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Greatest Catchers

 

by Aman Verjee

 

1. Mickey Cochrane

2. Johnny Bench

3. Yogi Berra

4. Gabby Hartnett

5. Mike Piazza

 

Honorable Mention: Bill Dickey, Ivan Rodriguez, Roy Campanella, Buck Ewing, Carlton Fisk

Best Defensively: IRod, Bench, Campy

 

     This isn't an easy position - it takes it's toll on your knees, your back, and your spirit.  Catchers who made this list had to make their mark quickly, exhibit not only durability and consistency but also high impact.

     For years, a debate raged over who the best catcher was in major league history - Mickey Cochrane or Bill Dickey.  The increased use of and appreciation of baseball sabermetrics put Gabby Hartnett into the equation, and many plugged for Yogi Berra in the 1950s and 1960s.  Today, Johnny Bench and Josh Gibson have entered the discussion, but Cochrane and Dickey have receded more than they should have.  After all, while hitting is a big plus at this position, the ability to handle pitchers, leadership, and defense are usually much more important ways for good catchers to make an impact on the outcome of a game.  So it's no wonder that No. 1 is ...

 

 

1. Mickey Cochrane

Click here for Hall of Fame biography

 

     Cochrane was revered for his leadership behind the plate, and seemingly willed his teams to victory.  He was the spark that lit the Philadelphia Athletics when they won three straight American League pennants (and two World Series titles) from 1929 through 1931.  Cochrane joined the Tigers in 1934 as their catcher and manager, and promptly guided Detroit to a pair of AL titles.

     As a hitter, Cochrane was an on-base, contact-hitting machine.  His lifetime .320 average is the highest of any ML catcher; among those in the Hall of Fame, his on-base average (.419) is tops, as is his 7.60 Runs Created Per 9 Innings.  He topped .300 9 times, and in 1932 and '33, he totaled 206 walks while striking out only 44 times.  In 1935, his last full season, he drew 96 walks and struck out only 15 times.

     Defensively, he was impeccable - with a quick and steady arm, he was constantly eliminating baserunners, and his masterful handling of pitchers like Lefty Grove, George Earnshaw, Waite Hoyt and Roy Mahaffey gave the A's the game's best rotation in the early 1930s.  In fact, when Pepper Martin stole five bases on him in the 1931 World Series, it shocked enough people that his usually capable defense came into question - most people blame Philadelphia pitchers for Martin's success.

     Cochrane won two MVP awards, in 1928 and again in 1934.  He had good speed or a catcher, stealing 64 bases and usually hitting second in the order but often hitting third.

     He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1936, and in 1937 he suffered a serious beaning from Bump Hadley.  He spent six weeks in the hospital, and never played again.  At the age of 34, his brilliant career was over.  Though he played in just 315 games over four seasons with the Tigers, Cochrane was chosen by Detroit fans in 1969 as the team's all-time catcher.

 

 

2. Johnny Bench

 

Click here for Hall of Fame biography

 

     A credible argument can be made for making Bench Number 1.  Bench was a two-time MVP and key component of the Big Red Machine; in fact, he was the usual cleanup hitter for the Reds team that won 6 pennants in 8 years (and 2 World championships) between 1970 and 1977.  During this period, he and his teammates practically owned the MVP Award: Bench won it in 1970 and 1972 (and finished fourth in 1975); Joe Morgan won it in 1975 and 1976 (and finished fourth in 1972 and 1973); Pete Rose won in 1973; and George Foster won it in 1977.

     Bench led the league twice in home runs and 3 times in RBIs - this was all unheard of for a catchers.  Considered to have the best throwing arm in the game, Bench also was a master handler of pitchers, and he would eventually win 10 straight Gold Gloves.  He retired with 389 home runs, including an NL-record 327 as a catcher.

     So why leave him at Number 2 all-time?  Well, his career .476 slugging percentage is pretty good, but trails Berra (who hit in a tougher ballpark), Campanella, Hartnett and Cochrane.  He also struggled to get on base - a lifetime .267 batting average and .345 OBA are both 20 points below the average for HOF catchers.  Over his career, his 5.47 Runs Created/9 IP is well behind Berra (6.14), Campanella (6.17), Hartnett (6.37), Bill Dickey (7.08) and Cochrane (7.60).

     Mickey Cochrane and Yogi Berra were better pure hitters and team leaders; Roy Campanella was better in his peak years; Berra and Campy each won more MVP awards; and if Mike Piazza stays anywhere close to his career pace he will soon eclipse all of Bench's career marks.  Also, Bench had the benefit of hitting behind Pete Rose and Joe Morgan, and ahead of George Foster.

     Still, as a two-way player, maybe only Willie Mays and Ken Griffey, Jr., cam match Bench.

 

 

3. Yogi Berra

 

Click here for Hall of Fame biography

 

     He brought a whole new dimension to catchers - offense!  While other teams carried as an offensive black hole at catcher, Berra gave his team an extra bat.  And how he wielded it - he led AL catchers in home runs and RBIs in each of nine straight seasons (1949-1957), and he did so by wide margins. His totals for those years were 235 HR and 929 RBI.  The totals for each season's runner-up - that is, a composite of the second-highest ranked catcher in each category that year - were 131 HR and 578 RBIs.  One more thing: he led AL catchers in batting average four times in those nine seasons.

     Berra played on 14 pennant winners and 10 World Champions - and played in 75 World Series games, a record that is as close to unbreakable as exists in professional baseball.  Tutored by his Yankee predecessor, Bill Dickey, Berra became a polished receiver.  He set the career home run record for American League catchers and topped the 100-RBI mark four years in a row.

     He was also a three-time AL MVP - only Foxx, DiMaggio and Mantle can make that claim.

 

4. Gabby Hartnett

 

Click here for Hall of Fame biography

 

     The first great catcher of the modern era, Hartnett is generally recognized as the greatest catcher in the National League until Johnny Bench came along.  His career slugging percentage of .489 is second among HOF catchers, behind only Roy Campanella's .500 (procured while hitting in run-ready Ebbetts Field and boosted by the fact that Campy only played 9+ seasons, all in his prime, while Hartnett toiled for 22 seasons).  He was also a great defensive catcher, leading NL catchers in putouts 4 times, assists 6 times and fielding average 6 times, and was generally acknowledged as a masterful handler of pitchers.

     For years, the debate over who the best catcher in big league history was revolved around Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey.  It wasn't until baseball sabermetrics became widely used in discussions that Hartnett entered the fray - once fans realized that his lifetime slugging percentage of .489 and on-base average of .370 were higher than that of Berra and Bench, they realized just how valuable he really was.  Yes, he played in lively Wrigley Field, but Wrigley played about neutral during his career; and yes, he played in a lively era, but even adjusted for ballpark effects, his combined career OBA + SLG was 136% of the league average during his career - Bench's adjusted production was 127%, Cochrane's was 127%, Berra's was 126% and Campanella's was 123%.  Only Mike Piazza (163%) has a higher adjusted production on this list.

     He played for the Giants and Cubs, and on Sept. 28, 1938, Hartnett hit the most famous home run in Chicago history.  His "Homer in the Gloamin'" put the Cubs ahead of the Pirates in the National League pennant race, and they went on to capture the flag.

 

 

5. Mike Piazza

 

     To be sure, Piazza isn't in the same league defensively as the catchers above.  That said, he's no slouch, and very underrated; look at the way that he's handled pitchers in both Los Angeles and New York.  Kids like Chan Ho Park, Hideo Nomo, Ramon Martinez, and veterans like Al Leiter, Rick Reed and Darren Dreifort all had their best years with Piazza behind the plate.

     Of course, he can hit, too - probably the greatet hitting catcher of all time.  In 1993 he took National League Rookie of the Year honors after batting .318 with 35 home runs and 112 RBI.   From 1993 to 2000 - his first 8 big league seasons - he managed 277 HR and 874 RBI, hit .328 and slugged .582.  Compare that to Johnny Bench - 239 HR, 849 RBI, .273 BA and .491 SLG.  Or Yogi Berra - 195 HR, 840 RBI, .295 BA and .494 SLG.

     Hell, compare it to Willie Mays - 295 HR, 844 RBI, .323 BA, .602 SLG.  Get the drift?  If he stays healthy and has a second half of a career that is anything like what he's capable of, his name should go to the top of the list.

     How about Roy Campanella?  Campy had nine-and-a-half full seasons, amassed 242 HR and drove in 856.  His career batting average was .276 - 50 points below Piazza - and his career slugging percentage was .500, fully 82 points shy of Piazza's mark.  And let's face it - Pizza has had to hit in maybe the two toughest ballparks in the NL - Shea Stadium and Dodger Stadium - while Campy had the inviting, close confines of Ebbetts Field.

     While Piazza has never won the MVP or guided his team to a World Series win, he finished a narrow second in MVP voting in 1996, an even narrower second in 1997 (when his .362 batting average et an all-time record for catchers), fourth in 1995 and sixth in 1994.  In 1999 and 2000, he challenged again, finishing in the top five, and has more MVP votes than any active major leaguer since 1995.

 

 


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