Who is the greatest catcher of all-time?

Bench 2002 Topps

A few weeks ago, I set out on a mission to discover who was the greatest player at each position on the baseball diamond. I decided on a mixture of traditional statistics and modern metrics, threw in a few decimal points here and there, and came up with a system of ranking players. I decided not to include the “steroid” guys, so don’t expect Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, or Ivan Rodriguez to pop up on any of these lists. Over the next several days, I’ll be revealing some of those results, starting today with the backstop.

Berra 1973 Topps

The number one guy on this list was really no surprise to me. Who in the world would doubt that Johnny Bench was the greatest to ever wear the tools of ignorance? His final score was 262.36, taking into account not only his offensive production, but his defensive contributions, awards, and midsummer appearances. Yogi Berra (255.05), Carlton Fisk (233.45), Gary Carter (229.3) and Mike Piazza (223.86) round out the top five in that order (if awards and All-Star seasons are included in the calculations…more on that later), but the big surprise is in the bottom half of the top ten.

Piazza and Gibson

Only three more Hall of Famers appear in the number 6-10 slots: Gabby Hartnett (#7, 204.08), Bill Dickey (#9, 202.25), and Roy Campanella (#10, 189.55). The sixth greatest catcher of all-time is the current Executive Vice President for Baseball Operations, Joe Torre. Granted, he was not a career catcher, retiring the gear after the 1970 season and moving to first and third base. Regardless, Torre’s offensive output was impressive, scoring 206.33 in this project.

Simmons 1986 Topps

The eighth greatest catcher of all-time took over catching duties for Torre when he moved to the infield. Ted Simmons hit 248 home runs and drove in 1389 runs over a 21-year career while keeping a .285 average, all pretty impressive numbers for a guy who crouches for a living. How was Simmons rewarded for his work behind the plate? One year on the Hall of Fame ballot, only 17 votes for 3.7%, the year Steve Carlton was ushered in with 95.6%. Is Simmons the most overlooked full-time catcher in history?

Fisk 1988 Fleer

Back to the inclusion of awards and All-Star appearances. About halfway through the project, I decided I was being a bit unfair to old-timers who never had a chance to win an MVP or be invited to the All-Star game. So I made another column that omitted those calculations, and what happened surprised me. Bench still comes out on top, but Berra got knocked down a few notches. In fact, only one player was replaced in the top ten list. Without awards, the top ten is Bench, Fisk, Carter, Berra, Piazza, Simmons, Dickey, Torre, Hartnett, and Lance Parrish. Campanella actually dropped six spots on the list without his three MVP awards and eight All-Star seasons.

So perhaps Parrish is the most underrated backstop in history? I would never personally support Parrish as a Hall of Famer, but the numbers are there to give his supporters some room to argue. In the case of Simmons, however, I believe the Hall of Fame voters should be charged with a passed ball.

About JT

Christian. Husband. Dad. 911 dispatcher. Baseball fan. Horror nut. Music nerd. Bookworm. Time Magazine's 2006 Person of the Year.

Posted on March 25, 2013, in baseball, baseball cards and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Love this post. I have always been a fan of the only player to field his position in foul territory. This is a great look those who have been forgotten.

  2. This is interesting. Curious, cid you count total career, or only when they were catchers? I don’t know what the right answer is, but is it fair to include Torre so high on a list of catchers when, a) he was played one and a half times more in the infield than at catcher (41% of his career games were at backstop), b) his MVP season came after he’d switched.

    Also, another thing worth noting about Campy, he played professionally for ~8-9 years before joining the Dodgers, so I’d think he would move back up the list if there was a way to account for his Negro League time. Plus, the car wreck cost him the end of his career, though I’d generally look at the former much more than the latter.

    I’ve always thought of Ted Simmons as under-appreciated. Not saying he necessarily should be a HOF-er, just that he’s underrated and may have as much of a case as someone like his teammate Dale Murphy (who is often cited as deserving more love).

    • I went with total career because I didn’t have the time to separate out catcher-only time for the stats. I wish I could have, but since this is only a hobby it didn’t seem efficient. This comes into play with several players who switched positions during their careers, most notably Pete Rose.

      The reason Torre was included here rather than 1B is because of the number of games he played at the position (903 catcher, 787 1B, 515 3B). Since he spent more time behind the plate than any other single position, he shows up here. His 206.33 score does not look quite as impressive among first basemen or third basemen, but it still puts him in the Cooperstown conversation in my opinion.

      I understand what you’re saying about Campanella, and I address that type of situation when we get to second base and Jackie Robinson. Jackie only played 10 years in the big leagues, and as such his score is quite low. I wish we had reliable statistics from the Negro Leagues so we could include those years as well.

      As for Simmons, I never was a supporter until I did this project. I saw his name pop up quite often on baseball-fever.com but always dismissed it. This has opened my eyes about him. We’ll get to Murphy in a few days. 🙂

      • Yeah – I think it’s just a difficulty when looking by position. Is A-Rod a third baseman or shortstop? You could put A-Rod’s numbers in with 3B and SS throughout history and he’d certainly be in the top 5 and probably top 3 of the combined list (not factoring in steroids in any way).

        But you can’t do that with catcher. because it is so different from other positions. It’s rare for a player to be a SS past the age of 35, but that’s generally due to diminishing skill sets (range). But catcher seems to take years off a career in and of itself. A guy like Fisk, who was pretty much a catcher for 20 years, is very impressive from that standpoint. But maybe he would have been even better offensively if he’d have moved to first at some point. Who knows? That’s why it’s fun to look I guess 🙂

  3. You’re getting no disagreement here. I realize that it was an issue, but there was really nowhere else to put Torre. I suppose I could mention him when I do my first base post tomorrow.

    I’m surprised no one made mention of Fisk and Carter jumping ahead of Berra when MVP awards were taken out of the equation.

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