Where are the Great Catchers?

July 21, 2014
 
Over on FanGraphs, writer Paul Swyden writes:
 
 
"Right now, [Joe Mauer is] basically in a dead heat with Jorge Posada,and no rational person would conclude that Posada is a Hall of Famer." 
 
To put this quote into fair context, I should note that Mr. Swyden article wasn’t about catchers: it was about which present player would get the next "Derek Jeter World Tour of Rended Garments and Outsider Lego Art" treatment. It’s a fine article, and I’m only bringing up the above quote because it seemed relevant to an article I’ve been working on, and not because Bill’s asked me to pick fights with more popular baseball websites. That’s not it at all. I swear.
 
Let’s get the ball rolling.
 
 
*          *          *
 
There are 11 catchers in baseball history who have averaged between 4.0 and 4.9 Wins Above Replacement per 162 games played.
 
We’re talking about catchers with reasonably long careers here: the Matt Nokes’s of the world need not apply. It’s also worth noting that we’re using the Fan Graphs’ version of WAR (fWAR) for this article.
 
Eleven catchers, WAR of 4.0-4.9 per 162 game played.
 
In a lovely bit of synchronicity, there are exactly eleven first baseman who averaged a WAR of 4.0-4.9. And there are exactly eleven second basemen. Actually, let’s run through all the positions:
 
Catcher – 11 players
First Base – 11 players
Second Base – 11 players
Shortstop – 12 players.
Third Base – 12 players
Right Field – 11 players
Center Field – 14 players
Left Field – 11 players.
 
All positions have either 11 or 12 players who averaged a WAR between 4.0 and 4.9 per 162 games played, except for centerfield, which is perhaps stealing a few players from the corner outfield positions. But it’s a startlingly even distribution of talent.
 
A few notes. I went through the list to make sure players weren’t showing up twice. Frank Robinson, for instance, was initially counted among the left- and right-fielders. This happens quite a few times, with players like Stan Musial and Joe Torre and Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Cabrera.
 
Also: I’ve included active players in our conversation: players like Utley and Mauer and Jeter. Active players with enough games to have already had full careers.
 
So that’s the 4.0-4.9 WAR players. I’d note, too, that the players in this group are all very goodplayers; players who have traditionally merited serious consideration for the Hall-of-Fame. Not all of them have been elected to Cooperstown, but many of them have. It’s nearly a 50-50 split…if you average 4.0 WAR per 162-games played, you’re a coin-toss for a plaque in Cooperstown.
 
 
*          *          *
 
I’ll take a minute to explain the ‘per 162-games’ thing. This is an article about catchers, who have shorter-than-normal careers, for all the reasons you can anticipate. To consider the ‘greatness’ of catchers against the careers of their peers, it was necessary to consider a metric that didn’t rely on longevity. Jorge Posada played 1000 fewer games than Rafael Palmeiro (1828 to 2831), but their value per 162-games was, at least according to WAR, just about the same (3.979 to 4.006).
 
 
*          *          *
 
Here’s the same count, considering players with a WAR/162 of 5.0 to 5.99:
 
Catcher – 6 players
First Base – 5 players
Second Base – 3 players
Shortstop – 4 players.
Third Base – 8 players
Right Field – 6 players
Center Field – 3 players
Left Field – 5 players.
 
There are forty players in total, distributed across the positions a bit less evenly than the 4.0-4.9 players. The centerfielders, who had the most players in the last grouping, have the fewest here. The catchers do pretty well: tying the right-fielders for second in the group.
 
These are mostly Hall-of-Fame players, and players who have been tragically overlooked by the Hall: players like Bobby Grich and Edgar Martinez and Reggie Smith and Bobby Bonds.
 
 We’re still looking at a very even distribution of players:
 
 
WAR/162
 
C
 
1B
 
2B
 
SS
 
3B
 
RF
 
CF
 
LF
5.0-5.9
6
5
3
4
8
6
3
5
4.0-4.9
11
11
11
12
12
11
14
11
 
4.0-5.9
 
17
 
16
 
14
 
16
 
20
 
17
 
17
 
16
 
The second basemen are a little behind the other positions….let’s remember that.
 
 
*          *          *
 
Here are the 6.0-6.9 players. We’re entering elite territory here, so we can name names:
 
Jeff Bagwell, Joe Morgan, Joe Gordon, Chase Utley, Jackie Robinson, Nap Lajoie, Eddie Collins, Lou Boudreau, Arky Vaughan, Eddie Mathews, Home Run Baker, Hank Aaron, Mel Ott, Frank Robinson, Stan Musial.
 
Notice anything? There’s a lot of second baseman. The position that was behind in our last count gains a lot of ground.
 
 
WAR/162
 
C
 
1B
 
2B
 
SS
 
3B
 
RF
 
CF
 
LF
6.0-6.9
0
1
6
2
2
3
0
1
 
I suppose that Joe Gordon is a bit of a surprise, but he was a great player who a) suffered in a tough park for right-handed hitters and b) lost two of his prime seasons to World War II.

We can check in on the positional distribution again:
 
 
WAR/162
 
C
 
1B
 
2B
 
SS
 
3B
 
RF
 
CF
 
LF
6.0-6.9
0
1
6
2
2
3
0
1
5.0-5.9
6
5
3
4
8
6
3
5
4.0-4.9
11
11
11
12
12
11
14
11
 
4.0-6.9
 
17
 
17
 
20
 
18
 
22
 
20
 
17
 
17
 
Nice. We still have an even distribution of talent.  
 
 
*          *          *
 
Taking a break, for a moment. Let’s go back to that quote from Paul Swyden:
 
 
"Right now, [Joe Mauer is] basically in a dead heat with Jorge Posada,and no rational person would conclude that Posada is a Hall of Famer.
 
What do we know about Jorge Posada? He was a pretty good hitting catcher, and a decent defensive catcher. He had a pretty long career. He played on a very successful team: he was the catcher for one of the best teams in baseball history. He was a one-team player…a Yankee lifer.
 
We can go into more specifics. Posada ranks 25th in games caught. His triple-slash line of .273/.374/.474 suggests a very competent hitter (that’s almost exactly the same as Dwight Evans’ .272/.370/.470 career batting line). Posada’s team made the postseason in fifteen of his seventeen seasons. He was the catcher for six World Series teams, winning four rings.
 
Is it true that no rational person could imagine Jorge Posada as a Hall of Famer?
 
Viewed historically, this is absolutely untrue. Viewed historically, a player with this resume would certainly receive strong consideration for the Hall of Fame. Bill Dickey is a logical comparable: while Dickey’s counting stats are more impressive, he shares Posada’s excellent team success. He was elected to the Hall. Gabby Hartnett, perhaps the closest comparable to Posada (Hartnett played and lost four World Series meetings), was elected by the BBWAA. 
 
Of course, these are players elected at a different time. Bill Dickey was elected because he had a .313 lifetime batting average. Gabby Hartnett was elected because people who elected him were, as Bill’s noted, ‘obsessed with the idea of strength up the middle.’
 
Would a modern person, viewing Posada’s career through the lens of modern statistics, view Posada as a viable Hall-of-Famer?
 
We’ll come back to that. 
 
 
*          *          *
 
Let’s get back to our countdown. We had this distribution of players:
 
 
WAR/162
 
C
 
1B
 
2B
 
SS
 
3B
 
RF
 
CF
 
LF
6.0-6.9
0
1
6
2
2
3
0
1
5.0-5.9
6
5
3
4
8
6
3
5
4.0-4.9
11
11
11
12
12
11
14
11
 
4.0-6.9
 
17
 
17
 
20
 
18
 
22
 
20
 
17
 
17
 
If those 6.0+ players were the elites, we’re into super-elite territory now. Here are the 7.0-7.9 players. I bet you’ve heard of them.
 
Albert Pujols, Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Schmidt, Tris Speaker, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Joe Jackson.
 
By position:
 
 
WAR/162
 
C
 
1B
 
2B
 
SS
 
3B
 
RF
 
CF
 
LF
7.0-7.9
0
2
0
1
1
0
3
1
 
We’re counting A-Rod as a shortstop. While there are no second baseman or right-fielders listed, it’s worth noting that the three players closest to the 7.0 threshold were Eddie Collins (6.9), Nap Lajoie (6.9) and Stan Musial (6.8)…two 2B’s and a RF/LF/1B.
 
How about 8.0-8.9? Rare air.
 
Lou Gehrig, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds.
 
9.0-9.9?
 
Rogers Hornsby. Ted Williams.
 
10.0+?
 
Babe Ruth.
 
Let’s get the 6.0’s, 7.0’s, 8.0’s, 9.0’s, and 10.0’s together:
 
 
WAR/162
 
C
 
1B
 
2B
 
SS
 
3B
 
RF
 
CF
 
LF
10.0+
0
0
0
0
0
1
0
0
9.0+
0
0
1
0
0
0
0
1
8.0+
0
1
0
1
0
0
2
1
7.0+
0
2
0
1
1
0
3
1
6.0+
0
1
6
2
2
3
0
1
 
Totals
 
0
 
4
 
7
 
4
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
4
 
Thirty-one players have average a WAR of 6.0 or better in their major-league careers, including an impressive seven second baseman.
 
None of them are catchers.
 
 
*          *          *
 
By WAR/162 games, the best catcher of all-time is Johnny Bench.
 
Actually…that’s not exactly true. Joe Mauer is currently a few decimals ahead of Johnny Bench (5.74 to 5.62), but his career is still going along. Let’s stick with Johnny Bench for a moment.
 
I suppose all of you know about Johnny Bench. He was a terrific hitter: he had one year when he hit 45 homers, knocked in 148 RBI’s. He was twenty-two years old that year. A few years later he hit 40 homers, 128 RBI. These seasons happened when pitching had recently dominated baseball, and people were flabbergasted by it.
 
Bench was a great hitter. He was also a brilliant defensive player: he had a cannon for an arm. He was a central cog on one of the greatest teams in baseball history.
 
There’s no knock to Bench’s career: he was an absolutely dominant offensive player, and a terrific defensive player. His teams won lots of games; his individual accomplishments seemed to have a direct correlation to his team’s success. He was the perfect catcher.
 
Here are the players, by position, that Johnny Bench most compares to:
 
 
Pos.
 
Name
 
WAR/162
 
Rank in Position
C
Johnny Bench
5.6
1st
1B
Dick Allen
5.7
8th
2B
Charlie Gehringer
5.5
9th
SS
Joe Cronin
5.1
5th
3B
Scott Rolen
5.6
6th
RF
Larry Walker
5.6
5th
CF
Larry Doby
5.1
6th
LF
Rickey Henderson
5.7
6th
 
This is not an impressive list. It’s certainly a good list….Rickey Henderson was one of the smartest baseball players of all-time, and all of the others are worthy Hall-of-Famers. But none of them are serious contenders as the best players at their respective positions. Dick Allen wasn’t close to Gehrig or Foxx or Pujols. Larry Walker is ranked 5th among right-fielders, but he’s not close to Ruth or Aaron. Even Rickey doesn’t quite approach the likes of Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, or Stan Musial.
 
This seems strange to me. Even if you don’t think Bench is the #1 catcher of all-time…even if you’re partial to Yogi Berra or Josh Gibson…you’d concede that it’s not irrational for other people to believe that Bench is the greatest catcher ever.
 
Is it rational, then, that a strong candidate for the title of greatest catcher of all-time has a per-162 game rate that’s so far below the best players at every other position on the diamond? Is it rational to believe that there have been no really great catchers in major league history?
 
Or is something wrong with WAR?
 
 
*          *          *
 
Taking a step back: have you even thought about how much hardera catcher has to work than everyone else on a baseball team?
 
Just thinking about the game on the field. On a busy day, a shortstop might have to make a dozen plays in the field. A centerfielder might have to make ten plays. On an average day, a catcher has to make hundreds of plays. He has to make a play (or try to make a play) on every single pitch. Further: he has to make those hundreds of plays from an uncomfortable crouch, wearing a bunch of body armor and squinting through the grill of a mask.
 
While the other defensive positions are mostly reactionary (a fielder ‘reacts’ to a ball being hit their way), the catcher has to think before the ball is in play. They have to think what pitchers are working that day, and they have to flash a multitude of signs to the pitcher. They have to keep an eye on base runners, and they have to placate the umpire when Jon Lester does his death-stare when a close pitch is called a ball. They have to remember what the new rule is about blocking the plate, and they have to make sure the runner coming around third knows the new rule, too. They have to worry about Manny Machado’s back-swing.
 
Catchers do a lot: they are the only offensive players involved in every single pitchwhen their team is on defense.
 
I’ve never liked putting catchers on the defensive spectrum, because their job seems so drastically different than the other defensive positions. The worst defensive player in baseball could play shortstop for a day, and not totally sink his team’s chances of winning. He might allow eight or ten more hits than an average shortstop. Put him behind the plate, though, and you’ll lose. He might not survive the game.
 
 
*          *          *
 
I think there is something wrong with WAR: I think it’s underrating catchers significantly. It seems strange that someone like Johnny Bench, the closest we’ve seen to a ‘perfect catcher’, would rate so low on a per-game basis.
 
This is a problem. It’s a problem because it gives space for a good writer on an intelligent baseball site to label Jorge Posada’s candidacy for the Hall-of-Fame ‘irrational.’ Jorge Posada has the 14th highest career WAR of any catcher in baseball. If you cut out half-time catchers like Torre, Tenace, and Downing, Posada ranks 11th in career WAR. Considering that Posada’s teams won big just about every year he played, and it sure seems that Posada’s case for Cooperstown isn’t just rational, but reasonably strong.
 
It’s a problem, too, when a good writer on a great baseball site can write that a player like Joe Mauer "definitely needs a few more productive seasons to be in the Hall of Fame conversation." According to WAR, Joe Mauer hasn’t just been good: he’s been the most valuable catcher in baseball history. His WAR of 5.7 per 162 games played outstrips all other backstops. The only catchers to put up a comparable WAR are Bench (5.6 per 162 games played), Cochrane (5.5) and Piazza (5.4). Then it’s Campy and Dickey (5.1) Does Mauer have to pad his career with numbers tallied at first base for us to appreciate this, or can we appreciate the genius of his career now? If we can appreciate the short-but-brilliant careers of Sandy Koufax or Kirby Puckett, why can’t we do the same for Joe Mauer? If we cut Koufax and Puckett slack for arm injuries and vision problems, why isn’t the same leniency granted to major league catchers?
 
 
*          *          *
 
This isn’t just a problem with the WAR statistic….it’s a general problem. Catchers have the toughest job on the field, yet their contributions are always undercut.
 
Gary Carter is one example. Gary Carter was a direct contemporary of Mike Schmidt, and their careers had some obvious parallels. Mike Schmidt was the very best player at his position for a decade. Schmidt had some challengers over in the AL (Brett, Boggs), but the clear consensus was that Schmidt was the best 3B of his era. He was a brilliant hitter, and a good defensive player. His teams won lots of games.
 
The same is true for Gary Carter. In Bill’s 1988 Abstract, he notes in his catchers’ rankings that that year is the first ranking he wrote where Carter wasn’t first. Carter played in ten straight All-Star games, received MVP votes in seven seasons. Sure, Carter had challengers for the title (Fisk, mainly), but Carter was the consensus choice for the best catcher of his era. He was a good hitter and a good defensive player. His teams won lots of games.
 
Mike Schmidt, when his name came up on the BBWAA ballot, was elected nearly unanimously. He received 96.5% of the vote.
 
Gary Carter, the catcher’s equivalent to Mike Schmidt, landed on the ballot three years later. He received 42% of the vote.
 
Then he received 34% of the vote.
 
Then 49.7%.
It took six years for the BBWAA to elect Gary Carter into the Hall of Fame. It took four years for half the voters to come around to the idea that Gary Carter, clearly the best catcher of his generation, was a Hall-of-Fame player. 
I’m baffled by this. Even now, people are dismissive about Gary Carter’s career, viewing him as one of the more marginal Hall-of-Famer. I don’t know of any metric that suggests Gary Carter isn’t a top-ten catcher, but he’s never discussed as an elite player.
 
*          *          *
Getting back to WAR: I’m a giant fan of the two versions of WAR at FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.  I think it’s a tremendously useful statistic, and I’ll continue to use it
But I don’t think that it accurately measures the true values of catchers. Actually, I should be more specific about that. I think WAR probably does measure the value of catchers with some accuracy….if WAR rates someone like Gary Carter as being a better player than Ted Simmons, I think that’s probably correct.
The limits of WAR are in how they measure catchers against other positional players. If we hold that Johnny Bench is the greatest catcher in major league history, it stands to reason that he should rate near the greatest first baseman, right-fielders, and shortstops in baseball history. Right now he doesn’t, at least not according to WAR. This has the potential to skew our perspective of all catchers: if we view Johnny Bench as being on par with Dick Allen or Larry Walker, we’ll bump historically great catchers like Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk into the ‘good’ camp. We’ll miss the rare genius of Joe Mauer’s career, and skip entirely the fine careers of catchers like Jorge Posada and Ted Simmons, players who are completely rational candidates for the Hall-of-Fame.
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggests here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.  
 
 
 
 

COMMENTS (34 Comments, most recent shown first)

OldBackstop
Hey Tango, yes, I agree the gross numbers say that. I wasn't meaning to compare catchers with position players, really, I was meaning to point out that there may be balancing factors to the obvious fatigue issues. The only thing I found is that Bench and Yogi did walk slightly more when they were behind the plate than when they were in the field, but it was diminimus. Those were the only two I looked at, and I only looked at walks, because strike zone perception was my main perception.

I put some of this on the RP thread. When I get a life, or lose one, I'll go back and look at other catchers and broader measures.
12:52 PM Jul 26th
 
tangotiger
"So these all argue to better plate performance"

Unfortunately, we can see the results. And players hit better when they are not catching than when they are catching.

Maybe all of those things ARE advantages, but crouching and putting on/off your equipment every half-inning is a disadvantage. The NET result is a huge disadvantage, meaning that all those advantages, if they exist have been completely neutralized, and then some, by the other side of the coin.
10:08 AM Jul 25th
 
OldBackstop
Late to the party, but excellent article. As the son and father of catchers, I always thought there was a very real advantage to the position which I never see mentioned. It is also possible that this only applies to lower levels of play. Actually, that is very possible.

At any rate, I think there are a number of factors that give a catcher an in-game advantage.

-- strike zone. By the second or third AB, a catcher will have seen the ump make a number of marginal calls, low, high, inside, outside. Announcers make a lot of batters learning this from the dugout in early innings -- bull_s1t. You learn it when you are right there. It is impossible to say "a catcher has a better eye" I guess, unless maybe you compare performance when DHing or playing another position to when they are behind the plate. And the accepted fatigue factors would weigh against figuring that out, or a catcher that migrates to DH or 1B would be at a different point in his career for batting eye. Anyway, it seems to me to be a factor.

-- Light/background/shadows etc. Hard to describe, but you know how a good hitter sneaks up out of the on-deck circle to watch pitches? Mostly for the opposing pitcher's stuff, I suppose, but just watching pitches in the environment definitely helps performance, IMO.

-- a lower level league thing, obviously, but assuming a level of friendly discourse, a catcher gets some close calls, IMO.

So these all argue to better plate performance, but it is all relative. The arguments against catchers being top batters are obvious and shop-worn, but I think these are real world factors that actually enhance a catcher's performance.

When I see people carve out CF, SS and catchers in some generalized "defensive markdown" I sort of have to say "seriously?" considering the amount of plays they see in a game. I can not speak to the math behind WAR, but I think you make a good case from working it backwards that it has a problem.
10:14 PM Jul 24th
 
tangotiger
I have shown that there is a substantial hitting penalty on catchers, much like there is for DH and PH and fielding subs.

However, the replacement level framework handles this (theoretically).​
3:47 PM Jul 24th
 
astilley
Interesting stuff, Dave. I confronted the same issue when putting together my own top 100 players list earlier this year (http://tinyurl.com/nbxl982). I was basing things heavily on WAR and wins above average, and the catchers were coming out ridiculously low. I ended up making an arbitrary adjustment for catchers that was basically adding 7.5 WAR to their career totals. That still only pushed Bench up to #47, though I do have Josh Gibson at #20.

That two of the all-time great catchers, Gibson and Biz Mackey, never played MLB might skew the historical record for catchers more than any other position. It's the only position where I have a Negro leaguer at #1, and the only position with two Negro leaguers in the top three.
2:33 PM Jul 24th
 
MarisFan61
For the benefit of those who don't have access to "Reader Posts" or don't feel like trekking there: Check out Bill's 1987 Abstract, p. 60-63. Or better yet, read the whole section of offensive progression or lack thereof according to position, p. 60-65. Or best of all, the whole "Evaluating a Rookie" section, p. 55-71, which I think is one of the greatest and most interesting of sabermetric classics.
10:49 PM Jul 23rd
 
MarisFan61
Dave: We DO know -- we do know that what you said about catching impairing the player's offense is true. (See my reply to your post in "Reader Posts.")
10:42 PM Jul 23rd
 
DaveFleming
A reader over on Tom's blog, someone named 'aweb', made a really astute comment about the replacement levels of catchers set against other positions:

"Just a thought - since catchers rarely start fulltime, backup catchers may be expected to be closer to the starters, relatively, than other positions. Perhaps the replacement level hitting/defense at catcher is closer to starter level because they aren’t “backups” in the same sense?"

10:20 PM Jul 23rd
 
DaveFleming
And thanks to JDW and Tom Tango for pointing out that I should've adjusted to 650 or 700 PA's, instead of 162 games played. You guys are wicked smaht.
10:12 PM Jul 23rd
 
DaveFleming
Trying a different tact (tack? Is it tack or tact?)...

Trying a different approach....let's stick with Johnny Bench. Do you think:

1) That Johnny Bench's offensive performance was negatively impacted by him having to play his defensive position, or,
2) That the catcher-version of Johnny Bench hit approximately as well as First-Baseman Johnny Bench would've hit, if we could've run his career over again.

Which do you think is true?

With every other defensive positions, I think there's little impact on how a player hits. Playing shortstop or second base is a little more taxing than playing leftfield or third, but it's not that much more difficult.

But playing catcher, at least in my opinion, is a defensive position that influences, negatively, the offensive output of a hitter. I don't believe that Ozzie Smith, as a left-fielder, would've hit much better than Ozzie Smith the shortstop. But I think there's a good chance that Johnny Bench, as a catcher, was made a lesser hitter because he played that position. I think anyone whose played the catcher position, or anyone who just imagines how much work goes into catching, would assert that this is true. Catching takes more of a physical toll on a player than any other position....not a little more effort, but a lot more.

We know this is true....this is why catchers have really short careers, why catchers can't play 160 games a year. Where I think we've erred is not crediting a catcher's offensive performance more.

Johnny Bench's hitting statistics, viewed in isolation, are not better than the hitting statistics of Mike Schmidt. I think most people just assume that Bench just wasn't as good a hitter as Schmidt....he was good, but not that good. Almost everyone would say this is true.

I don't know that this IS true. Johnny Bench, as a 20-year old, was a well-above-average hitter in the major leagues (116 OPS+). As a twenty-two year old, Bench was the best power hitter in baseball. At 20, Mike Schmidt was in the minor leagues. At 22, Schmidt was barely in the majors, hitting under .200. He hit under .200 during his Age-23 season, before breaking out at Age-24.

Maybe Bench just peaked early, and maybe Schmidt figured it out late. But I think there's at least a chance that Johnny Bench actually WAS the better hitter, but because he was catching every game, he didn't have the chance to develop into a hitter the way Schmidt developed. The same is true for Mauer. I think there's a good chance that Mauer is the very best hitter of his generation, a hitter on par with the likes of Edgar Martinez.​
10:10 PM Jul 23rd
 
shthar
Posada'd be a sure hall of famer, if New York still had a dozen newspapers.

NY just doesn't have the votes to enshrine a 'pretty good' guy with a bunch of championships anymore.

Just ask Bernie Williams.
9:10 PM Jul 23rd
 
steve161
While I agree that recent work on pitch-framing will greatly advance our understanding of catchers' defense, I caution that we still will be unable to measure the most important aspect of the position: pitch calling and handling of pitchers.

Maybe someday somebody will figure out how to quantify catchers' defense in a way that captures most of the position. We've already progressed beyond the state of the art of not so long ago, when catchers were simply rated on SB/CS. But for the life of me I can't see how we're going to take the next step.
7:23 PM Jul 23rd
 
stevemillburg
Sorry: should be "19th-century Baltimore Orioles." The 18th-century Baltimore Orioles were, as I understand it, models of decorum.
2:50 PM Jul 23rd
 
stevemillburg
Re pitch framing, what happens in a few years when we get electronic ball-strike calls? The good-frame, no-hit Jose Molinas will be out of jobs, and the bad-frame, OK-hitting Ryan Doumits will suddenly be much more valuable. So do we really want to incorporate framing into WAR? I guess deceiving umpires counts as a baseball skill, because it does apparently result in real gains/losses in terms of runs, but should John McGraw and the other thugs on the 18th-century Baltimore Orioles get extra WAR credit for cheating when the umpire wasn't looking and intimidating umpires into ruling their way? Now that I think about it, I guess that, to the extent that their "antics" resulted in more runs for their teams/fewer for the other team, they already have.
2:49 PM Jul 23rd
 
tangotiger
Good stuff Dave. My comments here:

tangotiger.com/index.php/site/comments/does-war-not-give-enough-credit-to-catchers

And I agree that the baseline has to be PA not G. 700 PA = 162 G, so I suggest you put everything on the 700 PA scale.
2:40 PM Jul 23rd
 
jdw
On peterunger's comment: I posted the same thing on the Readers Board a week or so ago when the notion that no rational person could think there are 3 players better at a position than Catcher like people seem to think Schmidt, Brett and Matthews are better than Bench/Berra. I pointed to Bill having down that back in 1999, and it possible that some position players lower at the time (Boggs/Jones/Bagwell/Jeter/A-Rod) and not even around (Albert) would likely beef up a few more positions.

I have to say that post didn't go over so well. :)
1:40 PM Jul 23rd
 
sansho1
Perhaps the physical demands of the position exert a collective depressing effect upon the variation in individual talent.
10:19 AM Jul 23rd
 
joedimino
Sure, but the below average defensive catchers are getting more credit, assuming the overall average for catchers (think generic positional value) is set properly.

I still think most of a catcher's defensive value is just being back there, the really bad ones are selected out and converted to other positions.

Also it seems to me the way to test WAR for bias is to look at the total value season to season of all catchers, including the backups against all other positions. Assuming that a reasonable equilibrium is reached, if you've tuned the overall position values correctly, the positions should be about equal over the long term (I'm talking like 50 years). If you test it too short term star gluts or gaps at certain positions will throw the numbers off.

If catchers are way short in something like that, then you are saying managers are trading too much offense for defense back there. Or your system doesn't give enough positional value to catchers (or another position).

That's really high level, obviously there is more to it than that. But it would be a reasonable start.

Once you have the standard positional values set then you can worry about tuning for good/bad D within the positions.
8:55 AM Jul 23rd
 
MarisFan61
Joe: That takes care of a fair amount -- but it doesn't take care of giving reasonable extra 'credit' (or lack thereof) according to defense, handling pitchers etc. The good and great defensive catchers would still tend to get screwed.
12:40 AM Jul 23rd
 
joedimino
My rule of thumb for things like Hall of Merit elections is to add 15% to a catcher's WAR for single season MVP type awards and 50% for a career. Catchers basically top out at 2000 or so games in a career and about 140 a season, so those seem like reasonable adjustments.

Make those adjustments and then you get a reasonable representation of catchers in the awards and on the all-time lists.
12:18 AM Jul 23rd
 
MarisFan61
Dave: I very much appreciate the article. Before seeing it, I did a (long) comment in "Reader Posts," and I see that our takes are very similar.
12:01 AM Jul 23rd
 
garywmaloney
Great article Dave. As to peterunger's comment, I can only paraphrase what Bill wrote many years ago -- if the Almighty wants to make three right-fielders better than the best second-baseman, you can't tell Him not to.

No offense to Berra, Bench, et al that Ruth, Gehrig, Charleston, et al are rated ahead of them -- that's simply what the numbers show. (And Win Shares still does a better job at taking defense into account, now and over time, IMO -- that remains its greatest and breakthrough contribution.)
11:52 PM Jul 22nd
 
peterunger
Not to say anything about the sophisticated stats, but....in the New B J Historical Abstract,Bill has the top catcher, Berra, ranked as the 41st greatest ever - as of something like 2002 and, no meaningfui difference here, Bench at 44th.

Taking out pitchers and Negro leaguers, by my rough count, Yogi comes in at 30th and Johnny at 32nd - NO MLB catcher cracks the top 8, or the top 16, or even the top 24 spots, among major league position players, for Bill himself.

Those rankings are NOT outcomes of just applying a statistical system. So, it may be that, in very many ways, catchers just aren't very well appreciated.

Either I'm missing something here, I guess, or else Bill is? What do YOU think Dave?
10:54 PM Jul 22nd
 
sayhey
I put a link to Dave's piece on a message board I'm on, and I'm passing on a comment from someone who posts there, at his request; I don't think he was able to post here, not being a subscriber.


"The writer commits a really common statistical blunder when he says Mauer's candidacy is already extremely strong due to the fact that his WAR/162 is the highest of any catcher in baseball history. Mauer's numbers look better compared to Bench -- a far superior player: Bench's WAR/162 through his age 30 season was 6.33, and this number is actually "hurt" by the fact that he stayed on the field more and therefore had a bigger denominator -- because we're only looking at Mauer's twenties and haven't given him time to decline (which he's already doing) and lower that number. I'm sure this was considered, but it wasn't mentioned.

To the point that catchers are historically underappreciated, it may very well be true that WAR fails to account for the difficulty of playing the position, pitch framing, etc; obviously this is a popular view among mainstream sabermetricians. If this is the case, then it's difficult to compare them to other position players using WAR. But leaving that aside, or even assuming that WAR could be tweaked somehow to account for this, there's no way you can adjust WAR for the fact that catchers, on average, play three-quarters of a season. They're not providing value during that time they're resting, and they're not providing value when their careers end sooner than other players. If you want to make this a Hall of Fame argument, you could argue for lowering the statistical threshold to account for the difficulties of playing catcher, but this has nothing to do with WAR itself

Also when the author says "Is it rational, then, that a strong candidate for the title of greatest catcher of all-time has a per-162 game rate that’s so far below the best players at every other position on the diamond? Is it rational to believe that there have been no really great catchers in major league history?" -- I think there might be a failure to account for a sort of selection bias that undoubtedly occurs when clubs decide which position players will play. Great-hitting young catchers are routinely moved from behind the plate at a young age because teams want to maximize the value they can contribute. it happened with Biggio; it would have happened earlier with Mauer, had the Twins had their way; it's happened with countless other young catchers: teams want their best young hitters in the lineup every day and to not age in dog years. It's very possible that the talent pool of major league catchers is diluted because of this. A somewhat analogous situation is relief pitchers: the reason relief pitchers in general are lesser pitchers than starters is that managers and front-office people have their best pitchers start games, because that's how they can pitch the most innings and give them the most value. Relievers shouldn't -- note shouldn't -- be compared against other relievers, but against other players. But this gets into a long tangent about how JAWS is dumb and how it de-accounts for position, one of the fundamental strengths of WAR."
8:56 PM Jul 22nd
 
jdw
Two suggestions, but it might move around the margins a bit:

* 650 PA vs 162 G

You might want to re-run the data on a 650 PA basis rather than a 162 G basis. Looking at the Bench Group you posted, and using brWAR rather than fgWAR:

162 --> 650
5.63 --> 5.62 Bench
5.52 --> 5.28 Other Seven

Wondering if this was a Bench Thing, or perhaps a Catcher Thing, I looked Piazza, Carter, Fisk, Simmons, Yogi and I-Rod:

162 --> 650
4.43 --> 4.47

On a lark:

Schmidt: 7.18 --> 6.88
Morgan: 6.13 --> 5.75

Not sure if that will hold across all the players in your study, or over in FG's WAR rather than BR's... but 650 PA is likely a more realistic leveling of the playing field rather than 162. Catchers on average have a Batting Order disadvantage to other Big WAR players, almost all of whom could hit with a capital HIT. Even if Bench were a better hitter than Rickey or Raines or Morgan (which I'm not arguing), he simply isn't going to hit at the top of the order in either the #1 or #2 spots.

* Multi-Positional rather than One Big Bucket

It really isn't realistic to dump Torre into one bucket, as your taking his career Games/PA's and WAR. Same goes for Musial - he's not really any single position. Carew is a 5.8 2B and a 4.8 1B, which mashes out as a 5.3 multi-positional player. Molitor... etc.

You might find the buckets get a little more interesting when not trying to fit a lot of those into one bucket.
8:52 PM Jul 22nd
 
DaveFleming
The new research into pitch-framing is amazing...

There is a great article over on the FanGraphs front page about Jon Lester, and how much David Ross's pitch-framing has helped Lester this year. It links to the Baseball Prospectus counts of runs saved by pitch-framing, which has the Ross/Lester duo in a dead heat with Wade Miley/Miguel Montero at 10 runs saved on pitch-framing this year.

I've watched most of Lester's starts this year...just from a subjective standpoint, it seems very obvious that Ross has been a big reason for Lester's success. Pitch framing is a big part of it, but there might be a head-games element to it, too. Lester seemed like a different pitcher in the few games of his that A.J. caught.
4:46 PM Jul 22nd
 
DaveFleming
We'd expect to see more elite corner outfielders than middle infielders....
4:20 PM Jul 22nd
 
DaveFleming
To address a few of jwilt's points:

-WAR is Wins Above Replacement....if we've seen players who've average 7, 8, 9, and 10 wins above replacement per 162 games played at all other offensive positions on the diamond, how come we haven't seen a catcher of similar value?

-Catchers don't play as many games as other position players. That's why we're using WAR/162 instead of, say, career WAR. This should adjust for the playing time element.

-If the more difficult defensive positions made it harder to exceed the replacement level, we'd expect to see the distribution of elite players to favor the easier defensive positions. We'd expect to see more elite corner outfielders and middle infielders, more elite 1B's than 3B's. This isn't the case: the distribution among elite players (6.0+ WAR/162 games played) is essentially equal, except for catchers.
4:18 PM Jul 22nd
 
smbakeresq
I have never trusted WAR on a defensive level, nor too much in general.

As far as catchers, they get screwed because of plays never attempted because of their defense never get counted. Nobody ran on Bench because of his arm, there is little allowance for "SB not attempted due to catcher arm." The Reds were also ahead a lot, sometimes by a lot, during his prime years; he loses assists due to fielding bunts and throwing out runners there also.

I am a big Orioles fan, but any system that rated Nick Markakis the best player in the AL in 2008 has to be under suspicion.

12:02 PM Jul 22nd
 
chuck
Edit: That should have read: "I took the 5 best framers (per 120 G) from the chart and averaged their runs saved (21.4) and the 5 worst (-19.4)."
11:57 AM Jul 22nd
 
chuck
The recent studies on pitch framing suggest the difference in runs saved between the best and worst at it, per 120 games, can be in the neighborhood of 40 runs. Check out the chart in this article:
www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=15093

I took the 5 best framers (per 120 G) from the chart and averaged their runs saved (21.4) and the 5 worst (19.4). Per 162 games, that difference would/could increase, presumably, to 29 runs vs -26, a difference of 55 runs.

Ok, now looking at BB-reference's total runs saved above/below average for teams. Over the last 10 years, here is the average spread for each position between the best team and worst team in runs saved above average:
Ca 29
1b 32
2b 38
3b 49
Ss 48
Lf 45
Cf 48
Rf 50

Now, there might be a reason for that, that catcher comes up lowest in spread between best and worst. Perhaps it's such an important position that teams can't afford to have anyone really bad behind the plate. But if that was the case, I think one would see a low spread at shortstop also.
I'm thinking that a big elephant is missing from the catching runs saved, and if it's pitch framing, then a lot of runs could be going uncounted and a lot of WAR value as well. After all, the chart in the article was comparing regular catchers, not replacement players. The difference in runs saved per/x number of games between the best framers and a AAA replacement framer might be even more than suggested above.
11:27 AM Jul 22nd
 
jwilt
"If we hold that Johnny Bench is the greatest catcher in major league history, it stands to reason that he should rate near the greatest first baseman, right-fielders, and shortstops in baseball history."

Why? Because it seems fair? The people who work hardest aren't necessarily the most valuable. The janitor works harder than the CEO in a lot of places, but you're not paying him based on that.

Catcher might be the hardest position on the field, but maybe because of that he can't be as valuable. He has to split time with others, to rest. He gets injured more often.

If pitchers per-inning workload and effort one day gets to the point where a starter can only throw 150 innings I don't think we'll pretend that's as valuable as a shortstop who plays 150 games.
10:49 AM Jul 22nd
 
ksclacktc
Great article Dave, your best in awhile! Ditto what izzy said, I have also wondered about this subject as well. I suspect the answer is somewhere in between the very best and where they are rated now. Perhaps WAR needs a replacement level based on playing time for Catchers being something less than 162 games.
7:09 AM Jul 22nd
 
izzy24
Thanks for a great article, Dave. This is something I've wondered about for a long time. Consider Fangraphs obsession with pitch framing, I wonder if they'll eventually figure out a way to incorporate it into a catcher's total WAR.
10:50 PM Jul 21st
 
 
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