas of play, but is it probable that the vast majority did? I don't think so.
10:55 AM Dec 9th
 
billsizer
You've made an excellent case for IRod. And an even better case for your Reds fan credentials. I'm not a Reds fan, but the most significant games I've ever attended in-person were a doubleheader at Crosley Field in May 1970, right before it closed. In the second game Hank Aaron got his 3000th hit and hit his 570th HR. Bench played CF. In the first game Hoyt Wilhelm struck out Bench, Perez, and Lee May in a row. Despite those heroics the Reds swept the DH. Stan Musial was in attendance. My friends and I were kicked out of Warren Giles box. He was sitting on the other side of the park with Musial.
10:51 AM Dec 9th
 
steve161
One way to think about a catcher's impact on the opponent's running game is to look at SB-attempts-against. It's only a hint, of course, because the pitching staff is a significant factor, but it's a useful hint. For example, from last year to this, Yadier Molina's SBA against increased by some 50%, suggesting that the inevitable decline period has begun and that teams know it.
8:00 AM Dec 9th
 
clayyearsley
I'm biased, let's get that out first. Spent the 70's in Ohio, baseball consciousness starting in 1973. Moved to DFW in 1981. I got to see 3 great defensive catchers on a regular basis - Bench, Sundberg, Rodriguez - the former 2 a bit later in their careers. There is no doubt in my mind that Pudge2 was superior. Yes, the other guys could throw you out, but Rodriguez just made you abandon the runnng game. Even if you weren't planning on running, he'd throw behind you and sometimes nail your butt.
He was an above average hitter for about 13 years - well above average for more than half of those. I know we're beyond talking about batting average, but...he had a run of 13 seasons in which he hit .300 ten times, with the others being .298, .297, .276.
Yes, he played in the steroid era. Yes, he played with Canseco and was called out by him. Yes, he hit his peak offensively before 2005. On the other hand, by then he was 29 years old and had already been an everyday catcher for more than a decade. Honestly, look at his career batting lines - it looks like a normal aging pattern, especially given the wear-and-tear of being a backstop.
His career OPS+ is brought down by 2 seasons of ramp-up at ages 19 and 20, and 5 or 6 of wind-down in his mid/late 30s, when Bench was already retired.
With the Gold Gloves and HOF Monitor score more than double the level expected of a hall of famer, I don't see how you could not vote for him. I guess they'll make him wait a year or two. More than that and I'll be very disappointed.
4:28 AM Dec 9th
 
MarisFan61
Great point by Dave about that intangible, about how a catcher who cuts off the running game takes a burden off the pitcher and enables him (presumably) to work better and more easily. I think it's an example of an 'intangible' that can eventually be approximated, but probably never measured per se -- and it sort of already is, partially if sloppily.

It's got to be part of "Catcher E.R.A."
That would make it a sloppy indeterminate portion of a sloppy stat. But it's in there.

This is such a subtle kind of thing, but it could be quite important. I would liken it to another thing, something I've talked about a few times and which never resonated with hardly anyone (except Bill, who made a little comment on it): How good fielding helps to 'save' a pitching staff, by enabling the pitchers to get through innings more easily (totally besides whatever psychic benefit the pitchers get from having better fielders), which either takes some strain off the pitchers or (and/or) lets them stay in the game longer......which.....(the logical ramifications are endless; you can spin out some more of them yourselves) .....which probably lessens the pitchers' proneness to sore arms and injuries, reduces their likelihood of going on the DL, reduces the likelihood that the team will need to be scrambling to find extra pitchers, possibly enables the team to carry one fewer pitcher which frees up a spot for an extra position player..... I've gone on long enough. :-)

....and how poorer fielding similarly wastes the pitching staff.

I think this thing has to exist -- how could it not?
And I think it would be even harder to measure than what Dave talked about.

They're similar kinds of things.
11:44 PM Dec 8th
 
DMBBHF
Hi Tigerlilly,

It was Riverfront. I unfortunately never made it to Crosley Field. I would have liked to have experienced at least once.

Trivia question #1 - Who hit the first home run at Riverfront?
Answer: Hank Aaron

Trivia question #2 - Who was the first Red to hit a home run at Riverfront?
Answer: Tommy Helms, who only hit one all season.

Quite a contrast there.....Aaron vs. Helms.
10:52 PM Dec 8th
 
DaveFleming
First, I agree with Dan's assessment that Pudge 2.0 is the best defensive catcher of all-time.

I think, too, that this reveals the difficulty of measuring, accurately, the defensive value of a catcher. Ivan Rodriguez gets credit for having a good caught-stealing percentage, but we haven't even factored how much his pitchers were aided by not having to really worry about base-runners, because only the burners would even think about running on Rodriguez.

Jon Lester has had a few great years on the heels of his managers saying 'Just forget about pick-offs. Just play your game.' This has simplified his processing a little bit, and allowed him to be a better pitcher. The manager and catcher have said: "We're taking care of this three percent of the job. You're off the hook on that. Concentrate on your pitches."

This has helped Lester a lot. He's gotten big CY votes in two of the last three years, which is about when his managers decided to forget about pick-offs entirely.

Ivan Rodriguez, in essence, allowed his pitchers a similar freedom: when he was behind the plate, they just didn't have to think, really, about holding a runner on. They could focus on their pitching.

This is a small intangible. Maybe it's actually measurable, but it would take a lot of work to measure it, and in the mean time it's just something we have to guess on. I think it helped his team a lot that people rarely ran on Rodriguez...and I don't know that the metrics cite that.
3:09 PM Dec 8th
 
rwarn17588
I have to confess I'd never heard of Charlie Bennett (or simply forgot about him) until this essay. I Googled him and came away very impressed. One helluva player, and it's a damned shame what happened to end his career.

Based on his exploits and his invention, I would have no problem with him being in the Hall of Fame.
2:47 PM Dec 8th
 
ventboys
Nicely done, Dan, breaking down the defensive factors like that. The basic problem with catcher defensive metrics is that they tend to measure the same thing - how good was he at stopping the running game? - because the rest of the job either wasn't quantified until recently, or is shot through with sample size and choice issues.

Pudge II (Fisk is Pudge I to me) lost a ton of weight between the 2004 and 2005 seasons, so much that you can still find articles about it with a simple google search. His batting numbers lost as much weight as the rest of him, as his ops+ dropped from 137 to 95, and stayed under 100 the rest of his career.

As you point out here, Dan, Pudge may have been such a dominant defensive player that he deserves induction even if he was, in fact, a below average hitter absent help from his favorite pharma girls. The trick, I think, is to figure out how much air to take out of his numbers.

Even with whatever "help" he took advantage of, as someone said earlier his career ops+ was just 106. It was 119 from 1993-2004, still a tick below most of the best hitting catchers, who seem to bunch up around 125. My best guess is that his career ops+, absent some conservative assumtions, would have been below 100.

With his defense I think that's still a Hall of Fame catcher, but is he a BBWAA level Hall of Fame catcher? How often has the BBWAA elected someone with an adjusted ops+ below 100? Maranville, Ozzie ... any other catchers?
2:04 PM Dec 8th
 
rtayatay
I believe the issue the public has with steroids is that they boost offensive numbers (and to a lesser degree, pitching numbers) beyond where they should be... more than anything else, in the home run column. I think voters will look at IRod's main argument for getting into the HOF as his defense, which I do not think people associate with steroids. Therefore, my guess is that his candidacy will not be significantly affected by steroid suspicions.
12:57 PM Dec 8th
 
337
steve161, sorry, i don't mean to be unfair to Dave, but that's a serious flaw in his case for Posada. As an offensive performer, he may well be comparable to Dickey, but that case falls apart when defense comes in, and Dan's point (as I read it) is that for catchers, defense is very important. Seems like a big point to omit: to me, it explains why Dickey's in and Posada's out, in a nutshell.
11:58 AM Dec 8th
 
tigerlily
Hi Dan. This isn't about Pudge; but, I just wanted to ask if that first Reds game you saw in 1970 was at Crosley Field or at their new Riverfront Stadium? If it was at Crosley, I just wanted to hear your perceptions of the place.
11:40 AM Dec 8th
 
astros34
I feel that using Bench's games played other than at C against him is a poor argument and you kind of lost me there. He played 158 games in 1970 and 160 in 1974 while 9 times playing 140 or more, which he would never been able to do without playing other positions, which he would never have done without being a top-notch hitter. Bench's career OPS+ was 126 while Pudge's was 106, probably not good enough to warrant his playing another position.

Having said that, I saw Pudge play in Arlington about a week after he came up and he made some throws that blew my mind. I'm sure he's the strongest-armed C of all time.
10:55 AM Dec 8th
 
steve161
337, that's not quite fair to Dave. While he doesn't cite a bunch of (in any event dubious) defensive metrics to make his case for Posada, he does talk about the importance of the position.

Now, I'm not sure that the mere fact of playing a lot of games at catcher is a prima facie argument for defensive excellence when the catcher is also an offensive contributor. Some teams simply place a higher value on offense compared to others. The Mets play d'Arnaud ahead of Plawecki, for example. The Yankees played Posada ahead of Girardi as soon as they could, despite Girardi's obvious superiority and his efforts to 'learn Posada his experience'. The Dodgers and the Mets played Piazza rather than try to teach him another position (though I continue to believe that his poor throwing obscures his overall competence at the position).

As far as the specifics are concerned: IMO Rodriguez is a no-doubt Hall-of-Famer; Posada is borderline at best.
9:39 AM Dec 8th
 
337
Totally doesn't compare to Dave's article about Posada because your focus here is all about defense, an area he overlooks almost completely (as suits his argument for Posada). D is, as you say, kinda important.
1:44 AM Dec 8th
 
MarisFan61
Bruce: (also known as evan) :-)
To you it's nonsense.
To some of us, it's sense.

Not necessarily to figure out who used and who didn't, but to feel reasonably satisfied that the player's 'greatness' wasn't a total creation from PED's.

That's why some people who wouldn't ever vote for (say) Rafael Palmeiro might vote for Bonds and Clemens.
1:29 AM Dec 8th
 
JackKeefe
Agreed. I saw them both and rate Pudge a tick better, particularly in pouncing on balls in front of the plate. They both had quick strong throws to second base. Forget Caught Stealing---I wonder how many baserunners they deterred from attempting to steal?

Like Bench, Rodriguez was also a guy who played on a lot of winning teams. His Rangers made the playoffs 3 times, he moved to the Marlins and won a World Series (where he was MVP), and then his Tigers reached the WS, but lost. He was a two-way player who had an impact on offense and defense. He made a difference.

But I firmly believe he took steroids. His power numbers rose steadily after Canseco became his teammate, as his body inflated, and they fell off a cliff once baseball toughened its steroid policy, as his body deflated. His OPS+ went from 137 in 2004 to 95 in 2005, the year that baseball cracked down on steroids, and he was never the same hitter again.

So if I had to pick the best catcher, I'd still go with Bench, because his numbers were real.
12:26 AM Dec 8th
 
arnewcs
It seems to get overlooked that Pudge had a very long career for a catcher: 21 seasons, and he was at catcher, not DH or first base, almost every game he played. Offhand, I don't know who else, besides Fisk, would have caught more games than him.
10:34 PM Dec 7th
 
evanecurb
I agree that Rodriguez was the best defensive catcher ever. I think PED suspicions will keep him out of the Hall for the time being. I wish the writers would stop all that nonsense about who used PEDs and who might have. It's a mess.
10:02 PM Dec 7th
 
doncoffin
I'm pleased that you did not include anything about "pitch-framing," as that's a metric that really needs to be called "took advantage of bad umpiring." It definitely has value, it has definitely resulted in some players having longer careers and having made pots of money. But it's taking advantage in a structural flaw in the game, in a way that the other metrics (as I understand them) don't.
9:40 PM Dec 7th
 
 
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