Monday, December 9, 2019

The Catchers in the Hall of Fame

The unfortunate selection of Ted Simmons to the Hall of Fame yesterday has led me to do something I have never done before, a thorough comparison, using my standard methodologies, of all the catchers in the Hall of Fame, as well as a few that are not.  I have decided to present the results.

I must begin with a point I made in Baseball Greatness:  there is far less variance in the ability of catchers than in the ability of players at any other position, and the greatest catchers in history have contributed much less to their teams' success than the greatest infielders, outfielders, and pitchers.  My definition of a superstar season is 4 Wins Above Average (WAA), computed without position adjustments, and with Michael Humphreys's DRA to measure fielding contribution.  For a first baseman or an outfielder to have an excellent chance of reaching the Hall, he needs 5 superstar seasons in his career.  Quite a few infielders and pitchers have at least that many, and most infielders or pitchers, I believe, have at least 3.  An all-time team based on the highest numbers of seasons of 4 WAA or more would include Ruth (17), Barry Bonds (17), and Speaker, Mays or Aaron (16 each) in the outfield; Gehrig (12) at first; Hornsby (11) at second; Wagner (10) at short; Mike Schmidt (11) at third; and  a pitching staff of Clemens (12), Lefty Grove (10), Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson (9), and Grover Cleveland Alexander (8).  The catcher, however, would be Johnny Bench, with 3 such seasons.

There are two reasons for this.  First of all, although some great hitters have become catchers, the physical toll of catching is so great that none of them has been able to sustain year-to-year greatness the way other position players can, and they generally decline much more rapidly.  Secondly, as defensive players, there is very little, in most eras, that catchers can do to create more outs than other catchers.  They handle very few balls in play.  A catcher with a great arm can create substantially more outs than his peers in eras that feature lots of base stealing, but those eras are relatively rare in baseball.  Catchers, of course, always get credit for the brilliant handling of pitching staffs, but only when they happen to play on teams with good offenses that allow their pitchers to "win" lots of games.  We now know that framing can create additional outs, but we will never have a statistical basis for judging its importance across the history of baseball.

Because top catcher performance lags so far behind that of other positions, I can't even use the yardstick of 4 WAA--a superstar season--to identify the greatest catchers, as will become clear from the following table.  Instead I have to add "star seasons" which I have defined as anything from 2 to 3.9 WAA.  The following table includes all the catchers in the Hall of Fame based on 20th-century MLB performance, showing their total seasons with 4 or more WAA, with 3-3.9 WAA, and with 2-2.9 WAA.

               
Player Over 4 3-3.9 2-2.9 Stars
Bench 3 3 3 9
Carter 2 4 3 9
Piazza 2 4 3 9
Rodriguez 0 4 4 8
Berra 0 4 3 7
Dickey 0 4 2 6
Cochrane 2 1 3 6
Mauer 1 2 3 6
Freehan 0 2 3 5
Munson 2 1 2 5
Fisk 1 1 3 5
Torre 1 0 4 5
Bresnahan 0 1 3 4
Hartnett 0 2 2 4
Lombardi 0 1 2 3
Campanella 0 2 1 3
Simmons 0 0 3 3
Ferrell 0 0 1 1
Schalk 0 0 0 0
   
The four greatest catchers in history come from the Boom (Bench and Carter) and X (Piazza and Rodriguez) generations.  Bench, one could argue, edges out Carter and Piazza, but only because he topped 4 WAA three times, while they did only twice.  Yogi Berra was marginally superior to Bill Dickey, but not markedly so, as Bill James argued in his Historical Abstract.  Tied with Dickey we find his contemporary Mickey Cochrane--whose best seasons were the best posted by any catcher until 1970--and not-yet-elibible Joe Mauer of the Millennial generation.  While Yogi was indeed a great catcher, I pointed out in Baseball Greatness that he was never close to the best player in the AL in his three MVP seasons, and his last selection, in 1955, was truly absurd. Then, things get interesting.

Of the four catchers with 5 seasons of 2 WAA or more, Fisk and Torre and in the Hall of Fame--Torre, I suspect, largely because of his managerial success--while Munson and Freehan are not.  Fisk, whose best season was his rookie year, reached the Hall because he managed to perform at an adequate level for an extraordinarily long period of time, while Munson never got any serious consideration because of his early death.  (It is interesting, by the way, that Fisk, Munson, and Bench all were born in the same year, 1947--as was the present writer, who entered this world on the very same day that Munson did.)  Freehan will always be underrated because he played in a very low-offense era and his traditional statistics suffered accordingly.  Torre was in fact a very valuable catcher, whose playing career includes an astonishing irony.  He won the NL MVP in 1971 after the Cardinals moved him full-time to third base, where he hit .371 with 230 hits and 137 RBI.  We now know thanks to Michael Humphreys, however, that he had one of the worst years in the history of baseball at third base, surrendering enough extra base hits to account for -36 runs, and thus, his total contribution to his team in that year was only 2.1 WAA.  The real 1971 NL MVP, based on WAA, was Tom Seaver, who had his greatest season with 7.5 WAA, and the best position player was Roberto Clemente, with 5.1.  Freehan and Munson, along with not-yet-eligible Mauer, are the greatest catchers not in the Hall, and had more impact on their teams' fortunes than many of the catchers who are.  I would not have been unhappy if Munson had been elected this year.

Roger Bresnahan and Gabby Harnett represent the beginning and end of the Lost generation, in which they were indeed the most valuable catchers.  Ray Schalk made the Hall of Fame because he was one of the honest White Sox in 1919--there really is no other explanation.  Ernie Lombardi and Rick Ferrell were contemporaries of Cochrane and Dickey, but nowhere near as good.  Lombardi is probably in because he won one batting title, and legend has it that the Veterans' Committee confused Ferrell with his brother Wes, who is one of the greatest pitchers not in the Hall of Fame.  Roy Campanella's low place on the list is rather surprising.  Uniquely among ballplayers, he won an MVP award in every one of his star seasons, even though he was never even close to being the MVP on his own team.  He didn't reach the majors until he was 26 because of segregation, he had a lot of injuries and mixed very poor seasons in with his good ones.  Like Munson, however, he had fallen below the star level for two seasons by the time that a tragic accident ended his career.  And his three best seasons were better than Simmons' three best.

Ted Simmons, like Carlton Fisk, continued to catch for major league teams into his late thirties.  That, not his peak performance, is his biggest claim to fame.  He will not be the worst catcher in the Hall of Fame, but he is not in the class of the other three catchers from the Boom generation who preceded him (Bench, Carter, and Fisk), nor of another contemporary, Thurman Munson, who was on the same ballot.


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