Baseball’s Greatest Vol I: The Catchers
This is the first in a series of articles dealing with baseball’s greatest players, position by position, culminating in an overall list of the greatest ever. For the most part, they will be top-ten type lists — though they may be shorter (if there aren’t enough “great” players) or longer (if there is a logjam of “great” players). I will say if the player is in the Hall of Fame, list any major awards the player won and provide their key stats. All stats and awards were obtained from Baseball Reference. A couple of notes about the stats — they will include their total offensive numbers, not just stats for their main position (for example, Yogi Berra’s stats include his batting stats when he played left field and first base); and any stats in italics mean they were the leader in that category out of the players in the list. At the end, I will then describe any reasoning behind my choices regarding their actual ranking.
Only two caveats to my lists:
- The players have to actually be retired. They cannot be unsigned players who haven’t officially retired yet (i.e. Pedro, Bonds, Clemens etc).
- Sorry, but no Negro League players will be on these lists unless they had long-term MLB service (any records or stats from the Negro Leagues are “questionable” at best due to the record keeping: i.e. Josh Gibson’s HR totals).
One of the toughest debates in baseball is “who is the greatest catcher of all time”. It comes down to two players in my opinion — Bench and Berra. These two are very close in many areas, and a case could be made for each as the Greatest Catcher ever. However, I’m not going to cop out and go 1a and 1b, so without further adieu:
- Yogi Berra: HOF – 3 MVPs (and 4 other top 5 finishes), 15 time All-Star, 2120 games, .285 batting average, .348 OBP, .482 Slugging %, 358 HRs, 1430 RBIs, 2150 Hits, 1175 Runs, 704 BB and 414 Ks.
- Johnny Bench: HOF – 2 MVPs (2 other top 5 finishes), 1 ROY, 14 time All-Star, 10 Gold Gloves, 2158 games, .267 batting average, .342 OBP, .476 Slugging %, 389 HRs, 1376 RBIs, 2048 Hits, 1091 Runs, 891 BB and 1278 Ks.
- Bill Dickey: HOF – 3 top-5 MVP finishes, 11 time All-Star, 1789 games, .313 batting average, .382 OBP, .486 Slugging %, 202 HRs, 1209 RBIs, 1969 Hits, 930 Runs, 678 BBs and 289 Ks.
- Mickey Cochrane: HOF – 2 MVPs, 2 time All-Star, 1482 games, .320 batting average, .419 OBP, .478 Slugging %, 119 HRs, 832 RBIs, 1652 Hits, 1041 Runs, 857 BB and 217 Ks.
- Mike Piazza: 3 top-5 MVP finishes, 1 ROY, 12 time All-Star, 10 Silver Sluggers, 1912 games, .308 batting average, .377 OBP, .545 Slugging %, 427 HRs, 1335 RBIs, 2127 Hits, 1048 Runs, 759 BBs and 1113 Ks.
- Elston Howard: 1 MVP (1 other top-5 finish), 9 time All-Star, 2 Gold Gloves, 1605 games, .274 batting average, .322 OBP, .427 Slugging %, 167 HRs, 762 RBIs, 1471 Hits, 619 Runs, 373 BBs and 786 Ks.
- Carlton Fisk: HOF – 2 top-5 MVP finishes, 1 ROY, 11 time All-Star, 1 Gold Glove, 3 Silver Sluggers, 2499 games, .269 batting average, .341 OBP, .456 Slugging %, 376 HRs, 1330 RBIs, 2356 Hits, 1276 Runs, 849 BBs and 1386 Ks.
- Roy Campanella: HOF – 3 MVPs, 8 time All-Star, 1215 games, .276 batting average, .360 OBP, .500 Slugging %, 242 HRs, 856 RBIs, 1161 Hits, 627 Runs, 533 BBs and 501 Ks.
Honorable Mention: Gary Carter, Thurman Munson, Ivan Rodriguez and Ted Simmons
Will/may be on this list someday:
One thing that is common among these eight catchers, for the most part, is balance. What I mean by that is they were equally strong on offense and defense. An exception is Piazza, but his offense was so far above his defense and so far ahead of the other catchers on this list he had to be included.
Most of them won the MVP award at least once, some during a time when there were “better” players in the league — Mantle, Dimaggio etc. They were all perennial All-Stars, keeping in mind that Cochrane’s career was ending when the All-Star Game was starting. And for a couple of these catchers, their careers were either cut short by injury (Campy) or limited by playing behind someone even better. For example, Howard spent many years as Yogi’s backup, so he is very rarely thought of as a great catcher. In such cases we’ll never know just how good they might have been.
On a side note, here are the Yankee catchers from 1928 – 1979: Bill Dickey, then Yogi Berra, then Elston Howard and finally Thurman Munson. That’s one hell of a stretch at one position for one team (not counting starting pitchers). I can’t think of a different position or team that had a run like that (not counting the Yankees and their run of CFs).
Like I said earlier, Berra and Bench could be 1a and 1b. Their overall importance to their respective teams and overall ability in all aspects of the game cannot be argued. Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane were considered the greatest ever until Berra and Bench came along, putting them at 3 and 4. If Piazza had any kind of defense, he could have easily gotten into the top 3, but defense is a big part of being a catcher. Numbers 6-8 on this list could be rearranged based on personal preference and you could easily argue that Campanella should be 6th ahead of Howard, or even that Fisk’s longevity at the most physically demanding position justifies him being 6th instead. For my rankings, I gave more credit to Howard for being held back early in his career due to playing behind Yogi Berra and the fact that he was a right-handed hitter in the pre-renovated Yankee Stadium of the 1950s and 1960s, which was death to the stats of righties. Howard was actually a better power hitter on the road than at home. Fisk had his moments (waving the ball fair), but his career numbers were more from “compiling” than having great years back to back. Campy was in a car accident that left him paralyzed and had he remained healthy, could have easily joined Bench and Berra in the discussion as the greatest catcher ever.
So, what do you think? Do you have a problem with the order? Did I leave someone off? If so, let me know. Don’t just say “you left off so-and-so” — give me a good explanation of why they belong and where in the order they belong. If you present a good enough case, I just might add them to the list.
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