Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 10, 2001
BASEBALL: Best-Hitting Catchers Ever
Originally posted on Projo.com
Iím writing from vacation this week, so forgive me if I digress from the pennant races . . . Iíve come across this question a lot lately: where do Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez rank, really, among the best-hitting catchers of all time? It is so widely said that Piazza is the best-hitting catcher of all time that nobody even bothers, it seems, to look behind the spectacular numbers and ask how he stacks up when you take account of the high-scoring context of the past decade. And there are many who argue that Rodriguez, with the fastest gun in the West, is on his way to being the best catcher ever, period; is he?
Thereís a number of ways to skin this particular cat, and I wonít try to go through them all here. For example, my personal view is that, when rating players in general and catchers in particular, we need to zero in on the block of seasons that constitute their productive years, and not judge, say, Mickey Cochrane or Roy Campanella or Thurman Munson ahead of Gary Carter just because the violent ends of their careers prevented them from hanging on as subpar part-time players way past their prime. Eddie Epstein and Rob Neyer take a useful look at the ďbig fourĒ catchers (Cochrane, Bench, Berra, and Campanella) from this perspective in their book ďBaseball Dynasties.Ē
For a quick measurement, I took a look at the historical ďplayer cardsĒ database on the Baseball Prospectus site to compare the all-time and active catchers by EqA and see what came up. (Scroll to the bottom here for an explanation of EqA and my thoughts on the player cards). Unfortunately, the answer I got back was one that just didnít seem right Ė the number 2 hitting catcher of all time, for example, came up as Gene Tenace. Now, Tenace was indeed a fine hitter; he hit for power and drew tons of walks in an extreme pitcherís park in a pitcherís era. Joe Rudiís batting averages notwithstanding, Tenace was probably the third-best hitter on the ďmustache gangĒ Aís, behind Reggie and Bando. But Iím suspicious of relying on a formula to conclude that he was really better than Yogi Berra.
There was a recurring theme, however: the guys who just didnít seem to fit had mostly shorter careers or had done a lot of work at other positions. So, I narrowed my search to players who (1) had caught more than 1000 games in their careers, not a terribly demanding standard but what you would expect as the minimum for, say, the Hall of Fame to take you in as a catcher (for the math-impaired, this is 100 games a year for 10 years); and (2) had caught in at least half of their career games. It didnít seem right to include guys who rolled up big batting years at first base next to somebody like Cochrane, who was behind the plate in all but 31 career appearances.
Once I applied this criteria, I was amazed how many of the impostors dropped away Ė Tenace (.310 EqA, 892 games caught), Joe Torre (.298, 903, one MVP award won as a third baseman), Mickey Tettleton (.296, 872), Darren Daulton (.284, 965), Ed Bailey (.281, 907), Mike Stanley (.293, 751), and Chris Hoiles (.293, 819). You will sometimes see the statistically inclined argue that Tenace or Torre belongs in Cooperstown when you compare their hitting stats to other catchers; donít believe it. (Torre will go in anyway when his managing and playing careers are considered together). Also dropping by the wayside were active catchers like Jason Kendall (.298 entering 2001), Jorge Posada (.291), and Javy Lopez (.280), and old-timers like Buck Ewing (.301, 636), Roger Bresnahan (.301, 958), Johnny Bassler (.283, 756), Bubbles Hargrave (.291, 747) and Chief Meyers (.287, 887).
That leaves us with the list, the hard core, the guys who took 1000 games of pounding behind the plate and kept on hitting. With Rodriguez coming in at .279 entering 2001, I cut the list off just above him; Iím pretty sure I got everyone above .280. I list career EqA, games caught, and games the player appeared in but didnít get behind the plate, which includes pinch hitting appearances:
*- Campanella was already 26 and a veteran everyday catcher when he followed Jackie Robinson across the color line in 1948. In the case of ties, lacking the ability to run multiple decimal places, Iíve just ranked the longer careers first.
For the record, the other catchers in the Hall of Fame came in at .254 (Ray Schalk), .266 (Rick Ferrell), .249 (Al Lopez, really in as a manager), .240 (Wilbert Robinson, same), and unavailable but probably ahead of Piazza if he could have been measured (Josh Gibson).
This list is pretty much the usual suspects, in roughly the order you would expect, and does give an idea how far Piazza stands ahead of the others at this point Ėfar enough that the inevitable decline in his numbers as he ages will likely still leave him atop the list. By contrast, even if Rodriguez raises his career EqA Ė entirely possible, since heís far better now than when he was younger Ė he will still probably fall far enough short of the really elite all time catchers that he wonít be able to bridge the gap by even a generous assessment of his defense. For this season, through August 2, Piazza was second among catchers at .314, Rodriguez third at .303 (Jorge Posada was first). Check here for daily updates.
There were four real surprises on the list, but three of them (Haller, Cooper and Clements) had the shortest careers other than Piazza and Campy. Clements surprised me only because he was the only 19th century catcher to catch enough games to qualify Ė heís best known for holding the single season batting record for catchers (.394 in 1895) and for being either the only or the last catcher (I forget which) to throw left-handed. But the biggest surprise was Darrell Porter, who batted .247 with 188 career homers and only drove in more than 70 runs in a season twice. He really only had the one year (1979) when he was a major star. Whatís with that? Porter drew a lot of walks and hit into very few double plays, and the EqA formula puts a high premium on not making outs, but his ranking appears to be mainly a reflection of how scarce runs were in the times and places he played in Ė Milwaukee in the early 70s, KC in the late 70s, St. Louis in the 80s.
Conversely, given the high-scoring era he played in, I was a bit surprised to see Dickey so high. Also, this and similar methods seem to support the Hall of Fame candidacies of Carter, Freehan, Schang, and Munson, particularly in light of the fact that all were key players on championship teams (Schang most of all, catching 32 World Series games for 6 pennant winners and 3 World Champs with the Aís, Red Sox and Yankees between 1913 and 1923) and, in Carterís case, the tremendous length of his career. You can also see the knock here against Ted Simmons, a wonderful hitter but a worse fielder than even Piazza and a guy who spent a lot of time at other positions.
So thereís your answer, by one method. Mike Piazza really is the best hitting catcher ever, or at least the best to play in the major leagues. And Ivan Rodriguez isnít that close Ė but heís also moving into some very good company.
For reviewing offensive productivity, two of the top measures are the Bill James/STATS, Inc. Runs Created formula (which is designed to express how many runs per game a lineup of nine of this guy would score), and the EqA method used by the Baseball Prospectus, which is a similar measurement but is translated into a batting average-like scale, so that .300 is a good EqA. Both are complicated formulas mainly dedicated to measuring the relationship between bases and outs, giving slightly more weight to singles than walks, for example, and including miscellaneous stats like GIDP and HBP. Both have been designed by study of team records, so that a team whose offense creates, say, 5.5 runs/game will almost always score close to that. There are devotees of both and I wonít enter the debate here, although EqA has the advantage (for quick and dirty comparisons) of being adjusted for park effects.
The BP player cards (which have been temporarily out of service lately due to server trouble) have some other fascinating, if controversial, features, like a ďtranslatedĒ stats measurement designed to project what a playerís numbers would be equivalent to in 1990s terms. That can be tough to do accurately Ė translating overall doubles/triples/homers power numbers from the dead ball era into modern homer totals is dicey, since unlike triples in 1907, almost nobody legs out homers these days. But thatís an unavoidable dilemma Ė itís better than treating the difference between 2 HR a year and 3 as if it made a difference. The idea that Honus Wagner would hit 700 homers today isnít at all unreasonable, for example; Wagner was a much more dominant power hitter, in his day, than Alex Rodriguez is.
They are also soon coming out with translated pitcher cards Ė Iíve tried a similar idea myself in a system I aired on the BSG site a few times, and while Iím sure the BP system will be more matehmatically sophisticated than my pen-and-calculator computations, I can only hope that they also use one of the central features of my system: adjusting pitcher workloads and numbers of decisions per start to reflect changes in the role of starting pitchers over time. Remember: how much a pitcher pitches is at least as important as how well. Without that adjustment, you just canít compare how good Cy Young was in his prime, relative to the other starters of his day, to a guy like Robin Roberts, who pitched a lot less in raw numbers than Young but carried a much heavier workload relative to his competitors than any other pitcher in history except maybe John Clarkson.