BILL JAMES ONLINE

The Best Players of the Last 50 Years - Part I - Kickoff & Catcher Review

March 25, 2020
The Dan Marks Era
 
Does anyone remember the "Al Franken Decade" running joke? At the end of 1979, Al Franken (former Saturday Night performer and eventual U.S. Senator from Minnesota) went on SNL and declared the 1980's as the "Al Franken Decade", because, well, why wouldn't he? In a similar vein, I'm declaring Major League Baseball from 1970-2019 as the "Dan Marks Era", because, well, why not? I think I deserve it.
 
Yes, I have now followed baseball for a cool, even 50 years. Oh, I have some vague pre-1970 memories, but 1970 was my first true season following Major League Baseball. And, especially with all the time spent sitting around at home now, it seemed like a good time for a retrospective piece.
 
Now, before you get any bright ideas, this is in no way meant to be in competition with Joe Posnanski's ongoing top 100 countdown series. For one thing, I'm not a crazy person, and that's not my characterization of it....it's Joe's. Writing 100 fairly lengthy player profiles and releasing them at the rate of nearly one per day is not something I'd sign up for. It's nuts, and he admits it. Note that I'm not a subscriber, so I haven't read his pieces, but everything I've heard about them is that they are excellent. So, no, this isn't that, and I couldn't compete with that series even if I wanted to. No, this is a little different, although it does have a countdown component to it. 
 
So what's different? For starters, I'm not going to write about the top 100 over the entire span of baseball history. By the time I'm done, it'll be closer to 300 players (although not nearly the same level of detail as Joe's 100). And, more significantly, I'm confining the scope of this series to the last 50 years....to the "Dan Marks Era". 
 
Why? For one thing, my thought is that if I were to do my own top 100 of all time, an awful lot of it would resemble anyone else's list - Joe Posnanski's, or one of Bill James' top 100 lists, or anyone else's list, especially at the top of the list, because, after all, if you're going to do a top 100 list based on the entire span of history, you have virtually no choice but to have the likes of Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Honus Wagner, Ted Williams, and Hank Aaron  near the top. And if you're including the greats of the Negro Leagues, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Oscar Charleston have to be up there as well. It's inevitable, otherwise your credibility is called into question. The only real drama is the quibbling over the final pecking order, and possibly some difference of opinion on the lower ranked players that you decide to include.
 
So, I decided to change the scope. I only wanted to include players whom I had personally see play. Because, here's the thing.....I love baseball history, and I can experience the greats of baseball like Ruth, Wagner, and Paige through record books and stories, but my experience of their greatness is incomplete because I never personally saw them play. Something is missing. The joy of experiencing Ozzie Smith or Mike Trout or Albert Pujols or Greg Maddux or Joe Morgan or anyone else over the past 50 years by actually seeing them play and living through their seasons gives me (and you) a much more robust appreciation of their greatness than anything I could gather simply by seeing their stats on a page or by hearing someone else tell me about their exploits. 
 
Do you remember reading Bill's thoughts on how much personal information we all carry about players that we observe? I can't remember the exact passage, but he used Mickey Rivers as an example, saying that, as fans, we have an unbelievable amount of knowledge about a player. In Rivers' case, we know how he flapped his arms when he threw, how he would amble slowly to the plate, but once he started running the bases we could see how fast he was. We experienced his unusual sayings and philosophies, such as "I don't get upset over things I can control, because if I can control them, there's no sense in getting upset.   And I don't get upset over things I can't control, because if I can't control them, there's no sense in getting upset."
 
We remember his funny little bat flip at the plate. We even remember the way that Pete Rose played him way in tight at third base during the 1976 World Series to take away the bunt, and dared him to slap it past him. We know a thousand little details about him, because we experienced him live and in person. And that Rivers was just one player among thousands. Experiencing a player while he's actually playing opens the doors to a virtual wonderland of information, insights, and knowledge.
 
So, limiting the scope to players I've actually seen also gives me the right to "judge" a player's excellence based on what I personally witnessed. Now, I know that some might dismiss that as non-scientific and too subjective, but so what? Who says a list of any kind has to be totally objective? It needs to have credibility, but it's my list, and no one else's. You obviously don't have to agree, and to tell you the truth, I wouldn't expect you to, at least not on every point nor on every selection. It's simply a way of conveying to you what I think, and an opportunity to shine the light on some players that you may not have thought much about for a while, many players who don't come within shouting distance of an all-time top 100, but who were noteworthy players in their own right.
 
So, that is the thought behind this project - to identify and rank the greatest players of the past 50 seasons, using my own approach of how to rank them, using largely a variety of category ranks, but also a bit of my own subjectivity, because, after all, it's my list, and no one else's.
 
The Approach
 
So, the first thing to decide is how to select the players. There are many great players for whom I witnessed at least a portion of their careers - Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente....I got to see all of them in the early 1970's, and they had some great moments....but they were winding down their careers. I saw a portion of their greatness, but didn't see the majority of it.
 
So, first, I decided to only include players whose "midpoint" of their careers occurred in 1970 or later. The "midpoint" is defined as halfway between a player's first season and his final season. Obviously, that's not a perfect solution as it doesn't exactly divide a player's best seasons in half, but I wanted a quick and dirty way to sort through thousands of records to come up with a fair way to make a first cut.
 
Second, because of the approach I took (as you'll see shortly), I put a minimum requirement of 500 games played. Now, that's not very many, and no one with that few games would rank very highly, but I wanted to do a simple data filtering that eliminated those that had only played a few games so that they didn't bias some of the "per game" data points that I would be using.
 
Combining those 2 selection criteria, most of the field positions yielded between 160 and 200 candidates apiece. Note -  I decided to do the rankings position by position,  because that's how my mind tends to try and rank players in the first place. It's a lot easier for me to try and rank within a position than to try and rank across positions.
 
Now, what data to include? I decided to use an "indexing" approach using the following 11 "categories" that were readily available and fairly easily downloaded via a combination of baseball-reference.com and The Baseball Gauge:
 
·         Career rWAR
·         WAR7 (A player's top 7 rWAR seasons, not necessarily consecutive)
·         rWAR per 162 games
·         Career Win Shares
·         Win Shares 7 (A player's top 7 Win Share seasons, not necessarily consecutive)
·         Win Shares per 162 games
·         Games Played
·         All Star Game selections
·         Wins Above Average (WAA)
·         dWAR (defensive WAR)
·         MVP Points (explained later)
 
Finally, there's a 12th factor - a subjective adjustment.   That's basically me reserving the right to subjectively move a player slightly up or slightly down based on my own personal judgment. It's my executive privilege, so to speak, although I tried not to get too carried away with it.
 
Now, you may think that this is too "win" centric using too many "win" type metrics, and perhaps you're right, and I certainly didn't want to turn this into a simple WAR ranking. However, I am using several variations on the core "WAR" and "Win Shares" career figures, and I think for the purposes of this exercise, it works better than relying too much on individual specific stat categories like home runs, hits, RBI, etc.
 
Now, you may recognize the first 2 (WAR and WAR7) as the 2 components of JAWS, and indeed they are, and they do give 2 different looks of WAR - one for approximation of total career value, and one that considers a player's "peak" seasons. But I certainly didn't want to stop there. So, I also included a simple calculation of WAR per 162 games as another way to put it into a "per season" context. And, just for the record, those 3 different takes on WAR do yield some fairly different results when you evaluate who does well by each one. Basic WAR is cumulative by nature and rewards someone that can stay productive for a long time, WAR7 tends to favor players who are able to have "big seasons", and WAR per 162 at least contextualizes WAR in the framework of "opportunities". WAR per 162 tends to favor productive players in mid-career (because they haven't yet experienced their decline phase yet).
 
In addition, I repeated the same 3 approaches (career, 7 best, and per 162) by applying them to Win Shares as well (at least the Win Share data that is available on the Baseball Gauge).   Obviously, a lot of players do well on both Win Shares and WAR, but there are key differences, so I wanted to include both metrics.
 
dWAR is included in WAR, of course, but I also counted it as its own separate index/category because I wanted to reward in particular defensive excellence in this approach. This helps someone like a Frank White at second base get a little "extra credit", and I was in favor of that.
 
Games? Games is simple, one of the more basic categories you can think of, but elegantly basic in that it represents a key element - the ability to be good enough to play. As Bill once observed many years ago, career games played is, in and of itself, a pretty good indicator of quality.
 
All Star Game selections? I'm sure many would dismiss that as pure hokum based on popularity, but, like games played, it's a fairly simple but effective gauge of quality. Sure, any Tom, Dick, or Harry could make an All Star Game or two, but if you're putting up 6, 7, 8 All Star appearances or more....well, you're doing something right. You're making an impact, you're getting recognition, and you're accomplishing something. If you look at players who make a high number of All Star Games, chances are they are high quality players.
 
MVP Points is a simple point system. Baseball-reference.com has a handy listing that shows the number of MVP wins, the number of top 5 finishes, and the number of top 10 finishes for each player. I gave 10 points for each MVP win, 5 points for each top 5 finish, and 1 point for each top 10 finish. I then added up the points to get "MVP Points".
 
With each of the 11 categories, I then "indexed" them so that the top performer(s) in each category got 100 points, and everyone else in that category got a % of 100 points based on how strong their performance was in relationship to the top performer.  For example, in the rWAR category at a position, if the highest figure that a player achieved was an rWAR of 80.0, that person got 100 points in that category. If someone had a rWAR of 70, he would receive 87.5 points (70/80*100). If a player had WAR of 40.0, he would receive 50 points. Using this method not only rewards how high you finish in a category, but how strong you were relative to the top performer.
 
I repeated that approach across all 11 categories, and then I averaged the points in each category to get an overall average "index" score, and then ranked all players at the position by that average.
 
Finally, I used my executive privilege to make any tweaks to the final results that I felt necessary. I tried to keep that to a minimum, and to not move anyone more than a position or two in the rankings.
 
Why am I drawn to this method? I like it because in order to do well, you generally need to do well across a spectrum of measurements. Is WAR better than Win Shares? Is WAR7 better than WAR? Is doing well in MVP voting better than WAA? Are you more impressed by great defense, or a lot of All Star games, or simply a long career? This methods looks at all of them and rewards someone who can manage to do well across the spectrum, rather than excelling in one particular measurement. And the results generally align fairly well with what I would expect, which I of course think is delightful.
 
So, that's it. I'm going to release each position as its own article, with focus on the top 25 at each position. Again, these won't be in the form of lengthy player profiles, although I plan to make a few observations on each selection in addition to the rankings. Most of the top selections won't surprise you, but maybe some of the lower ones will. And that might be where most of the fun is. After all, how many times do you get to hear about Mickey Tettleton these days?
 
For each player, I'm going to provide their best and worst categories along with where they rank in each of those. In this context, I decided to just list the actual rankings themselves rather than the "index points" for each category that I used for the actual scoring because I think straight rankings are more easily understood. I think it's easier to relate to someone ranking 5th in a category than for me to tell you that they got 85 points. At least I think it is. Note that the rankings are not all-time rankings, but rankings within the data set (that is, only among players at that position with a career mid-point of 1970 or later).
 
As a first installment, here are my top catchers of the past 50 years. And remember.....no Yogi Berra. No Mickey Cochrane. No Josh Gibson. Just the best of the Dan Marks Era.
 
 
Catchers - The Results
 
First of all, did anyone just miss getting included? Well, Bill Freehan, one of my personal favorites, just missed the date cutoff as his career midpoint was halfway through 1968. 
 
Among active players, Salvador Perez didn't miss by much (he's #27), so he could easily advance in the rankings if I were to redo them in a few years.
 
Any surprises? Well, I thought heading into this that Jason Varitek, A. J. Pierzynski, Darren Daulton, or Charles Johnson had a good chance to make it, but none of them scored high enough to make the top 25. Victor Martinez would have made the top 25, but he was a little problematic in that he actually had more games as a DH than as a catcher, so I decided to omit him.
 
#25-Mickey Tettleton
Best category: Win Shares/162 (17th)
Worst category: All Star Games (33rd )
 
More catcher than anything, but also DH'd a fair amount and played OF & 1B. In the Gene Tenace family of catchers with a low average but very high walks and power, had three 3 consecutive seasons (and 4 out of 5) with 30+ home runs and 100+ walks. After 4 nondescript years with the A's, enjoyed success in 3 to 4 year stints at Baltimore, Detroit, and Texas.
 
Who are the best switch-hitting catchers in history? There haven't been all that many. My top 10 (ranked as all-around players for their careers, not just hitters):
 
Rank
Player
1
Ted Simmons
2
Wally Schang
3
Jorge Posada
4
Mickey Tettleton
5
Jason Varitek
6
Victor Martinez
7
Butch Wynegar
8
Yasmani Grandal
9
Matt Wieters
10
Todd Hundley
 
Hard for me to know what to do with Martinez.....he's probably the best hitter of the bunch, and he's more catcher than any other field position, but was also more DH than catcher. There was also a 19th Century player named Duke Farrell who could be considered as well. Grandal may edge up the list some before he's done.
 
#24-Benito Santiago
Best category: Games (12th)
Worst category: WAR/162 (65th)
 
As a young player, I though Santiago had the makings of a Hall of Famer, and he was picking up some strong early markers with the Padres - Rookie of the Year, 3 Gold Gloves and 4 All Star games by the time he was 27. However, starting with his age 28 season when he signed as a free agent with the Marllins, he became a baseball nomad, bouncing around from team to team nearly every year, although he was in sufficient demand to wind up with a 20 year career.
 
#23-Mike Scioscia
Best category: Win Shares 7 (22nd)
Worst category: WAR/162 (36th)
 
Consummate plate blocker (at least with anyone not named Norm Charlton), he later became a well-respected (and World Series winning) manager for the Angels. I was kind of surprised he ranked so high, but he didn't have any real extreme strengths or weaknesses, ranking between 22nd and 36th in all 11 categories. A solid, across the board contributor, underrated member of 2 Dodger World Series champion teams.
 
#22-Tony Pena
Best category: dWAR (8th)
Worst category: Win Shares/162 (88th)
 
The first of 3 Pirates backstops to make the list, Pena is somewhat similar to Santiago in that he had 3 Gold Gloves and 4 All Star games in his 20's with his first team, then switched teams (in Pena's case through a big trade with the Cardinals) and then saw his career spiral downward, although (again like Santiago), he ended up with a long career for a catcher. Probably the 2nd best NL catcher of the 1980's (behind Gary Carter).
 
#21-Manny Sanguillen
Best category: MVP Points (17th)
Worst category: Games (32nd)
 
Sanguillen was one of my early favorites even though he played for a team that was a bit of a rival for my Reds (the Pirates and Reds faced off in both the 1970 and 1972 playoffs). Sanguillen was a lot of fun to watch both behind that plate and at the plate, where he swung at everything. He was kind of a rare commodity for a catcher in that he was a legitimate .300-type hitter, and he didn't just inch past .300....he had single-season averages of .328, .325, and .319. In my dataset, his .296 career batting average was 4th highest among catchers, behind only Mike Piazza (.308), Joe Mauer (.306), and Buster Posey (.302).
 
#20-Javy Lopez
Best category: MVP Points (12th)
Worst category: WAR/162 (28th)
 
Lopez is another one of those players who I thought had a possibility of a Hall of Fame career as I was watching it unfold. For one thing, he was always on TV, and he was always in the postseason. From 1995 through 2003, the Braves were in the playoffs every year, and Lopez was there with them except for the 1999 season when he was hurt. He wasn't the best catcher in the league (that was usually Mike Piazza), but he was a good defensive catcher who hit for power and average on the best team in the league, and he was a prominent part of that team. Had a career year for the Braves at age 32 and then moved on to Baltimore and was never quite the same (seems like a pattern among catchers, doesn't it?). Of course, he fell well short of a Hall of Fame standard, but he was a valuable contributor to a great team.
 
#19-Bob Boone
Best category: dWAR (3rd)
Worst category: WAR/162 (81st)
 
One of the shortcomings of my dataset is that it lists career games for each player, but it counts all positions played, not just at catcher. So Boone, who is actually #3 all time in games played at catcher (behind the 2 Pudges, Rodriguez and Fisk), is listed as #5 in that category in my dataset, because Gary Carter and Ted Simmons played more total games than Boone if you count other positions. Nevertheless, Boone scores quite high because of his ranking in both games and in defensive WAR. Not much of an offensive threat, although he was a timely hitter in the postseason (career .311 mark), and certainly had a reputation as one of the greatest defensive catchers ever (7 Gold Gloves ranks 4th among catchers).
 
#18-Brian McCann
Best category: All Star Games (9th)
Worst category: WAR/162 (35th)
 
From defensive standout Boone at #19, we go to the offensive-minded McCann at #18. One of the most consistent home run hitters you'll ever see, he hit between 18 and 26 home runs every year from 2006 to 2017.   He also made the All Star team 7 seasons in an 8-year stretch from 2006 to 2013. 
 
 
#17-Russell Martin
Best category: dWAR (11th)
Worst category: Win Shares/162 (35th)
 
Martin's another one of those guys that's not very glitzy, but does a consistently solid job. For most of his career he was usually good for 15-20 HR's a year, drew walks frequently enough to post a respectable OBP despite a mediocre batting average, managed to steal a few bases a year early in his career, has been pretty decent defensively, and he seems to end up on postseason teams pretty regularly (10 out of 14 seasons), although he's yet to experience his first World Series.
 
#16-Jason Kendall
Best category: Games (7th)
Worst category:  Win Shares/162 (26th)
 
The highest ranking of the 3 Pirates backstops in this list (Pena, Sanguillen, Kendall), Kendall is one catcher who, if you didn't know better, you would assume was a leadoff hitter (he led off in about 22% of his games, and also spent a lot of time hitting 2nd, 3rd, and 8th). In his 9 seasons with the Pirates, Kendall batted .306 with a .387 OBP and averaged around 16 steals per season. But, like many of the others on this list, once he was finished at his first career stop, he went downhill rather quickly, and turned into a rather dreadful offensive player after that. But, for the first half or so of his career, he was a helluva player.
 
#15-Darrell Porter
Best category: WAA (11th)
Worst category: dWAR (30th)
 
Another catcher who fit the mold of mediocre average, good power, and excellent plate discipline, Porter was a valuable player for the Brewers, the Cardinals, and (especially) the Royals. His 1979 season sticks out like a sore thumb, but, if you go by across the board excellence, is one of the best seasons by a catcher in history (7.6 rWAR, 6th highest in history).
 
#14-Jim Sundberg
Best category: dWAR (of course!) (4th)
Worst category: Win Shares/162 (46th)
 
Out of the catchers on this list, Sundberg and Boone are the 2 that are primarily riding the strength of their defense (well, Yadier Molina too, to a certain degree, but he developed into a pretty decent hitter).
 
How would you rank the top defensive catchers of all time? Here's my personal ranking, taking into account a combination of data, reputation, and subjective factors:
 
Rank
Player
1
Johnny Bench
2
Ivan Rodriguez
3
Yadier Molina
4
Jim Sundberg
5
Bob Boone
6
Roy Campanella
7
Jim Hegan
8
Gary Carter
9
Charles Johnson
10
Steve Yeager
 
There's others that could easily make it - I probably should have Ray Schalk on there somewhere. Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Del Crandall, Salvador Perez, Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane, Carlton Fisk, Bill Freehan, any of them could have been included, and a top 10 like this can get pretty crowded....but I'm pretty happy with my selections. 
 
I'll admit Yeager's a bit of an idiosyncratic choice. He's undermined by not being much of an offensive threat and never really establishing himself as a regular full time player, but he was damn good, and had as good of an arm as I've ever seen.  
 
If you include Negro League players, you'd probably have to have Biz Mackey somewhere on the list.
 
#13-Gene Tenace
Best category: WAR/162 and WAA (6th)
Worst category: dWAR (147th)
 
The flip side of Jim Sundberg. I got my first introduction to Gene Tenace as a young fan of the Reds, when he rudely introduced himself by homering (twice) off Gary Nolan in Game 1 of the 1972 World Series, eventually hitting a total of 4 in the 7 games as the A's took the title. And this after only hitting 5 all year as a backup catcher/utility player. I've never quite forgiven him for that.
 
Tenace, of course, embodies the low average, good power, high walk type of player that is popular at the position, and he was probably the best at it.
 
The real question is....was he really a catcher? Well, yes, I suppose....but not by much. He only ended up with 892 games at the position, not much more than the 625 he posted at 1B. 
 
Do you ever pay much attention to the "Pos" column on a player's baseball-reference.com page? A "*" in that column indicates that a player played 2/3 or more of his team's games at a particular position in a particular season. Tenace had exactly 1 season where he met that standard as a catcher. Mostly, he split his time between catcher and first.
 
#12-Lance Parrish
Best category: All Star Games (7th)
Worst category: Win Shares/162 (20th)
 
One of the few catchers to exceed 300 home runs in a career, Parrish was also a great plate blocker and had a very strong arm. Back injuries undermined his career, and he wasn't much for getting on base, but he was a good one.
 
#11-Jorge Posada
Best category: Win Shares (9th)
Worst category: Games (18th)
 
We're now getting into the section of the list where everyone merits some serious Hall of Fame consideration. Not that they're all overly strong and obvious candidates, mind you....just that I think they are at least reasonable candidates that make you think "yeah, he's got a case".
 
I wouldn't vote for Posada, but I can see the case for him. A valuable contributor on a great team, probably the best AL catcher between Ivan Rodriguez's prime and Joe Mauer's. Good, quality, consistent performer, never really seemed to have a bad year.
 
#10-Ted Simmons
Best category: Games (3rd)
Worst category: dWAR (91st)
 
The newest Hall of Fame catcher, Simba was elected after many years of waiting, riding in primarily on the strength of his bat. Among all catchers in the dataset, Simmons was 2nd in hits, 2nd in doubles, and 1st in RBI.
 
#9-Yadier Molina
Best category: dWAR (5th)
Worst category: WAR/162 (22nd)
 
The first of two consecutive active players on the list, Molina is one of the most decorated defensive catchers in history, taking home 9 Gold Gloves - only Ivan Rodriguez (13) and Johnny Bench (10) have more. 
 
In my opinion, Molina should be a Hall of Famer, and I think he'll get voted in fairly quickly when his time comes. His Gold Gloves and leadership on 2 World Series champions will likely go a long way towards his election.
 
#8-Buster Posey
Best category: WAR/162 and Win Shares/162 (2nd)
Worst category: Games (50th)
 
Posey illustrates what can happen with an active player in these types of rankings. Because hehasn't had a full decline phase, he rates well in both of the "per 162 games" metrics. On the other hand, he's currently relatively low in games played because he's only 32 years old, and he'll continue climbing that category, even though he's clearly not the player he used to be. But, at the same time he's climbing up the games category, he'll probably slide down in the "per 162" categories.
 
Like Molina, I think Posey is Cooperstown-bound. 3 championships, a batting title, an MVP. He has a lot going for him, and I think he (along with Madision Bumgarner) is the player most closely identified with the 3 Giant championships of the 2010's.
 
#7-Thurman Munson
Best category: WAR/162 (3rd)
Worst category: Games (34th)
 
Like Posey, Munson does well on the "per 162" categories and comes up a little short on longevity (having died in his age 32 season). He also was 5th in MVP points.
 
Some might question Munson raking higher than Simmons when Simmons was elected to the Hall of Fame this past year while Munson (who was also on the ballot) wasn't, but I'm satisfied with Munson getting the nod. If I could only choose one, I'd go with Munson as my backstop.
 
#6-Joe Mauer
Best category: MVP Points (3rd)
Worst category: dWAR (130th)
 
Despite winning 3 Gold Gloves in his career, Mauer got most of his attention for his bat, and in particular his 3 batting titles, unprecedented for a catcher.
 
Mauer will pose an interesting dilemma for Hall of Fame voters. I don't think he's a slam dunk despite the impressive rWAR, the high JAWS ranking (7th), the MVP, and the 3 batting titles. Mauer caught fewer than 1,000 games in his career, and no Major League catcher has been inducted with so few games behind the plate.
 
Is Mauer's MVP 2009 season (28/96/.365/.444/.587, the last 3 figures leading the league) the greatest offensive season ever for a catcher? Quite possibly, yes. 
 
Unless it was the 1997 season posted by the next guy.......
 
#5-Mike Piazza
Best category: Win Shares/162 (1st)
Worst category:  dWAR (150th)
 
Piazza ranks in the top 5 in every category except for dWAR and games (16th). Ranked 2nd in MVP points even though he never won an MVP because he had 4 top 5 finishes and 7 top 10. This enabled him to place ahead of MVP winners Posey, Munson, and Mauer in that category.
 
Continuing the Mauer question......let's see - Piazza's 1997 - 40/124/.362/.431/.638. Maybe that's the best one. 
 
Clearly the best hitting catcher in history. If I were to remove dWAR as a specific category in this evaluation, Piazza would bump up to #3.
 
I wonder if Piazza is the greatest hitter ever to have zero Black Ink points? He never led the league in any offensive category that would give you any points in that scoring system (he did lead the league twice in OPS+).
 
#4-Carlton Fisk
Best category: Games and Win Shares (2nd)
Worst category: dWAR (10th)
 
Best player ever born in Vermont (Larry Gardner would be next).
 
Can't think of anything to say about Fisk that you don't already know. Here's a question.....do you think of him more as a Red Sox, or a White Sox? I tend to associate him more with Boston, but he actually played 2 more seasons (and 343 more games) for Chicago.
 
#3-Ivan Rodriguez
Best category: Games, All Star Games, and dWAR (1st in all 3)
Worst category: Win Shares/162 (11th)
 
Is Rodriguez or Bench the greatest defensive catcher ever? I've written about this before. I think if you took a poll, Bench would probably be the consensus #1, and he's the one whom I personally selected as #1 in the Jim Sundberg comment, but I honestly think that Rodriguez is every bit the defensive ace that Bench was, and it's possible he might have even been a hair better. I don't think there's a whole lot separating them.
 
#2-Gary Carter
Best category: WAR7 (1st)
Worst category:  MVP Points (7th)
 
As you can see from above, Carter was strong across the board, finishing 7th or higher in every category.   Was the best catcher in the NL every year for nearly a decade (1977-1985).
 
#1-Johnny Bench
Best category: He was #1 in 7 of the 11 categories
Worst category: Games (6th)
 
Bench is a relatively easy #1 choice at the position. In addition to achieving a score of 100 in 7 of the 11 categories, he was also #2 in WAR7 and #3 in Win Shares/162. His overall index point score of 95.3 out of a maximum of 100 says it all. 2 MVP's, 14 All Star games, 10 Gold Gloves. An easy #1.
 
Let's look at them again, this time as a straight ranking 1-25, and this time showing you their "average index points" figure (remembering that 100 would mean finishing first in every category).
 
Top 25 Catchers of the Past 50 Years - Ranking/Points
 
 
 
Rank
 
 
Name
 
 
From
 
 
To
Average Index Points
1
Johnny Bench
1967
1983
95.3
2
Gary Carter
1974
1992
84.5
3
Ivan Rodriguez
1991
2011
83.2
4
Carlton Fisk
1969
1993
78.0
5
Mike Piazza
1992
2007
76.9
6
Joe Mauer
2004
2018
67.0
7
Thurman Munson
1969
1979
63.3
8
Buster Posey
2009
2019
62.6
9
Yadier Molina
2004
2019
61.7
10
Ted Simmons
1968
1988
60.1
11
Jorge Posada
1995
2011
55.2
12
Lance Parrish
1977
1995
54.2
13
Gene Tenace
1969
1983
52.9
14
Jim Sundberg
1974
1989
51.8
15
Darrell Porter
1971
1987
51.0
16
Jason Kendall
1996
2010
50.9
17
Russell Martin
2006
2019
48.4
18
Brian McCann
2005
2019
45.9
19
Bob Boone
1972
1990
44.4
20
Javy Lopez
1992
2006
43.1
21
Manny Sanguillen
1967
1980
41.8
22
Tony Pena
1980
1997
40.9
23
Mike Scioscia
1980
1992
40.4
24
Benito Santiago
1986
2005
40.3
25
Mickey Tettleton
1984
1997
39.6
 
We also had pretty fair representation from each of the last 5 decades. Here they are summarized by career mid-point:
 
Decade
Total
1970s
6
1980s
7
1990s
4
2000s
3
2010s
5
Grand Total
25
 
Next up: Shortstops. 
 
Thanks for reading.
 
Dan
 
 
 
 
 
 

COMMENTS (28 Comments, most recent shown first)

pgups6
Whoops sorry, missed that part, thanks Maris.
6:53 PM Mar 27th
 
MarisFan61
(Dan explained that Victor Martinez would have made the top 25, but that's he's considering him not as a catcher but as a DH.)
3:49 PM Mar 27th
 
pgups6
I love this! Especially that this pretty much overlaps with my time as a human being.

Just a few random thoughts:

Bench vs PudgeRod D- aside from the Baseball Bunch, I never really got to watch prime Bench behind the plate. From his reputation, he was the best, but it's hard to picture anyone being better than Pudge Rodriguez defensively. Again not disputing the claim, but just tough to imagine.

Mauer- when it comes to Hall voting, I hope voters don't view and compare him solely as a catcher, or just as a first baseman for that matter (how about as a ball player). I understand it makes the analysis tougher but that's the voter's job.

Gary Carter- love to see him second on this list! Never understood why it took him SIX tries to get into the Hall. He should have been first ballot, easily.

Yadi- with new voters relying so heavily on WAR and JAWs, I don't think he'll easily gets in. This group seems to disregard traits like leadership and championships as fan boy material, which I think is odd. I hope he does get in easily and doesn't have to wait.

VMart- doesn't make the Top 50, his defensive alone must've killed his chance

Munson- another one that's great to see high on this list. Also had a fantastic post-season career, should give him that extra HOF bump for those that have him on the cusp.

Thanks Dan, looking forward to the rest of the series!


3:13 PM Mar 27th
 
DMBBHF
Bruce,

Agreed - we do have these lists to argue about them. In fact, I primarily do them to argue with you, specifically. :)

To everyone commenting about factor #12....it's true, I didn't employ it much on the catchers. I was trying to not overuse it, choosing to apply it only in cases where I truly felt that a candidate needed to be moved, because I went through the trouble of deploying 11 other categories to help guide me in sorting through the many candidates to end up with a suggested order. I didn't feel strongly enough to make many adjustments.

If it helps matters any.....I am using it more on the next group (shortstops). But, it's really not a 12th category....it's just something I'm using to tweak, and only if I felt like a result needed intervention.

Thanks,
Dan

10:44 PM Mar 26th
 
MarisFan61
I'm going to make the Varitek question into a poll on Reader Posts.
Come one come all. :-)

(I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking, "Hey, who even said there was a Varitek question....")​
10:06 PM Mar 26th
 
tigerlily
Thanks Dan. I expect I'll enjoy this series. Looking at the catcher scores it looks like you didn't use your Item#12 Subjective Element in your ratings. If so, I'm a little surprised by that since ranking catchers is probably more subjective than any other position.
8:17 PM Mar 26th
 
evanecurb
I always like to argue about these lists, because, why else have them? I'd have dropped Tettleton and Tenace because they're not really catchers. Besides, it'd be great to have Salvador Perez in the top 25 - he's a catcher.

And everything you guys below said about Varitek and Pierzynski applies to Perez. I know he only went to the postseason twice, but he went to the postseason twice with the ROYALS, the only Royals catcher to do that since Sundberg in '85.
4:01 PM Mar 26th
 
MarisFan61
Re Steve's endorsement of my wanting to just use Factor #12:
I hope it was clear I didn't mean it totally; was mostly having fun with it.

Indeed I did mean heavily using subjective judgment -- but with serious considering of the objective things that one considers most relevant, which BTW might be different objective things for different players, and/or different relative mental weightings of them.
That's all part of the subjective judgment -- all part of "factor 12."

Re advocating that such things take after Posnanski: Yes perhaps on the nature of the writing, absolutely no on the interesting but bizarre way he's doing some of the rankings. :-)
11:51 AM Mar 26th
 
Manushfan
Without getting into the way you ranked these guys-I really enjoy this kind of thing. The commentary about them afterwards is fun to read. So thank you. I appreciated seeing Lance Parrish getting a shout. He doesn't get alotta love in some quarters.
9:17 AM Mar 26th
 
willibphx
Given we are of the same era, I recognized all of the names particularly from the 70's and 80's. There was one exception, is it just me but is Ramon Hernandez the most forgettable catcher of the last 50 years to have played 15 years in the majors. I honestly had to look him up and still don't remember having ever seen him play.
9:14 AM Mar 26th
 
steve161
Fine piece, Dan, easily up to your well-established standards.

I like Maris' suggestion. Restricting yourself to Criterion Number 12 frees you from reliance on the numbers and invites you to write more about your impressions of the players. This is one of the great strengths of the Posnanski series.

Just as an example, a player who doesn't make your list because he was done too early but whom I call the best I ever saw: Willie Mays. I could fill a few paragraphs with Willie's numbers, but what I remember most vividly about him is the way his hat flew off when he ran.
7:37 AM Mar 26th
 
DMBBHF
Maris,

Yes, I'd agree about Varitek. And I should note that on the 26-50, I just went with the straight formula rankings. None of those were going to be adjusted high enough to get them into my top 25 for the article, so I didn't apply the subjective factor. If I had, I would have pushed both Varitek and Pierzynski up some.

Thanks,
Dan
7:07 AM Mar 26th
 
OwenH
Great stuff, Dan. Some fantastic backstops in the last half-century.
1:36 AM Mar 26th
 
MarisFan61
3for3: Thanks for mentioning about Berra having a far better "WPA."
I didn't look at it, because I don't rush so much to look at "WAR"-related things.
BTW, I figured I'd also look at "WAA" (wins above average) -- Bench is much ahead.

-------------------

Dan: I like those 26 - 50 rankings too.
I think most people would want to move Varitek considerably higher, although that probably requires using my method. :-)
(as described below, only use Dan's factor #12)
12:32 AM Mar 26th
 
DMBBHF
Thanks for all the comments, guys....

FrankD - It's an intriguing suggestion, but is there a way to download the number of times each player was on a division or pennant or World Series winner? If so, I could certainly incorporate that. But I'm not up for manually looking them up. If you're aware of a downloadable source for that information, I'd be willing to explore it. Thanks.

DJ_Man - True about Berra having zero black ink, but I would consider Piazza the greater hitter of the two (Berra being a better overall player).

3for3 - Here's who I show for 26-50 (I mentioned Perez in the article being #27, but that was with Victor Martinez still in the list. If I remove Martinez since he was a little more DH than C, it moves Perez up 1 spot):

#26 Salvador Perez 39.4
#27 Butch Wynegar 39.1
#28 Terry Steinbach 38.4
#29 Darren Daulton 37.4
#30 Charles Johnson 37.0
#31 Terry Kennedy 36.2
#32 Carlos Ruiz 35.7
#33 Rick Dempsey 35.4
#34 Chris Hoiles 35.2
#35 A. J. Pierzynski 34.8
#36 Jason Varitek 34.5
#37 John Stearns 34.3
#38 J. T. Realmuto 34.1
#39 Paul Lo Duca 33.5
#40 Matt Wieters 33.5
#41 Ramon Hernandez 33.1
#42 Joe Ferguson 32.7
#43 Jonathan Lucroy 32.5
#44 Brad Ausmus 32.2
#45 Yasmani Grandal 31.7
#46 Ernie Whitt 31.0
#47 Kurt Suzuki 30.5
#48 Jody Davis 30.3
#49 Mike Stanley 29.4
#50 Steve Yeager 29.0

Thanks,
Dan
12:09 AM Mar 26th
 
3for3
Maris:

Berra is far ahead of Bench in career WPA, 39.4 to 30.1. That from a Bench fan.
11:51 PM Mar 25th
 
MarisFan61
(I meant to align their yearly OPS+'s in a way that you could easily compare, but I messed it up a little.
Here's a better job on that.)

Bench: 166,143,141,140,133,129,129,123,123,119,116,109,107,101,98

Berra: 142,141,137,136,135,130,125,120,120,119,118,115,114,111,109​
11:17 PM Mar 25th
 
MarisFan61
What an interesting comparison, Bench and Berra as hitters.

If I had to decide real fast by reflex, I'd say Bench.
Looking at their records -- I think you could go either way.

Bench had a year or arguably 2 years that were significantly better than any of Berra's. (Win Shares says just 1.)

Let's look at a few things.

Yearly OPS+'s, not chronological but from highest
(not counting 'partial' seasons; only pretty full seasons)

Bench: 166,143,141,140,133,129,129,123,123,119,116,109,107,101,98
(I counted 334 plate appearances as a pretty full season - that's the "101")

Berra:
142,141,137,136,135,130,125,120,120,119,118,115,114,111,109
(I counted 334 plate appearances for Bench as a pretty full season - that's his "101" -- and 306 for Berra -- that's his "114")

I thought I was going to be able to say (yes, I'm wishing for Yogi) :-) that Berra caught a lot more -- more games as catcher, more starts, more whole games, more innings.
But to my surprise, he didn't. Bench caught much longer than I thought, and his numbers and Berra's on those things are quite similar.

How about OFFENSIVE WIN SHARES (per Baseball Gauge)....

CAREER: Bench 256, Berra 267 (btw, "WAR" says the other way around)
Per 162 games: Bench 19.2, Berra 20.5 (ditto)

BTW I usually round Win Shares to integers, but didn't there, because Yogi would have been rounded up to 21 and I didn't want to be appearing to overstate his case. If he were 20.4, I would have just said 19 and 20 for the two guys.

Yearly Win Shares, starting with highest (rounded; again just full seasons)
Bench: 29,26,25,23,20,17,16,15,15,14,12,12,12
Berra : 26,25,24,21,21,21,18,15,14,14,14,13,13,12,8
(Berra's "8" was for the 306 PA, his rookie year)

Overall: They look pretty close to me.

One more thing.... (it might look like I'm bending over backwards for Yogi, but no, just trying to give him a fair shake...,.
OK OK, I'm bending over backwards for him)

Yogi had a reputation as a "great clutch hitter."
How about let's see if his splits support it....

I would have mentioned about this even if they didn't, but they do -- mildly. Not that I believe they prove it; usually when I look at such splits on a player with such a reputation, they only look kind of average, and I don't assume that this disproves the reputation.
But for what it's worth, his stats on things like RISP or just "men on base" vs. overall; and "Late and Close," and "High Leverage" -- all those splits are better than his overall numbers -- not hugely, but impressively.
I looked at Bench on those things too. He shows OK but not distinctly special; I'd say average-ish, maybe tinily above.

Recognizing my bias (but trying to be fair; good luck with that) :-) I think it's essentially equal. I suspect that most people by far would say Bench.
11:15 PM Mar 25th
 
3for3
Can you show 26-50 (no extra comments or work needed)?
10:46 PM Mar 25th
 
FrankD
Just a small adjustment. I'd add some factor reflecting if the players team won the division/pennant/WS. AJ Eyechart was an ass to his opponents, but his teams won, I'd put him on the list of the top 25. I think you have to capture if a players team won.
10:12 PM Mar 25th
 
FrankD
The Al Franken decade: the last Democrat caught in #MeToo.... I assume you mean by 'you saw' was on TV and/or live, not just you were in the stadium watching them in real life. I respect your criteria, I may have made different choices, but a great article.
10:01 PM Mar 25th
 
DJ_Man
Re: "I wonder if Piazza is the greatest hitter ever to have zero Black Ink points? He never led the league in any offensive category that would give you any points in that scoring system (he did lead the league twice in OPS+)."

I don't believe that Yogi Berra ever led the league in any offensive category.
9:33 PM Mar 25th
 
Poincare
Great work Daniel! I absolutely love this idea already. You have got me really excited for the follow up articles. I can't wait to read them.
9:33 PM Mar 25th
 
evanecurb
Love this. Amazed at the quality of players on a list this deep in a limited time.
8:33 PM Mar 25th
 
MarisFan61
Dan, this is going to be great. I love it -- least of all because I like these catcher rankings, which I do.
You're doing it great. Just one suggestion:
Throw out the first 11 factors and only use the 12th. :-)
8:32 PM Mar 25th
 
MarisFan61
I feel pretty sure it was him too. :-)

BTW, maybe you better watch it about making your preambles so interesting. I might never get to the baseball stuff....
(I will.)
8:22 PM Mar 25th
 
DMBBHF
Maris,

Yes, I recall that beauty pageant skit too.

You know, I actually walked past Franken once. I was in the Minneapolis airport on one of those moving walkways walking towards my departure gate, and he was walking in the opposite direction. I'm sure it was him.

Dan
8:14 PM Mar 25th
 
MarisFan61
.....because you're good enough, you're smart enough, and doggone, people like you!

I went to a presentation of his a couple of weeks ago in New Jersey. The audience was invited to submit written questions for him, in the lobby before it began. My question was, "Do you remember what was your 'talent portion' of the beauty pageant you did with Tom Davis? I do!"

This thing dated from about a year or two before the thing you mentioned. He did remember (of course), and elaborated on it with some other stuff from the thing.
BTW, his "talent portion" was: repeatedly punching a tackling dummy.
8:07 PM Mar 25th
 
 
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