Historical WAR Review: Catchers

Preamble

Rally just completed the Herculean task of estimating WAR season totals for every player in major league baseball, 1871 onward.  I don't think it can be understated what an accomplishment this is--yes, we've had other measures on these same players before--win shares, WSAB, WARP, etc.  But I think these are clearly the best measures of career value we have to date, and I was happy to purchase the database from him.  In an effort to explore these data, and to learn some baseball history, I'm embarking on a position-by-position review of career WAR totals. 

There are roughly 14 decades of players in this database, so we'll do a top-14 list at each position. We'll start with catchers!  Keep in mind that these are accumulated career value rankings, not necessarily a list of "the best."  Or even Hall of Fame worthiness...that said, I think they're a great place to start. :)

Top 14 Catchers, by WAR

14. Wally Schang of the Athletics, Red Sox, Yankees, Browns, and Tigers.

Debut Seasons PA wOBA Offense Fld/yr Fld PosAdj WAR WAR/yr
1913 19 6263 0.366 169 -2 -21 58 43.8 4.9

Cited on his Wikipedia page as the greatest offensive catcher of the World War I era, Schang played in six World Series teams, three of which were Champions (1913 Athletics, 1918 Red Sox, and 1923 Yankees).  Schang was not a major power hitter, but he hit for fine average and had an excellent eye, walking more than he struck out and finishing his career with a 0.393 OBP.  It's worth noting, as with other pre-retrosheet catchers, it's hard to make much of his defensive numbers, as we don't even have information here on caught stealing percentages.  Schang has a good defensive reputation, so it's possible his true career WAR totals could even be higher.

...the rest of the list below the jump!

13. Gene Tenace of the Athletics, Padres, Cardinals, and Pirates.

Debut Seasons PA wOBA Offense Fld/yr Fld PosAdj WAR WAR/yr
1969 15 5465 0.393 275 -1 -9 16 48.7 6.2

Tenace had the misfortune to play at the same time as two other catchers named Fisk and Bench, but nonetheless had an outstanding, although comparatively short career: his WAR/700 PA rate (WAR/yr) is the second highest of anyone in our top-14 list, and his wOBA is the highest of anyone in the top-100 list of catchers.  While no slouch on defense (note, though, that he did spend ~40% of his career at first base), he did most of his damage with his stick.  Tenace had excellent power for a catcher, topping 20 home runs five times and posting a career 0.188 ISO.  At the same time, he did an outstanding job of getting on base, leading the league in walks twice (1974 and 1977) and posting a career 0.388 OBP despite a 0.241 career AVG.  He played on four world series teams, all of which walked away with a ring (three times with the legendary Oakland teams of the early 70's--he was the world series MVP in 1972--and in 1982 with the Cardinals).  Despite all of his accomplishments, he only was selected for one all star team, and only twice received votes for the league MVP.

 

12. Gabby Hartnett of the Cubs (and Giants).  Hall of Fame.

Debut Seasons PA wOBA Offense Fld/yr Fld PosAdj WAR WAR/yr
1922 20 7170 0.369 211 1 12 58 50.3 4.9

Charles Leo Hartnett played for a long time, and as a result some of his rate stats aren't as impressive as others on this list.  But this guy had some monster seasons.  He appeared in the first six all-star games, won the MVP award in 1935 (and received votes 9 other years), and appeared in four world series (he was a Cub, of course, and so they lost all of them).  He hit for average, he walked, and he hit for significant power, topping out with 37 home runs in 1930.  He hit for 2.4 or more wins above average in four separate seasons, and his wiki page cites him as the greatest NL catcher in the first half of the 20th century.  He is also our first hall of fame catcher in our top-14 list.

 

11. Ted Simmons of the of the Cardinals, Brewers, and Braves.

Debut Seasons PA wOBA Offense Fld/yr Fld PosAdj WAR WAR/yr
1968 21 9574 0.355 163 -2 -33 70 50.4 3.7

Simmons played a long time, and played a lot during those seasons, and as a result his WAR/yr totals are the lowest in our top-14; his 9574 plate appearances ranks 2nd all time behind Carton Fisk.  There's value in all of that playing time, and WAR recognizes that, ranking him at #11.  Simmons was an 8-time all star, received votes for the MVP award seven times, and appeared in the Brewers' World Series loss vs. the Cardinals.  His failure to be elected into the Hall of Fame has long been debated.  His case is more about counting stats than rate stats given his durability, but if Hartnett is in, Simmons probably has a case as well.

 

10. Mickey Cochrane of the Athletics and Tigers.  Hall of Fame.

Debut Seasons PA wOBA Offense Fld/yr Fld PosAdj WAR WAR/yr
1925 13 6055 0.390 288 0 -2 46 51.2 5.9

Cochrane's career ended early at age 34 when a pitch by Bump Hadley hit him in the head, resulting in a 7-day hospitalization and a mandated end to his playing career.  But he'd clearly done enough to that point to warrant his Hall of Fame credentials.  Two-time MVP (received votes 6 other seasons), two-time all-star (all-star games only began in 1933), five world series teams (three wins: 2 with the Athletics, 1 with the Tigers), and a ridonculous 0.419 career OBP.  He was also player-manager during his years with the Tigers, which began in 1934. 

 

9.  Buck Ewing of the Trojans, Gothams, Giants, Spiders, and Reds.  Hall of Fame.

Debut Seasons PA wOBA Offense Fld/yr Fld PosAdj WAR WAR/yr
1880 18 5764 0.39 274 9 74 35 51.8 6.3

Here's what I love about Rally's expanded WAR: dead ball era players.  With Cap Anson, Ewing was voted one of the two best position players of the 19th century, and he joined Anson as the first from their era to be elected into the Hall of Fame.  He was, by all reports I've seen, a superb defensive player, with an excellent throwing arm (per his Wiki page) and, by Rally's measures, better than average (vs. his contemporaries) ability to prevent errors and passed balls despite not using a glove.  He hit for average and power.  Ewing led the league in home runs (10 in 1883 in 88 games--the first player to hit that mark) and triples one time each, and posted six full seasons with a 140+ OPS+.  His Giants teams won back-to-back world series in 1888-1889.  Ewing's WAR/700 PA totals are the highest of any catcher in our top-14 list, and one could argue that he was held back primarily by the small number of games played over the course of his career (of course, one could also argue we should adjust for quality of competition, but we're just going vs. league average here).

 

8. Bill Dickey of the Yankees.  Hall of Fame.

Debut Seasons PA wOBA Offense Fld/yr Fld PosAdj WAR WAR/yr
1928 17 7009 0.379 268 2 20 53 54.4 5.4

Dickey played on the same Yankees teams that included Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio.  He caught in eight world series between 1932-1943, and the Yankees won seven of them.  He was an 11-time All Star, received consideration for the MVP nine times (placing 2nd in 1938 to Boston's Jimmie Foxx), and was an extremely well-round player.  His defensive reputation was very strong, which is backed by Rally's data (which only includes error and passed ball rates in this era).  And as a hitter, he showed very good power (20+ home runs 1936-1939), high average, and excellent selectivity at the plate, walking at 2.3 times the rate he struck out.  Following his playing career, he became the defensive instructor for another catcher on our list: Yogi Berra.

 

7. Joe Torre of the Braves and Cardinals.

Debut Seasons PA wOBA Offense Fld/yr Fld PosAdj WAR WAR/yr
1960 18 8738 0.368 250 -2 -29 22 55.6 4.5

If you're like me, you've heard so much hype about Joe Torre's managerial career that you may not know much about his playing career.  In fact, maybe it's not just me--if you blink while reading his wiki page, you'll miss that he ever did anything but manage.  But Torre had a fantastic career, one that was arguably worthy of a Hall of Fame induction (though he never received more than 22% of the BBWAA vote).  Torre was sort of like Ted Simmons in that his argument is more based on counting stats than rate stats--aside from Simmons, no one to this point on our list had as many career PA's as Torre.  He did have some truly outstanding seasons, however.  He hit for power (36 home runs in 1966) and average, and took his share of walks  He was a 9-time All Star, the 1971 NL MVP (received votes in 5 other seasons), and won a gold glove award in 1965.  Rally's data, which does include stolen base information for his career, indicates that if there was one weakness in his game, it was defense.  He split time between catcher, first, and third during his career, and he rates out as slightly below average over his career. 

 

6. Mike Piazza of the Dodgers, Marlins, Mets, Padres, and Athletics.

Debut Seasons PA wOBA Offense Fld/yr Fld PosAdj WAR WAR/yr
1992 16 7700 0.388 354 -6 -70 83 59.1 5.4

Piazza is often cited as the best-hitting catcher in baseball history.  There's definitely something to that--at least among catchers with 7000+ PA's in their careers, Piazza has the highest wOBA, even after correcting for the fact that he played in an offensive era.  Some others on our top-14 list have a (slightly) higher wOBA, but none of them played as much as Piazza.  Looking back at his raw offensive numbers, it's impossible to not be impressed.  Ten consecutive seasons with an 0.900+ OPS (four times over 1.000), twice leading the league in OPS+, 9 seasons with more than 30 homers...the list goes on and on.  He was a 12-time all-star, appeared in 5 post-seasons (one world series loss), won the Rookie of the Year in '93, and received votes for the MVP in 9 consecutive seasons (finished second twice).  The knock on Piazza, of course, was his defense, which is the worst among our top-14 catchers (among the top-50 catchers, only Mickey Tettleton had a worse per-season rate).  But I'll say two things in his defense.  One, unlike a lot of the guys on this list, Piazza played almost exclusively behind the plate (the experiment to switch him to first base while with the Mets failed miserably).  Second, despite his -70 fielding rating, his position adjustment is still +83 runs--indicating that, overall, he still rates as an average to above-average fielder compared to an average position player.  Should be a lock for the Hall of Fame.  Right?

 

5.  Yogi Berra of the Yankees (and Mets).  Hall of Fame.

Debut Seasons PA wOBA Offense Fld/yr Fld PosAdj WAR WAR/yr
1946 19 8311 0.374 284 2 27 62 61.9 5.2

As a devout Yankees hater, I think I'm fairly well-qualified to say this: I don't think there's been a more colorful character in the history of baseball than Lawrence Peter Berra.  But what makes him that much more awesome is that beyond his brilliant AFLAC commercials, he was a genuinely phenomenal player.  Look at the playing time, look at the production, and keep in mind that his fielding rating shown here largely ignores his performance on throwing out baserunners.  Berra was a 3-time MVP (the most of any catcher, and he received votes in every season in which he played 100 or more games), a 15-time all-star, and a man who could hit for average, power, and take a walk.  Berra's undoubtedly overrated, as most Yankees legends are.  But his combination of durability and production, not to mention a colorful quote or two, made for one of the best catchers in history.

 

4.  Gary Carter of the Expos, Mets, Giants, and Dodgers.  Hall of Fame.

Debut Seasons PA wOBA Offense Fld/yr Fld PosAdj WAR WAR/yr
1974 19 8887 0.354 145 9 112 118 66.3 5.2

I'm not sure why, but somehow I think I've always felt that Gary Carter was overrated.  I think it was at least partly that, like many sabr-oriented fans, I focused mostly on the offense and ignored the defense.  Carter was no slouch as a hitter, as his 0.354 career wOBA (era- and park-adjusted) indicates.  He hit for fine power, and walked enough to keep his OBP respectable, at least.  But he wasn't aweesome because of his bat.  What vaults Carter to 4th on our list is his defense, which by Rally's measures was the fourth-highest career total of any catcher in the top-100 catchers by WAR (behind I-Rod, Charlie Bennett, and Jim Sundberg).  And it's not just Rally' data.  In Tom Tango's WOWY study, which is a more careful assessment of catcher defense, Carter rated 3rd among all retrosheet catchers on a per-season basis behind Sundberg and Bruce Benedict.  Defense matters.  Which brings us to the #3-ranked catcher...

 

3. Ivan Rodriguez of the Rangers, Marlins, Tigers, Yankees, and now-Astros.

Debut Seasons PA wOBA Offense Fld/yr Fld PosAdj WAR WAR/yr
1991 18 9169 0.345 83 12 151 128 66.5 5.1

The only active player on our list, I-Rod was also the biggest surprise to me as I started on this project.  He is rated by Rally's data as the best defensive catcher in the history of baseball, based on accumulated career runs above average behind the plate (on a per-season basis, he's tied for 4th among the top-100 catchers).  I-Rod has occasionally received criticism for the more cerebral aspects of catching, such as handling a pitching staff and calling a game, but I think you can make a strong argument that he had one of the top two or three best throwing arms of any catcher ever.  He absolutely annihilated the running game, posting caught-stealing percentages above 50% in eight separate seasons, and currently sporting a career mark of 46% (he's declined into the 30% range over the past three seasons).  As a testament to this excellence, I-Rod holds 13 gold glove awards.  On top of his defensive excellence, Rodriguez has played a ton (3rd in PA's by catchers all-time), and put up pretty decent offensive numbers for most of his career.  He won an MVP award in 1999 with his 30/25 season, posted 9-consecutive seasons with an OPS+ of 100 or better, was an All-Star 14 times, and played on 5 postseason teams, including Florida's 2003 World Champion team.  And yet, I'm honestly not sure if he's a lock for the Hall of Fame, at least through the eyes of the voters.  What do you folks think?

 

2.  Carton Fisk of the Red Sox and White Sox.  Hall of Fame.

Debut Seasons PA wOBA Offense Fld/yr Fld PosAdj WAR WAR/yr
1969 24 9748 0.357 187 2 27 120 67.3 4.8

The "Pudge" before "Pudge" Rodriguez, Fisk got to this point on the list in two primary ways: playing forever, and putting up very good numbers over that time.  24 seasons is second only to Deacon McGuire among the top-100 catchers, and his 9748 PA's is second to none.  Fisk played 97% of his games behind the dish, playing from 1969 to 1993(!).  A career that long includes a lot of highlights: Rookie of the Year, 11-time All Star, a Gold Glove, 7 times receiving votes for the MVP (never finished above third), and a pair of postseason appearances.  He was often very good, occasionally outstanding (two seasons with 3+ WAA), and ultimately I think his Hall of Fame bid came down to two things: his prodigious counting stats, and the memory of him waving a home run fair during the Red Sox' failed bid to win a World Series in 1975.  There was another catcher in that world series, though, and he's our #1 ranked catcher of all time...

 

1. Johnny Bench of the Reds.  Hall of Fame.

Debut Seasons PA wOBA Offense Fld/yr Fld PosAdj WAR WAR/yr
1967 17 8568 0.369 253 6 71 98 71.3 5.8

As a Reds fan I'm biased, but I think if you were to ask a large number of fans the name of the best catcher ever, Johnny Bench's name would be at the top of the poll.  It's not a slam dunk, but Bench comes out four wins above Fisk--and Bench had 1200 fewer PA's and a much higher peak.  Bench was a brilliant defender, but probably not the best defensive catcher of all time.  And he was a superb hitter, but is probably not the best hitting catcher of all time.  What sets him apart is that he was extremely good at both offense and defense: with game-changing defense and prodigious power, he redefined his position.  No other catcher has ever hit 45 home runs in a season, and only one other (Mike Piazza) has topped the 40-mark twice.  He was Rookie of the Year, a two-time MVP (second only to Berra), a 14-time All Star (13 consecutive), and the winner of 10 consecutive gold gloves.  He was the best of the best, and I'm proud that he played for my team...it's nice to be proud of something these days.

 

Table legend

wOBA: The Book's statistic, park adjusted by Rally, and standardized to roughly modern baseball (0.335 league average OBP).  It should be roughly comparable across all eras.

Offense: "Total" from Rally's data, this is career runs above average on offense (including hitting and baserunning)

Fld/yr: Fielding per full modern season (estimated as 700 PA)

Fld: Rally's fielding estimates, either TotalZone (TZ; Retrosheet era only) or JustAnotherAdjustedRangeFactor (JAARF), including double plays, catcher fielding, etc.  Catcher fielding before 1955 does not include performance vs. the running game.

PosAdj: Rally's position adjustments, which are era specific and based on fielding disparities.

WAR: Career WAR totals.  Note, in a few cases, I'm finding very slight differences (+-0.1 WAR or so, usually) between these data and Rally's top 500 list.  I can only assume it's a rounding issue.

WAR/yr: WAR per full modern season (estimated as 700 PA).

The Top-25 list

Rank Pos Name Debut Seasons PA wOBA Fld/yr WAR WAR/yr
1 C Bench, Johnny 1967 17 8568 0.369 6 71.3 5.8
2 C Fisk, Carlton 1969 24 9748 0.357 2 67.3 4.8
3 C Rodriguez, Ivan 1991 18 9169 0.345 12 66.5 5.1
4 C Carter, Gary 1974 19 8887 0.354 9 66.3 5.2
5 C Berra, Yogi 1946 19 8311 0.374 2 61.9 5.2
6 C Piazza, Mike 1992 16 7700 0.388 -6 59.1 5.4
7 C Torre, Joe 1960 18 8738 0.368 -2 55.6 4.5
8 C Dickey, Bill 1928 17 7009 0.379 2 54.4 5.4
9 C Ewing, Buck 1880 18 5764 0.39 9 51.8 6.3
10 C Cochrane, Mickey 1925 13 6055 0.39 0 51.2 5.9
11 C Simmons, Ted 1968 21 9574 0.355 -2 50.4 3.7
12 C Hartnett, Gabby 1922 20 7170 0.369 1 50.3 4.9
13 C Tenace, Gene 1969 15 5465 0.393 -1 48.7 6.2
14 C Schang, Wally 1913 19 6263 0.366 -2 43.8 4.9
15 C Munson, Thurman 1969 11 5824 0.36 4 43.4 5.2
16 C Freehan, Bill 1961 15 6813 0.35 3 43.3 4.4
17 C Posada, Jorge 1995 14 5835 0.365 -2 41.7 5
18 C Bresnahan, Roger 1897 17 5262 0.377 -2 41.6 5.5
19 C Porter, Darrell 1971 17 6489 0.353 1 40.6 4.4
20 C Lombardi, Ernie 1931 17 6331 0.362 -2 39.0 4.3
21 C Bennett, Charlie 1878 15 4310 0.346 23 38.0 6.2
22 C Kendall, Jason 1996 13 7610 0.344 -1 37.0 3.4
23 C Campanella, Roy 1948 10 4768 0.366 2 36.2 5.3
24 C Parrish, Lance 1977 19 7716 0.331 4 35.7 3.2
25 C Sundberg, Jim 1974 16 6742 0.318 12 35.1 3.6

As a postscript, I just wanted to close by saying that it sure would be nice to be able to include Josh Gibson in this list.  Gibson's playing days were over by age 31, but his short, brilliant career might have been enough to get him on the top-14 list had he played in MLB.  Unfortunately, the Negro leagues remain one of the great frontiers of historical sabermetrics, and it's not possible to include him at this time.

Links to the rest of the series

C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF

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