The Hall of wWAR: Catchers

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I originally got into baseball research because of my lifelong affection towards catchers. After looking at Lance Parrish's stats, I figured he should be a Hall of Famer. I started digging deeper, and though I no longer believe Parrish should be elected (turns out I had the wrong Tiger all along), in many ways the Hall of wWAR "completes" what I set out to do that very day.

Catchers, while not as criminally overlooked as third basemen, are under-represented in the Hall of Fame. I assumed this process would bump a few out while welcoming a pretty substantial new crew. I've had a half-dozen catchers I've felt strongly about for the Hall of Fame for quite some time (at least, since correcting my earlier Parrishian instincts). Today, I welcome a half dozen catchers into the Hall of wWAR, but one from my Original 6 (Wally Schang) didn't quite make the cut.

Who's Out?

These three players are in the Hall of Fame, but did not make it into the Hall of wWAR:

  • Ernie Lombardi: A career .306 hitter with a pair of batting titles (the only catcher to achieve this until Joe Mauer came along)? How does he get bumped? It's true—Ernie Lombardi was a very good hitter (for a catcher). He loses a couple of wins defensively, but that's somewhat expected for a great-hitting catcher. Lombardi's speed—or lack thereof—is legendary. It seems that with Hall of Fame voting, something like horrendous baserunning is just shrugged off because it is not reflected in raw stats (sure he got fewer infield hits and legged out fewer doubles, but bad baserunning affects things more deeply than that). WAR takes this stuff seriously, docking Lombardi 41 runs for his baserunning. As he was worth 191 runs with his bat, he gives back over 21% of his offensive value by running so poorly. And that is what bumps him from the Hall of wWAR.
  • Ray Schalk: The stat geek in me can't stand that Ray Schalk is in the Hall of Fame. He had a .656 OPS. He was worth 22.6 WAR. He collected just 1345 hits. Any way you look at it, he appears to be an awful choice. His 46 runs on defense are nice, but seem to be very low compared with how he was regarded during his career. But from 1910 to 1930, just one catcher provided more value than Schalk. That was Schang. Still, while Schalk may have been among the best catchers of his day, he still wasn't good enough for the Hall.
  • Rick Ferrell: This one just makes no sense. At least Schalk actually reached three wins at one point in his career. Ferrell is in the Hall of Fame with a Wins Above Excellence of zero. He is the only Hall of Fame position player who can make that claim. Even giving Ferrell the most generous sample size and fetching only catcher WAR from his career (1929–1947), he still ranks fifth in WAR behind Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, Lombardi, and Gabby Hartnett.

Who's In?

These six players are not in the Hall of Fame, but are now being inducted to the Hall of wWAR:

  • Joe Torre: Joe Torre is going to be the next John McGraw. What? Baseball history buffs know McGraw as the Hall of Fame manager who won ten pennants and three World Series titles while managing the New York Giants for 31 years. It is easy to forget that McGraw had a staggering .334/.466/.410 batting line (135 OPS+) as a third baseman, though. His incredible—and probably Hall-worthy—playing career is forgotten because he was inducted as a manager. The same is going to happen to Torre, and it's too bad, because he was a Hall of Fame player. Torre is sometimes dismissed as a catcher because he only played 41% of his games behind the plate. It's still the position he played the most, and even with the position adjustments applied for playing elsewhere he clears the basic threshold for the Hall of wWAR. I lower the standards for catchers (since they have a hard time accumulating WAR because of days off in-season and shorter careers in general). But Torre gets in without the standards lowered.
  • Ted Simmons: Considering how few Hall of Fame catchers there are, it is quite puzzling that Simmons is not enshrined. While advanced metrics rate him well, he actually looks even better by traditional counting numbers. His totals of 2472 hits, 483 doubles, 248 home runs, 1389 RBI, and a .285 batting average are remarkable for a catcher. Simmons compiled 50.4 WAR in his career, ninth among eligible catchers (had he quit five seasons earlier, he actually would have had an even more impressive career WAR of 53.2). Simmons had a decent peak that boosts his wWAR to 67.5, eighth among eligible catchers. I've never seen a good reason for why he's not in.
  • Gene Tenace: Torre and Simmons are frequently discussed as Hall of Fame snubs. This is because they deserve induction even if you don’t adjust for the egregious lack of catchers in the Hall of Fame. But if you, like me, think there are too few catchers in the Hall, then you need to populate it with the next tier. And while the next tier is still very solid, it doesn’t get nearly as much publicity. The leader of this next group of catchers is Gene Tenace. Like Simmons, Tenace fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after one attempt. That’s not entirely surprising—.241 hitters with 1060 career hits don’t typically knock down the Hall of Fame walls. But Tenace was way ahead of his time. His OBP (.388) was a full .147 higher than his batting average. Among catchers with 3000 PAs, only Schang, Mauer, and Mickey Cochrane boast a higher OBP. And despite just 5525 plate appearances, Tenace smacked 200 homers. While his playing time was quite low for a Hall of Famer, the value was there. In his eight seasons as a starter, he compiled 40.5 of his 48.7 WAR. Only five Hall of Fame position players have less than Tenace's 5525 plate appearances—and Tenace out WAR'd all of them. In fact, he out WAR'd the three players ahead of him, too. Add his excellent peak 16.5 WAE and he climbs up the list even more.
  • Thurman Munson: Munson's best Hall of Fame showing was his first—the year his five-year waiting period was waived because of his tragic death. While it made perfect sense to lift the waiting period for Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente, it probably wasn’t the best idea for a borderline candidate like Munson. Voters needed time to get past the tragedy of what happened and get a clear sense of perspective. They never had that chance. At first glance (.292 average, 1558 hits, 113 home runs), Munson seems to have the framework of a Hall of Fame career, but not enough playing time to fill it out. He was good enough, however, to still rank with the best dozen or so catchers of all time. That should be enough to get you enshrined. Munson recorded 43.4 WAR and added an excellent peak (14.3 WAE and 0.7 WAM) to give him a total of 58.4 wWAR (#12 among eligible catchers).
  • Bill Freehan: Freehan, from a value perspective, is incredibly similar to Munson. His 43.3 WAR is 0.1 behind Munson and his 57.7 wWAR (#13 among eligible catchers) is 0.7 behind him. Not that this is a great barometer of Hall-worthiness, but Freehan’s 11 All Star games are the most for an eligible player outside the Hall. He also won five Gold Gloves. Despite these accolades, three Top 10 MVP finishes, and several fielding records upon his retirement, he lasted just one year on the Hall of Fame ballot with just 0.5% of the vote. How is it that Freehan and Munson are so close in value while their statistics are so dissimilar? Well, they’re really not that dissimilar. Munson hit for more contact and Freehan hit for more power, but once you adjust for parks and eras, their offensive output is somewhat similar. In 5903 plate appearances, Munson was worth 116 runs above average (batting, reaching on error, and grounding into double plays), 10 runs on the bases, 32 Total Zone runs, and 75 runs for position. Freehan was worth 97 runs at the plate, –7 on the bases, 27 in the field, and 85 for his position. Distribute that over their playing time and compare it to the replacement level and you have essentially the same player. And they both should be in.
  • Darrell Porter: If Tenace, Munson, and Freehan hadn’t shocked you yet, Darrell Porter is the real eyebrow-raiser of the group. Darrell Porter is a player I never would have imagined as a Hall of Famer when I started this project. And the truth is, he probably doesn’t belong. His wWAR of 52.1 (#15 among eligible catchers) is heavily condensed into one season. In 1979, Porter was worth 8.4 WAR (therefore, 5.4 WAE, 2.4 WAM, and 16.2 wWAR). That amounts to 31% of his total wWAR coming from one season. That’s less Hall of Fame and more one-year wonder. Personally, I would have preferred to enshrine Schang, a 1920s backstop who was the best at his position for a time. Schang, owner of a .393 career OBP, fell short at 47.9 wWAR. This was one of the cases where I was a slave to the process—I couldn’t include Schang without including Porter, and in the end I really couldn’t justify including both. It’s not like Porter was a bad player. In addition to that 8.4 WAR season, he also had a 4.5 WAR year and four more over 3 WAR. His batting runs above average (104, when you include double plays and errors) is right around Munson and Freehan. Of course, 42 of those came in 1979. Porter is actually better than he looks, with an OBP (.354) .107 above his batting average (.247). Not quite Tenace-like, but impressive nonetheless. While I make light of Porter’s inclusion, he still rates ahead of Roger Bresnahan (who makes the Hall of wWAR as the last catcher) and the trio that was bumped from the Hall.

Who's Next?

These four players are either still active or retired and not yet eligible for the Hall, but have already met the threshold to be inducted to the Hall of wWAR:

  • Mike Piazza: While Piazza trails Pudge Rodriguez in WAR by 8.6 wins, he just barely leapfrogs him in wWAR thanks to his amazing peak. His wWAR of 89.6 places him third among catchers, behind just Johnny Bench and Gary Carter.
  • Ivan Rodriguez: Rodriguez is right behind Piazza with 88.9 wWAR. Both barely sneak in ahead of Carlton Fisk, who gets a much smaller boost from his peak.
  • Joe Mauer: Correct. If Joe Mauer never played another game, he would already be inducted to the Hall of wWAR. He slides in right behind Gene Tenace, ahead of Gabby Hartnett. If his next 3 1/2 seasons are like his last 3 1/2 seasons, he'll pass Bench for #1 all time. And he'll still be 31.
  • Jorge Posada: You don't hear the phrase "underrated Yankee" too often, but with Posada it's true. There aren't even many Yankee fans who see him as a Hall of Famer, it seems. But 59.7 wWAR catchers don't grow on trees.

Up next, first basemen!

The Hall of wWAR
Catchers | First Basemen | Second Basemen | Third Basemen | Shortstops
Left Fielders | Center Fielders | Right Fielders | Designated Hitters
Pitchers

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