|Wednesday, Jan. 27 1:03am ET
The men in the masks
By Rob Neyer
Yes, the right-handed pitchers were fairly easy. Today's position is quite a bit tougher, both literally and figuratively.
Here are the top candidates for Greatest Catcher of All Time:
Hits Runs RBI OBP Slug OPS Johnny Bench 2048 1091 1376 .342 .476 .818 Yogi Berra 2150 1175 1430 .348 .482 .826 Roy Campanella 1161 627 856 .360 .500 .860 Mickey Cochrane 1652 1041 832 .419 .478 .897 Bill Dickey 1969 930 1209 .382 .486 .868 Gabby Hartnett 1912 867 1179 .370 .489 .859
You'll notice that these catchers tend to be concentrated in one time period. Of the seven, six spent most of their careers in the 1930s, '40s or '50s. None of them played before 1922, and only Bench played after 1965.
There is, I believe, a good reason for this, aside from randomness. The mid-1920s through the mid-1960s happens to be when the stolen base was in relative disuse. Which is to say, you didn't have to throw particularly well to be a valuable defensive catcher during that periold. The ability to block pitches was important, because the pitchers were wild and the mitts were flimsy, and of course you always want a backstop who calls a good game.
It might well be, then, that some solid defensive catchers who played before 1920, guys like Johnny Kling and Roger Bresnahan, should be included in the discussion. And perhaps Bill Freehan and Tim McCarver should be here, too, representing the 1960s.
But that would require intellectual gymnastics that are, I must admit, a tad beyond my capabilities. So for today, we're going to stick with six in the chart above (while remembering, in the backs of our minds, that Josh Gibson was both an awesome power hitter and a good fielder in the Negro Leagues).
Gabby Hartnett was the first of what we might call "the modern catchers," in that he was both a solid defender and a feared hitter. Though he played with four Chicago Cubs teams that won National League pennants, his reputation really doesn't match those of his contemporaries, Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey -- even though Hartnett clouted one of the more famous home runs in regular-season history, his"Homer in the Gloamin' " that clinched the Cubs' 1938 pennant.
Cochrane was an awesome player. As you can see, his .897 career OPS leads the group and, unlike Bench and Berra, Cochrane did all of his damage as a catcher.
Cochrane was truly an interesting player, and I'd like to mention a few highlights here ...
A brilliant performer with the Philadelphia Athletics when they won three straight American League pennants from 1929 to 1931, Cochrane joined the Tigers in 1934 ... and Detroit immediately won two straight flags, its first since 1909.
Oh, those two pennants in Detroit? Cochrane was the manager, too.
As a player, Cochrane was on on-base, contact-hitting machine. In 1932 and '33, he totaled 206 walks and a mere 44 strikeouts. In 1935, his last full season, he drew 96 walks and struck out only 15 times.
Everything went to hell for Cochrane in 1936. He sustained various injuries and ailments, all of which finally culminated in what's been described as "a general breakdown" in mid-June. Cochrane returned to the club in late July after vacationing in Wyoming, but he rarely played and the Tigers finished a distant second.
Things got worse in 1937. On May 25 in New York, Yankees hurler Bump Hadley skulled Cochrane with a fastball, and for three days Mickey lingered between life and death in a Gotham hospital. He improved on the fourth day, but spent the next six weeks in a Detroit hospital. Cochrane finally returned to managing on July 25, but he never played again. At the time of the beaning, he was batting .306 and on pace for yet another productive season.
Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella were almost exact contemporaries, Berra debuting in late 1946, Campanella early in 1948. From 1947 through 1957, Berra played on nine pennant-winning clubs. From 1948 through 1956, Campanella played on five pennant-winning clubs. In 1951, Berra and Campanella were both named MVPs of their respective leagues. Campanella won another MVP in 1953, Berra won another in '54, and they both won their third in 1955.
Not to belabor this point, but here's what their careers looked like through 1956:
Age Games Hits Runs RBI HR Avg Berra 31 1340 1477 823 1003 238 .294 Campanella 34 1112 1081 596 794 229 .279
Campanella got a late start in the major leagues, largely due to the color of his skin. Though his father was of Italian descent, Campy was too darkly complected to get a chance in pre-Jackie Robinson Organized Baseball. Campanella didn't play his first major-league game until he was 26, and it's quite likely that in a better world, he'd have received a chance much sooner.
Unfortunately, he got an early end, too. After the 1957 season, just before he would have moved his family to Southern California with the rest of the Dodgers, Campanella was involved in a serious auto wreck that left him permanently paralyzed.
That said, I don't see any evidence to suggest that Campanella's credentials would be better if he hadn't had the car accident. After posting a brilliant .985 OPS and winning the MVP in 1955, Campanella posted a .728 OPS in 1956 and a .709 mark in 1957. Clearly, this was an old catcher on the down side of his career.
So even if we wanted to, it wouldn't make sense to give Campanella "credit" for any post-paralysis seasons. With John Roseboro waiting in the wings, Campy probably wouldn't have played much anyway. On the other hand, he probably does deserve special consideration for the color line.
Berra, meanwhile, played until 1963. He didn't catch much after 1959, but he could always hit. In '63, when he was 38, Berra caught 35 games, pinch-hit in another 30 or so, and slugged .497 with 28 RBI in 147 at-bats.
With Yogi, we'll close today's discussion. Please come back tomorrow, when we'll add Johnny Bench to the mix, throw in a few words on Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza, and tie everything together in a nice, neat bundle of rankings.
Wednesday, Jan. 27 3:20pm ET
By Rob Neyer
There really wasn't a truly great catcher in the 1960s. In fact, no Hall of Fame catcher debuted between 1948 (Roy Campanella) and 1967, when Johnny Bench played 26 games. The next season, the 20-year-old Bench batted .275 with 15 home runs -- impressive numbers in The Year of the Pitcher -- and was rewarded with the National League's Rookie of the Year award.
From 1969 through 1976, there was probably not a more valuable player in the major leagues than Johnny Bench. In 1970, he won the MVP, leading the league in home runs (45) and RBI (148) and winning his third Gold Glove.
Two years later he won another MVP, again leading the NL in homers (40) and RBI (125), and again winning the Gold Glove (his fifth).
He was 24 years old, and looked like not only the best player in the National League, but maybe the best player in the history of the National League. That's not exactly how it worked out, though.
In his career, Bench caught 1,742 games.
From a historical perspective, 1,742 games caught are nothing to sneeze at. Yogi Berra caught around 1,700 games, as did Bill Dickey. Hall of Famers Rick Ferrell (1,806) and Ray Schalk (1,727) were in the same neighborhood.
For all practical purposes, it's almost impossible to catch more than 1,800 games in the major leagues. Prior to 1980, I believe that the only man to pass that mark was Al Lopez (1,918), who played from 1930 through 1947.
Or, more precisely, it used to be almost impossible. Carlton Fisk caught 2,229 games, four more than Bob Boone. Jim Sundberg passed the 1,900 mark. Shoot, Ted Simmons, who was not considered a good defensive catcher, caught 1,771 games.
My point being that, by the standards of his era, Bench was not particularly durable. In relative terms, he was not as durable as some of the other candidates for Greatest Catcher Ever.
How to sort them all out?
When we're looking at the hitting stats, we have to adjust for two important factors: league/era context, and ballparks.
To account for the former, we can look at Runs Created per 27 outs, which I hope is not completely new to you. Thanks to the STATS All-Time Major League Handbook, we not only have RC/27 for every player, but also league totals for each season, which allows for a simple comparison.
RC/27 Lg RC/27 Ratio Cochrane 7.60 5.08 1.50 Dickey 7.08 5.05 1.40 Berra 6.14 4.45 1.38 Campanella 6.17 4.48 1.38 Hartnett 6.39 4.65 1.37 Bench 5.47 4.07 1.34
Based on this chart, we might say that Cochrane is easily the best-hitting catcher of all time (Mike Piazza notwithstanding). However, as Bill James has pointed out, Cochrane's early retirement kept him from experiencing a true decline phase in his career.
And once you get past Cochrane, hitting-wise there's very little difference between the other guys on the list. Of course, we haven't discussed ballparks yet. Unfortunately, I only have access to home/road home-run data, but that's better than nothing.
Dickey and Berra, both of whom batted lefty, took good advantage of the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium. Dickey hit almost exactly two-thirds of his career homers at home, while Berra hit nearly 60 percent of his in the Bronx. Campanella also played in a ballpark, Ebbets Field, that was kind to his swing. Like Berra, Campy hit nearly 60 percent of his home runs at home.
The other three guys were essentially even, home/road-wise, with regard to home-run power.
And finally, what many of you have been waiting for ... Yes, I know defense is a major consideration for catchers, but I also know that almost without exception, each of our candidates was highly regarded as a fielder.
Cochrane was considered a fantastic defender. So was Hartnett; Dickey was solid. Berra was the regular catcher for nine pennant-winners in New York. The only Hall of Famer on those pitching staffs was Whitey Ford, yet the Yankees led the AL in ERA practically every season, so Berra was apparently doing something right. Campanella was an outstanding defensive player for great teams. Bench won 10 Gold Gloves.
Earlier in this series of columns, I said that when picking my all-time greats, I was looking for players upon whom I could count for 15 seasons. Well, there aren't really any catchers who qualify, so let's knock our criterion down to 10 seasons.
So who do I want?
1. Mickey Cochrane
How much confidence do I have in this list? Well, I really like Cochrane at the top, but if you want to write me a letter and argue that Hartnett should be No. 2 and Berra should be No. 5, I don't know that I can put up much of an argument.
And finally, what of the current crop? As great as Ivan Rodriguez is, I don't see him breaking into the top five, all-time. Not unless he adds "hitting more home runs" to his long list of other skills. Yes, Pudgy's got the greatest arm we've seen. But there's more to catching than throwing, my friends.
And Piazza? He is, quite simply, on track to be the best-hitting catcher of all time. Remember that RC/27 chart from above? Piazza blows everybody away, with a 1.73 ratio. So should he actually play the position for another five or six years, he has to be considered a candidate for Greatest Ever. I'll make you a deal, too ... if and when that happens, then we'll talk about Mr. Mike's glove.
Rob Neyer is already planning his vacation for baseball's next labor crisis. If you have any suggestions, contact him at Rob.Neyer@infoseek.com.