Ranking Catchers by Weighted WAR (wWAR)

Before I wrote for Beyond the Box Score, I had a little blog where I wrote a lot about the best catchers not in the Hall of Fame. I've always been fascinated by catchers—and figuring out who the best ones in history are (since the Hall of Fame has done a weak job of that). Now that I've got Weighted WAR (wWAR) as my tool of choice, I thought I would revisit the topic.

First, I want to tell you about a little tweak I made to wWAR for catchers. It's not for wWAR itself, but rather for the normalized version of wWAR I use to rank players. With wWAR, catchers simply get a different baseline. If I built the Hall of wWAR without going easier on the catchers, there would be about five of them inducted. That's just not right. So catchers have lower single-season bars to clear for Wins Above Excellence and Wins Above MVP credit. That's because they don't play as many games in a season. Now, their careers also don't last as long, so I have a lower career wWAR threshold for induction. What my normalized wWAR does (wWAR/norm in my data tables) is normalize the two induction lines so that we can compare the Hall of Fame case of someone like Gene Tenace to someone like Tim Raines by using a single number.

Speaking of Mr. Tenace, that brings us to the change that I made. For that second (career) adjustment, I was applying the adjustment to the entire career of all catchers. I've decided that was giving guys like Joe Torre and Gene Tenace a bit too much credit (since they played quite a bit at other positions). So, I've only given them a certain percentage of the adjustment (based on the percentage of their career games spent at catcher). I feel we now have some much better results. Here's some noticable movement in the non-Hall of Fame rankings:

  • Deacon White (a third baseman who also caught a lot) moved from the 10th-best player not in the Hall of Fame up to seventh. His wWAR/norm got a boost from 101.9 to 107.1.
  • Ted Simmons didn't catch much in his last five seasons, so he saw some movement as well. He went from the 9th best outside of the Hall to 15th (102.5 wWAR dropped to 98.3).
  • While catcher was Joe Torre's primary position, he only caught in about 40% of his games. So, he sees the biggest hit. He goes from 11th-best down to 22nd. He went from 100.7 wWAR down to 91.9.
  • Gene Tenace played quite a bit of first base. He dropped from 27th-best to 34th (90.6 wWAR/norm down to 84.9).
  • Additionally, Hall of Fame right-fielder King Kelly actually caught 40% of his career games (just a tad less than Torre). This brought his wWAR/norm from 91.0 up to 97.3.

Several other players saw minor changes in raking, but those were the big ones. So, now our new raking of catchers by wWAR is:

Catchers with 70+ wWAR (Weighted Wins Above Replacement
Name WAR/tot WAR/162 WAE WAM wWPA wWAR wWAR/norm
1 Bench, Johnny 71.3 71.8 44.3 19.5 3.7 139.2 158.7
2 Carter, Gary 66.3 68.1 38.2 18.4 2.6 127.3 147.0
3 Rodriguez, Ivan 68.1 69.7 34.0 10.8 1.2 115.7 134.8
4 Fisk, Carlton 67.3 68.6 33.2 9.6 1.0 112.4 129.7
5 Piazza, Mike 59.1 61.4 35.6 16.6 -0.6 113.0 129.7
6 Berra, Yogi 61.9 64.9 30.3 10.9 2.6 108.7 123.7
7 Dickey, Bill 54.4 57.2 25.7 7.2 1.7 91.8 107.0
8 Cochrane, Mickey 51.2 53.9 27.2 9.2 -0.2 90.0 105.3
9 Ewing, Buck 51.4 69.9 21.3 5.1 0.0 96.3 104.3
10 Simmons, Ted 50.4 50.6 28.8 8.1 -0.1 87.4 98.3
11 Torre, Joe 55.6 55.7 22.8 7.3 0.0 85.8 91.9
12 Mauer, Joe 40.4 40.4 25.2 13.8 -0.1 79.3 90.8
13 Munson, Thurman 43.4 43.4 23.0 8.1 3.5 78.0 90.1
14 Hartnett, Gabby 50.3 52.9 18.5 2.9 -0.5 73.8 85.3
15 Tenace, Gene 48.7 49.4 21.1 4.7 2.0 77.3 84.9
16 Posada, Jorge 45.1 45.1 23.1 6.7 -2.4 72.6 83.4
17 Bennett, Charlie 38.0 56.3 14.3 0.7 0.0 71.3 82.4
18 Freehan, Bill 43.3 43.3 18.9 7.4 0.2 69.8 80.5
19 Campanella, Roy 36.2 38.1 20.5 8.7 -0.7 66.6 77.8
20 Bresnahan, Roger 42.3 45.4 16.5 2.9 0.0 64.8 72.3
21 Porter, Darrell 40.6 41.3 15.9 4.9 0.3 62.4 71.5
22 Schang, Wally 43.8 46.9 12.6 0.8 1.4 61.8 70.1

The Hall of wWAR induction line is right after Roy Campanella. So, 15 catchers are already in the Hall of wWAR with Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, Joe Mauer, and Jorge Posada ready to join them.

In that old BaseballTwit post, I was just beginning to play with Wins Above Excellence and Wins Above MVP in order to find overlooked catchers. I came up with a graphic that highlighted six catchers who just might deserve to be in Cooperstown: Joe Torre, Ted Simmons, Gene Tenace, Wally Schang, Bill Freehan, and Thurman Munson. In that post, I also taked about Charlie Bennett, but came to this shortsighted conclusion:

As tempted as I am to put Bennett on that list because of his defensive prowess, his lack of playing time and low career totals would stick out like a sore thumb in the Hall.

I also identified three catchers who probably don't belong to be in the Hall of Fame. The easy ones were Ray Schalk and Rick Ferrell. Despite a couple batting titles, I also put Ernie Lombardi on this list.

I thought I'd go back now and see how wWAR supports those early assumptions.

First, wWAR absolutely agrees that Schalk and Ferrell don't belong anywhere near the Hall of Fame. Lombardi also rates as the third-worst Hall of Fame catcher and doesn't belong either. However, Lombardi (61.1 wWAR/norm) was a whole lot better than Schalk (35.6) and Ferrell (32.4). Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan actually narrowly misses the Hall of wWAR. It is really, really close. I'll call Bresnahan a borderline Hall of Fame catcher. It's really that close.

Among the six catchers that I identified as potentially Hall worthy, five were added to the Hall of wWAR—Simmons, Torre, Munson, Tenace, and Freehan (as ordered by wWAR/norm). Schang is actually one of two catchers who sit in between Bresnahan and Lombardi (the other being Darrell Porter, who still surprises me every time I see him ranked on these lists).

Bennett also makes it into the Hall of wWAR. My quote above about his playing time was really unfair. His lack of playing time was not his fault, but rather the fault of the shorter schedule of his time. One of the components of my new version of wWAR is WAR/162. The goal of WAR/162 is to help 19th century players make up for this playing time hit. And it helps Bennett enough to get him in, as it did for Ross Barnes, Paul Hines, Ezra Sutton, and others.

As part of my "Who's Next" view, I took a look at retired-but-not-yet-eligible and active catchers by wWAR. So, we see that Ivan Rodriguez ends up ranking third all time (behind Bench and Carter), right ahead of a virtual tie for fourth between Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza. The one that always seems to raise eyebrows is Joe Mauer's 12th place ranking (already). Jorge Posada slides in at 16th place, which would put him in the Hall of wWAR.

What I like about wWAR is it allows me to do the one thing I love more than debating Hall of Fame cases—ranking players across eras. The Hall of Fame is already plenty screwed up. That's why I actually went ahead and created the Hall of wWAR. I don't necessarily believe that every guy in the Hall of wWAR should be in the Hall of Fame. I believe that if the Hall of Fame is going to welcome 207 players, then my 207 deserve it more than the 207 that were elected.

Ranking players by wWAR allows everyone to choose their own Hall of Fame cutoff, whether it follows along with the size of the current Hall or not. That's why my "official stance" is that Ted Simmons and Joe Torre definitely deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. And if we're talking about a Hall of Fame with more than 200 players, then Thurman Munson, Gene Tenace, Charlie Bennett, and Bill Freehan probably deserve to be in there, too.

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