Active Catchers

We can get carried away when looking at current players and the Hall of Fame. At the catcher position we can say that after two seasons, Gary Sanchez looks like a Hall of Famer. The history of baseball is littered with guys that got off to great starts and for one reason or another (usually injuries) just didn’t sustain it. So, the first rule we follow is that every player must qualify for the Hall of Fame as they currently sit. In other words, they have to have played at least ten years in the big leagues.

That eliminates one very prominent catcher. Buster Posey is the best in the business right now, but he doesn’t have ten seasons in. That might seem like a formality, but we have seen crazy situations before. So, at every position there will be omissions that seem glaring, but we want to profile players that are closer to the end than to the beginning. Secondly, we try to consider players that have a realistic chance for the Hall of Fame. So, fans of Kurt Suzuki and A.J. Pierzynski will have to go somewhere else.

We should keep in mind that the index is not about specific numbers, but we have found that 300 index wins seems to be the general benchmark. So, keeping that in mind we should go ahead and dive on in. Since this is an abbreviated list we will also include the fielding and hitting metrics after we look at the overall index.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Joe Mauer 53.4 48.1 58.0 159.4
Yadier Molina 35.4 35.4 48.6 119.4
Russell Martin 36.5 36.6 36.8 109.9
Brian McCann 30.2 36.6 42.0 108.8

There might be a bit of a controversy in that Mauer has been at first base for several seasons now. However, each player is compared with the replacement level player at his position. So, Mauer is now compared to first basemen. So, it is more difficult for him to accrue value offensively and defensively. In other words, while he might accrue more counting statistics than his catching counterparts he is not really accruing additional value.

All four catchers (or players) are in their early to mid-thirties, so each is a lot closer to the end than to the beginning. Reputations obviously go a long way in helping guys in their Hall of Fame bids. Mauer may not have the same cache as Molina because of Molina’s defensive prowess (which we will get to later) but he has more value. Incidentally though, Molina is the only one that could still conceivably add to his peak value because he is in the midst of a strong ten year stretch.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Joe Mauer 44.8 43.5 46.8 135.1
Yadier Molina 31.8 29.2 40.6 101.6
Brian McCann 27.8 33.2 37.0 98.0
Russell Martin 33.3 32.9 32.6 97.8

This is where Mauer truly shines. He is the only one of the bunch that has an MVP award and in fact did better across the board in the awards voting. This is important because the BBWAA also votes for the Hall of Fame. It is clear that the other three are coming up short at this point in their careers. If each had two or three more five win seasons they may somehow force their way into the conversation, but that doesn’t seem likely at this point.

  MVP Top 5 Top 10 Top 25
Joe Mauer 1 1 2 1
Yadier Molina 0 2 0 3
Russell Martin 0 0 0 3
Brian McCann 0 0 0 2

Before we take a look at the total index we should probably go here. The BBWAA votes for the MVP award. The BBWAA votes for the Hall of Fame. Anyone see the connection? We could break this down further and see how well the BBWAA pegs the MVP vote according to WAR or win shares, but it really doesn’t matter. This is where they perceive the catchers to be, so we can assert without stretching that they just don’t see Russell Martin and Brian McCann as Hall of Fame quality. Sure, they aren’t done and anything could happen, but it just doesn’t seem likely.

On the flip side, Yadier Molina is in a murky area at this point in his career. He signed a new three-year contract that he says will be his last. If he continues to produce in the last three seasons like he has over the past decade he could have a compelling case. This is particularly true when we start breaking down performance between offense and fielding. Voters often ignore overall value and focus on its parts even when those parts contribute to the overall value. In other words, they love to count fielding twice when it suits them. Before we break into fielding, let’s take a look at the overall index scores.

  Career Peak Index
Joe Mauer 159.4 135.1 294.5
Yadier Molina 119.4 101.6 221.0
Russell Martin 109.9 97.8 207.7
Brian McCann 108.8 98.0 206.8

It should be noted that while Mauer has already eclipsed Gabby Hartnett with his current index score, it does not mean he is definitely a Hall of Famer. He could produce a few more seasons like has the last few and still not get in. He is in what we might call the borderline zone. We have no way of knowing how the BBWAA will react to his career given his switch to first base. It is highly likely that if he plays three or four more seasons at first base then they might see him as a first baseman rather than a catcher.

The others are clearly on the outside looking in. There are a number of catchers living in the zone where those catchers currently are. Some of them enjoyed long careers and were on good teams to boot. So, while we could give Brian McCann and Yadier Molina some extra credit for being on World Series championship teams, that shouldn’t be enough to get them over the top. Of course, other factors will be in play like they are for Molina. So, let’s take a look at the various sources for fielding with defensive runs saved (DRS) thrown in for good measure.

Defensive runs saved is a new one we haven’t used before. That is primarily because it began in the early 2000s (The Fielding Bible), so most of the historical catchers were never rated. Much like baseball-reference’s RTot, it rates players against the average. So, zero would actually mean you were an average fielding catcher. Of course, dWAR and defensive win shares are rated against a replacement level player. So, they are scaled differently. Therefore, we take each metric on its own. Combining them would create all kinds of mathematical issues I don’t have the training to get out of.

  DRS dWAR RTot DWS DRSGG GG
Yadier Molina 171 22.1 141 113.7 5 8
Russell Martin 117 14.9 10 66.6 3 1
Joe Mauer 32 2.3 45 65.4 0 3
Brian McCann 22 5.5 -8 63.3 0 0

Let’s start with the obvious. Anyone that bases any analysis on the number of actual Gold Gloves a player wins is a fool. Are we really to believe that Mauer was a better defensive catcher than Martin is because he won two more Gold Gloves? The numbers are a bit across the board and that is due to pitch framing. Some platforms consider it and others don’t. Those that do have different weights for it.

We have not considered Baseball Prospectus for a number of reasons. The primary one is that it does not rate players before World War II according to their WARP (wins above replacement player) statistic. However, they are further along the pitch framing timeline than most of the others and this has thrown McCann’s value up a ton. We don’t see that here.

However, the most interesting thing here is that conflation between value and greatness. Value is built in. Molina is not more valuable than has already been shown because he was such a valuable fielder. Yet, there are those that will consider the greatness and give him extra credit. They are certainly entitled to their opinions and those opinions are not completely out of whack given the data above. The trouble is that players should be evaluated on their ability to help their team win games. We could break that down to producing and preventing runs, but it all winds up in the same place. If we focus on one or the other (hitting or fielding) then we are splitting hairs on exactly how a player helped his team win. That’s cosmetic. As you will see with our hitting information, when Molina gives in one hand, we take away in the other.

  OPS+ wOBA wRC+ OW% BPO
Joe Mauer 126 .361 124 .631 .795
Brian McCann 113 .343 112 .558 .740
Russell Martin 102 .333 106 .503 .696
Yadier Molina 98 .323 100 .483 .628

We chronicled what each of these metrics mean in an earlier post about catcher offense. Most of these scores are scaled against a league average. OPS+ and wRC+ are scaled with 100 being average while offensive winning percentage is scaled with .500 being average. wOBA is also scaled, but the average tends to vary with the times. Suffice it to say, Molina is somewhere around average offensively depending on the metric.

It should be noted that average has value. If you put together an average team they will win around 80 games. That’s considerably better than a team full of replacement level players. My hometown Houston Astros were essentially a team of replacement level players at the beginning of the decade. It wasn’t pretty. So, we shouldn’t scoff at being average.

Secondly, when we say average we are talking about the big-league universe. We aren’t talking about the catcher universe. If Molina is average as a big-league player then he is above average offensively for a catcher. So, combine superlative fielding with above average (for the position) offensive performance and you have a very good player. The long and short of it is that I really don’t feel the need to give him more credit for the fielding.

Martin finds himself in a similar circumstance, but his fielding numbers don’t immediately jump off the page. So, he is a little better with the bat and somewhat less valuable with the glove. The end result is that he is not as good as Molina. McCann ends up on the other part of the scale where his fielding is not quite as good as the others and his offense is just a little better. Finally, you get Mauer with his seemingly awesome offense. In reality, that offense most approximates those that are already in the Hall of Fame.

The last thing we will look at are the total points for each of these players. No, total points are not a scientific Hall of Fame tool. It’s something gamblers and fantasy baseball players know about and care about. That being said, it’s interesting and could reveal something we didn’t see before.

Total Points = TB + Runs + RBI + SB + BB + HBP – SO – CS – GIDP 

  Games TP TP/G
Joe Mauer 1731 3883 2.24
Brian McCann 1607 3754 2.34
Yadier Molina 1747 3491 2.00
Russell Martin 1520 3161 2.08

So, does this mean that McCann is a better hitter than Mauer? I really don’t know how much weight you can put in this. Keep in mind this isn’t scaled for home ballparks and some of the data is dependent on the quality of teammates around each player. Also, it presupposes that strikeouts are a negative event. There certainly isn’t universal agreement on that amongst statisticians in the game.

What was interesting last season, is that the Astros limited McCann’s exposure more than the Yankees or Braves had and he produced more total points per game than he had in the previous five seasons. It is always interesting to see how different data sources follow each other. Teams have certainly have relied more on data in recent seasons and simultaneously, the proliferation of gambling in the fantasy world has sparked a need for more data. Often these worlds run parallel to each other, but occasionally we see an intersection. While teams may not use total points per se, they certainly probably borrow some of the concepts. Then again, it might be the daily fantasy sports industry borrowing concepts from the teams.

The Curious Case of Roy Campanella

You can dance around the subject in a number of ways. Roy Campanella did not make his major league debut until he was 28 years old. This wasn’t because he wasn’t good enough. You could credibly argue there was only one catcher in the time period that could hold a candle to Campanella. 28 for catchers is virtually ancient. Catchers reach their peaks a lot earlier than other position players and their peaks don’t last nearly as long. By the time most reach their early thirties they are virtually done.

There are notable exceptions of course and luckily for Campanella he was one. His career lasted ten seasons, but you could see the affects of age on him as well. In three out of his last four seasons he failed to reach one bWAR, 1.5 fWAR, or 2.5 win shares (after the adjustment). He won the NL MVP in 1955, but most people would acknowledge that he really wasn’t the best player in the league that season.

Those three MVP awards serve to cloud his place in the history of the game. Historians correctly assume he would have achieved a lot more had he been called up at the same time as most catchers. When we look at the average of the other Hall of Fame catchers we find that he lost five seasons to racism. We could go wild in our assertions of what he would have done, but a more conservative approach is probably best. So, what we will do is take his first five seasons and assume those would have been replicated in the previous five. However, we will adjust his 1948 numbers because they are artificially low being his first season in the big leagues. He did not play immediately, so he suffered in value. We will instead take the worst of his first four full seasons and assume that level of production.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5
1943 1.7 1.6 2.4
1944 4.4 4.3 4.8
1945 4.1 4.4 4.4
1946 6.7 7.1 6.6
1947 3.7 4.2 4.4
1948 3.7 4.2 4.4
1949 4.4 4.3 4.8
1950 4.1 4.4 4.4
1951 6.7 7.1 6.6
1952 3.7 4.2 4.4
1953 7.1 7.7 6.6
1954 0.1 0.7 2.0
1955 5.3 5.7 5.8
1956 0.6 1.2 2.4
1957 0.7 1.2 2.2
Total 57.1 62.3 66.2

This is pretty simple. We can take this career total and compare it to the other catchers in terms of career value. The total adds up to 185.6. That places him behind Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez, and Carlton Fisk in terms of career value. It places him in the same neighborhood as Mike Piazza. It places him a little in front of Mickey Cohrane, Bill Dickey, and Gabby Hartnett.

I think there are good reasons for that beyond what we see above. There are reasons why he never achieved huge value numbers in any one season. Simply put, the running game throughout the 1920s-1950s were not the same as the 1960s and 1970s. That’s a primary reason why those four catchers find themselves at the bottom. Berra enjoyed a longer peak than the rest or he would have suffered the same fate.

This brings us to the downside of Campanella’s legacy. He was seen at the time as the key cog in the pennant winning teams in 1951, 1953, and 1955. Even if we allow for the biases of the MVP voting at the time (you had to be on the winning team) we would discover those awards came in vain. Win share rankings are easy to track, so let’s track the seasons he actually did play and track his ranking amongst his teammates and the league.

  WS Actual Team LG
1948 12 21 9
1949 24 15 3 8
1950 22 13 3 16
1951 33 1 2 4
1952 22 10 5 17
1953 33 1 2 4
1954 10 11
1955 28 1 2 7
1956 12 11
1957 11 11

Given the relative lack of defensive value of any catcher at the time, the fact that he would have finished in the top ten four times is something. I’m sure if we went back and looked at any of the catchers we would struggle to find any actual MVP awards deserved based on value statistics like WAR and win shares. This has nothing to do with catchers per se. They just have a difficult time matching value with other position players that play far more often during the season.

Even a durable catcher will only play 130 to 140 games in a season where outfielders and first basemen play the full 154 or 162 games. We certainly could boil it down to a wins per game kind of metric and go from there, but that seems to intricate to pick out a player that is the most valuable player in the league.

While we did rain on Campanella’s parade in terms of peak value, the numbers do help him here as compared to his actual ten seasons. The new peak would run from 1944 to 1953 when most catchers would experience their peak performance. The new peak value adds up to 153 wins on the nose. That obviously was a huge boost over his past peak value. Three of those four final seasons killed him in terms of value. It’s something we see from most of the catchers, but he just didn’t have the luxury of a phase out.

  Career Peak Total
Johnny Bench 221.0 174.9 395.9
Gary Carter 206.7 172.2 378.9
Mike Piazza 187.9 167.7 355.6
Yogi Berra 198.2 153.9 352.2
Ivan Rodriguez 204.9 145.0 349.9
Roy Campanella 185.6 153.0 338.6
Carlton Fisk 210.2 120.1 330.2
Bill Dickey 174.7 131.1 305.8
Mickey Cochrane 157.7 142.0 299.7
Gabby Hartnett 172.6 112.0 284.6

All in all these results seem reasonable enough. I think they put Campanella in a historical context that makes sense. We could go overboard and assume he would have produced nine and ten win seasons, but that would be horribly unrealistic. We have to take the player he was an extrapolate that outward. Of course, this is a guess. We cannot assume seasons he did not produce, so we cannot assume he would have been more valuable than Carlton Fisk or not as valuable as Ivan Rodriguez. Still, this seems like a comfortable place to put him when we make some common sense adjustments.

Catcher Offense

One of the frustrating things about looking at advanced metrics is that most of us have a difficult time deciphering what is the in the secret sauce. I talked to a former writer at Baseball Prospectus once. He described the phenomenon very uniquely. He said there were sharp knives and dull knives. The dull knives can use the data and sometimes explain the data to other dull knives, but the sharp knives were the ones that manipulated data. One of the things I can do in this space is break down different numbers as best I can, so you can digest them.

We’ve talked about catcher fielding and there are few things more exciting. We are finding out more and more about pitch framing. So much of what catchers do is wrapped up in that. So, fielding value is likely to be pretty fluid. Conversely, we have a very good handle on offense. We can compare guys with their contemporaries and throughout history. Below are five metrics we will use throughout our look at various players as long as this website is up.

OPS+- OPS stands for on base percentage plus slugging percentage. It is crude, but it is said to explain 90 percent of the variance in what hitters produce. OPS+ compares players with the league average after you distill out the effects of their home ballpark and the league norms that particular season (or length of career). 100 is considered average. Anything over 100 is above average.

wOBA—This stands for weighted on base average. It measures a player’s overall accomplishments per plate appearances and expresses it like an on base percentage. The average varies over time, but usually .330 is a benchmark.

wRC+— This stands for weighted runs created plus. It takes a player’s runs created and measures that against their home ballpark and the era they play in. It then calculates to be against an average of 100, so that it is measured on a per plate appearance basis.

OW%– This stands for offensive winning percentage. It assumes league average offense and league average pitching across the board and creates an offense of only that hitter. The runs created with nine of those players is compared with average runs allowed to create a Pythagorean winning percentage. Obviously a .500 OW% indicates a league average hitter.

BPO—This stands for bases per out. It is calculated by adding total bases with walks and hit by pitches and then divided by outs made. Outs are the life blood of the sport, so the more bases you can produce per out the better offensive player you are.

One of the things we should mention is that there Is a consistent occurrence we see across the board is that the standard deviation is dropping as we advance through history. Some of this is natural given the expansion to 30 teams from 16. Some of this happens through improved scouting and a league wide approach to data. This doesn’t have as much of an effect on statistics like WAR and win shares because those compare to the replacement level player in that era and that’s a sliding scale. The numbers above are more stagnant, so while they do adjust for a player’s era, the earlier players will have a bit of a mathematical advantage.

  OPS+ wOBA wRC+ OW% BPO
Mike Piazza 142 .390 140 .669 .897
Mickey Cochrane 129 .413 132 .672 .904
Bill Dickey 127 .396 126 .651 .845
Johnny Bench 126 .362 125 .627 .765
Gabby Hartnett 126 .389 127 .646 .818
Yogi Berra 125 .370 124 .631 .781
Roy Campanella 123 .385 123 .636 .820
Carlton Fisk 117 .354 117 .595 .738
Gary Carter 115 .342 116 .581 .708
Ivan Rodriguez 106 .344 104 .507 .692

You can split these metrics into two categories. There are those were players are more directly compared to players from their own time and there are those where they are compared to all-time. OPS+ and wRC+ are all-time statistics. They are extremely similar except wRC+ includes base running, so it might be a little more accurate. The other metrics more directly compare players with their own time. Cochrane caught during the Live Ball Era when offensive numbers were outrageous. So, his wOBA, OW%, and BPO might be higher than Mike Piazza, but comparatively Piazza was probably better.

I think the big take away though is that Roy Campanella belongs in this group when you start looking at him on a per plate appearance basis. He is fourth in bases per out, fifth in offensive winning percentage, seventh in wRC+, fifth in wOBA, and seventh in OPS+. So, he finishes around the middle of the pack in all of the categories.

We could stop here, but one of the new waves of the fantasy game is daily fantasy sports. It has become a billion dollar plus industry that has even involved government as they decide whether to consider it gambling or not. The idea is that you pick a team with a cap of money and those players compile points for that day. So, instead of a standard five categories like most fantasy leagues, each event is awarded positive or negative points. So, we will show off our own historical example to see which catcher would have been the best daily fantasy baseball player of all-time. Below is the formula we will use.

Total Points = Total Bases + Runs + RBI + SB + BB + HBP – SO – GIDP – CS

To make matters a little easier, we will combine stolen bases, walks, and hit by pitches into a combined positive category. We will combine strikeouts, grounded into double plays, and caught stealing into a negative category. In order to account for differences in career length we will also look at their total points accrued per game.

  Games TP TP/G
Mike Piazza 1912 6595 3.45
Yogi Berra 2120 6448 3.04
Carlton Fisk 2499 6076 2.43
Ivan Rodriguez 2543 5960 2.34
Johnny Bench 2158 5564 2.58
Bill Dickey 1789 5496 3.07
Gary Carter 2296 5483 2.39
Gabby Hartnett 1990 5074 2.55
Mickey Cochrane 1482 4929 3.33
Roy Campanella 1215 3513 2.89

So, while these numbers don’t carry the same weight as the others, they are interesting. Some problems always arise. MLB didn’t always keep official records of statistics like grounded into double plays, so we had to estimate for guys like Cochrane, Dickey, and Hartnett. That beings said, the inclusion of numbers like strikeouts made this a little less predictable than the rest of the numbers.

There can be little doubt that Mike Piazza was the most valuable offensive catcher of all-time, but we should take a minute to acknowledge the greatness that was Mickey Cochrane. While his career was relatively short and his defensive value was not stellar, there might not have been a better hitter at the position in the history of the game.

On the Outside Looking In

The Hall of Fame voting process is ripe with bias and the combined cases of Joe Torre and Ted Simmons represent those biases well. In general, the voters don’t tend to like catchers that move out from behind the dish before the end of their careers. Torre played both third and first base in addition to catcher and enjoyed his best season as a third baseman. So, some want to consider him a third baseman or first baseman. Simmons became a designated hitter late in his career as well.

The natural assumption for both players is that they were moved because they were subpar defensive players. As we know, WAR includes both offensive and defensive elements, so if you are a poor defender you will suffer in the index. It is just as likely that the teams that moved them wanted to take advantage of their bat and moving them from behind the dish allowed them to play more often. We can look at their three systems outlooks on their fielding to test this theory out. In order to do that, we will look only at their numbers as a catcher.

  INN RField UZR FRAA Total
Joe Torre   7432 7 7 5.7 19.7
Ted Simmons 15092 -8 -8 -36.9 -52.9

This is a tale of two cities. Torre was actually a solid defensive catcher. He wasn’t going to make anyone forget about Johnny Bench or Gary Carter, but he was a perfectly good defensive catcher. When he moved to third base he was brutal defensively. So, you could conceivably look at his overall numbers and assume he was a bad defensive catcher. Ultimately, you are responsible for the value you bring to the table, but he would have likely been more valuable had he stayed behind the plate.

Conversely, Simmons wasn’t necessarily a disaster behind the dish, but he wasn’t one of the better catchers either. He also played some at first base and first basemen don’t create the same defensive value as catchers even in the best of conditions. Either way, the facts don’t necessarily match the reputations in both cases.

So, we begin by looking at their career value numbers and comparing that with the lowest guys in the Hall of Fame. Usually, people start using what we might refer to as the “if…then” argument. For instance, if Gabby Hartnett is in the Hall of Fame then these guys should be. That works most of the time, but occasionally you get outliers that only serve to muddy the process.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Joe Torre 57.6 62.3 63.0 182.9
Ted Simmons 50.1 54.2 63.0 167.3

Both players are on the right track with these numbers. They both are in the same neighborhood as those other catchers already in the Hall of Fame. We would hate to look at just the index, so we should probably evaluate them on their bread and butter. Offensively, both players were solid and had top reputations. So, let’s compare them directly with the bottom three catchers in the Hall of Fame.

  wOBA OPS OPS+ RC WRC+
Mickey Cochrane .413 .897 129 1023 132
Bill Dickey .396 .868 127 1164 126
Gabby Hartnett .389 .859 126 1161 127
Ted Simmons .347 .785 118 1283 116
Joe Torre .364 .817 129 1259 129

These things usually become like an SAT exam question. Which one of these does not belong? If you answered Ted Simmons you would be partially right. Yes, his wOBA is much lower and his OPS and OPS+ are lower, but we also have to remember the eras in which these players played. Still, you could use this data as a way to say yes to Torre and no to Simmons. However, to keep both out seems far-fetched when looking at this data alone.

That being said, there is an argument to be made based on the totality of the numbers. Even if we ignore the basic counting numbers, we see that he had more runs created than any of the other catchers on that particular list. Still, this is one of many reasons why we include a peak value element. Not all career value totals are created equal. We have to give the nod to players who achieve some level of greatness in their careers over players that were consistently good, but never great. We can see that by looking at his peak from the point of view of the MVP voters.

  bWAR Rank MVP
1971 3.3 N/A 16
1972 4.5 N/A 10
1973 5.5 8 14
1974 3.6 N/A 13
1975 4.9 10 6
1976 3.4 N/A N/A
1977 5.2 9 9
1978 5.5 N/A N/A
1979 3.6 7 N/A
1980 5.2 7 N/A

It should be noted that Simmons also finished in 19th place in the voting in 1983 when he produced four bWAR that season. There is something to be said for a player that produces three or more wins ten seasons in a row. He had twelve such seasons in his career. Life as a catcher is difficult, so if you can put twelve seasons together like that you’ve done something. If ten of those seasons come consecutively you’ve really done something. However, it isn’t difficult to imagine why he had difficulty capturing the attention of the BBWAA when they never put him in the top five of the MVP voting.

Torre was the MVP in 1971 and had one other top five finish in 1964. While his record doesn’t compare to the likes of the others in the BBWAA, that 1971 season gives him a leg up on Simmons. This is especially true when it comes with a .363 batting average, 230 hits, and 137 RBI. It’s those kinds of seasons that capture the imagination of fans and writers alike. Still, the tale of the tape comes with the peak value numbers.

  bWAR fWAR WS Total
Ted Simmons 44.7 48.4 48.0 141.1
Joe Torre 45.3 49.5 48.0 142.8

I honestly would have never predicted that given the numbers we just looked at, but clearly Simmons was consistently good in comparison with Torre’s occasional greatness. This puts us back into sports bar mode where we have a lengthy debate over whether you would rather have consistent solid production or occasional great production. I suppose if you could predict the great production or couple it with other great production that would be preferable, but life is never that predictable.

When taking a look at the index, both are considerably better than Gabby Hartnett, so your debate comes down to how exclusive you want to make the Hall of Fame. There are those that look at it as a museum and therefore want to include as much as the game’s history as possible. Others want to honor only the very best of the best. I’m sure it doesn’t help when you consider that they generally played at the same time as Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, and Carlton Fisk. There are those that start to feel like an era may be over-represented and that is very prescient when you add in the likes of Thurman Munson and Bill Freehan (who we mentioned in the introduction).

We can blame part of that on expansion. When you move from 16 to 24 (or even 28) teams then you multiply the possibility of having Hall of Fame worthy players at any position. We also can look at the resurgence of the running game and the need for catchers to control that running game. Either way, there are reasons why there were more quality catchers in the era.

  Career Peak Total
Joe Torre 182.9 142.8 325.7
Ted Simmons 167.3 141.1 308.4
Bill Dickey 174.7 131.1 305.8
Mickey Cochrane 157.7 142.0 299.7
Gabby Hartnett 172.6 112.0 284.6

Again, it bears repeating, but this does not mean that Torre and Simmons were better catchers than the other three. It means that their fitness for the Hall of Fame is just as good if not better than the guys already in. Granted, there are reasons to prefer not to put either of them in the Hall of Fame. You could say Torre didn’t spend enough time behind the plate or that Simmons was a subpar defensive catcher. You could certainly claim that Simmons was always good, but never great. The index was never designed to tell people who to vote for. It is a tool that we can use to compare players out of the Hall of Fame with those in the Hall of Fame. If you want to be consistent then you take the two guys and put them in.

 

Catcher Fielding

One of the things you learn in a basic statistics class is the difference between the kinds of data you can get. While this is rudimentary, it is easy to get them confused when you are looking at fairly complex data. No one really confuses nominal data. These usually take the form of yes or no and tend to be binary in nature. The confusion usually comes when we look at the difference between ordinal data and interval data. This happens when we do something like this. When data isn’t scaled in an identical (or even similar) then the combination becomes ordinal because we simply cannot trust the combination. This is even if each individual source was interval in nature.

Ordinal data is what we use when we want to simply rank one player over another. In our case, we are ranking the ten catchers in the Hall of Fame in terms of fielding. The problem is when we start looking at multiple sources we start looking at wins in some cases and runs in other cases. We are then looking at each one in isolation and standing them next to another that we look at in isolation. When we start combining these we start to get into some serious trouble. This is especially true if we attempt to make any conclusions about the actual value of a player. The differences in value are what we would call interval data. Interval data is the holy grail of data because it not only says who is more valuable than another, but by how much.

When we look at players from different eras and compare their fielding numbers we need to eliminate two words from our vocabulary: greatest and best. Those are conversations best left for the sports bar. We also get into trouble when we start using terms like difficulty and importance. When criticizing fielders, some passionate fans will tend to get defensive and say something like, “well, how much baseball do you play?” or “I’d love to see you go out there and catch.” I’ll admit right now. I never played catcher. When I was a kid I played in the outfield so I am saying nothing about the importance or difficulty of the position. At least I’m not saying it directly.

That being said, the data does say something about the relative importance of the individual skills a catcher must possess. Rating catchers is always more difficult than any other position because they must call the game, block pitches in the dirt, and control the running game of the other team. In the current game we also include pitch framing in that equation. As strategy has changed, the relative importance of all of these skills fluctuates. For instances, controlling the running game was huge throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. So, catchers from that period could accrue more value if they were excellent at that particular facet of the game. Conversely, during the live ball era (1920s – early 1940s) hardly anyone stole bases. So, one could be brilliant or not and you wouldn’t see a range of value there.

So, I would have a hard time saying that a Johnny Bench or Gary Carter was a greater fielder than a Gabby Hartnett based on the numbers. Greatness implies that the skills were superior and while that may be true, it is not true based on the numbers. Players are always better understood when they are compared with their own generation. We know more about Hartnett when we compare him with Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey then when we compare him with the catchers from the 1970s. Those that saw both could weigh in, but that would be a more qualitative analysis. This becomes increasingly problematic when we include new analysis like pitch framing. The modern catchers become much more understood when we include that, but we can’t include it for the earlier catchers. While we have play by play data going back to the beginning of the century, that play by play data won’t tell us if an individual pitch should have been called a strike or a ball if the catcher were better at framing it.

You undoubtedly did not open this up to hear my caveats about fielding, but it represents the very best reason why I am not comfortable naming a best catcher of all-time. At least, I’m not using the data here to define it. Give me a beer and a good game on television and I’ll throw down on any player, but I’m leaving the charts and graphs at home. We will split the fielding data into two categories. First, we will look at the major career data for our three sources. Keep in mind, since some use wins while other uses runs we will not combine them. Our WAR and WS from the previous article has already embedded that in their totals. Here, we are distilling out the numbers to get a sense as to who was the most valuable fielder of all-time.

Career Fielding 

  DWS/5 dWAR TZ
Johnny Bench 18.7 19.3 97
Yogi Berra 19.9   8.7 33
Roy Campanella 13.7   5.7 17
Gary Carter 24.1 25.5 106
Mickey Cochrane 16.3   4.4 -2
Bill Dickey 19.0   7.6 20
Carlton Fisk 22.4 16.4 30
Gabby Hartnett 21.9   6.6 12
Mike Piazza 12.0   1.0 -25
Ivan Rodriguez 30.1 26.7 135

The above represents my best attempt to normalize the data. The win shares we simply divided by five to make it roughly equal to defensive WAR from baseball-reference. Unfortunately, I struggled to normalize the total zone runs from Fangraphs because it would change the rankings. Typically, we would add ten runs per season to the totals because that would convert from a comparison against the average to a comparison with the replacement level player. In the end, the desire to present the data as those sites/sources wanted ended up winning out.

However, this is where our discussion of ordinal versus interval data comes in. The above numbers still don’t make a whole lot of sense when you put them together because all three sources have considerably different opinions of how much value individual events (or skills) have. Those change between eras as they change between platforms. However, if we show the same table and replace the win totals with their simple rankings in those systems we see something quite remarkable

Fielding Rankings 

  DWS dWAR TZ
Johnny Bench 7 3 3
Yogi Berra 5 5 4
Roy Camanella 9 8 7
Gary Carter 2 2 2
Mickey Cochrane 8 9 9
Bill Dickey 6 6 6
Carlton Fisk 3 4 5
Gabby Hartnett 4 7 8
Mike Piazza 10 10 10
Ivan Rodriguez 1 1 1

I would surmise that we are actually seeing more variance here than at any other position. Different sources treat each individual skill a catcher must possess differently and with the different weights can come wildly different values. Still, only two players are more than two places apart across the board. When win shares is dropped that moves to zero. Four of the players are exactly the same including the most valuable and least valuable.

That being said, this is one of the areas where we have to be careful. Notice how Carlton Fisk drops when compared to the average as opposed to replacement level. He caught for over 20 years, so he managed to accumulate a lot of value. That’s not the same thing as being the greatest or the best, but it is important to note. This is especially true when we start looking at things like Gold Gloves, Win Share awards, and total zone awards. Lacking in those awards does not mean you lack value. It just means you were never the best in any one particular season.

Moreover, this distinction can be seen more at the bottom of the scale than the top. Mike Piazza was universally regarded as a poor defensive catcher (although he rated highly in pitch framing), but depending on the source he still had value when you compared him to the replacement level catcher. This is where we include the remarks of our critics when they say, “I’d like to see you go out there and do it.” Why yes, we aren’t saying any of these guys were a complete buffoon. It’s all comparative in nature and unfortunately you are stacking each up against the very best to play the position. Some aren’t going to come out looking good in every single category.

All that being said, we will finish our journey by looking at individual season honors. We do have some limitations here. Total Zone awards aren’t an official honor, but we only have data going back to 1953. The Gold Glove awards were awarded in both leagues for the first time in 1958. So, some of our players will not have any chance to win anything and others only a limited opportunity. However, win shares awards were added back through all of our players careers. When all things are considered, these are fairly meaningless, but I know many of you will be interested, so we close with this table.

  GG WS TZ
Johnny Bench 10 4 6
Yogi Berra 0 5 3
Roy Campanella 5 1
Gary Carter 3 8 5
Mickey Cochrane 5
Bill Dickey 5
Carlton Fisk 1 0 0
Gabby Hartnett 6
Mike Piazza 0 0 0
Ivan Rodriguez 13 7 9

Win shares is the great equalizer thanks to James’ hard work in breaking down the data for us season by season. When we see how evenly distributed the awards go we can see that greatness is really more evenly distributed than the basic numbers would indicate. It definitely is more evenly distributed than the Gold Gloves themselves. However, we return to our original caveat: greatness and value are two entirely different things. Just because Carlton Fisk won no awards doesn’t mean he has zero value. It’s just that he had the misfortune of catching at the same time as Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Bob Boone, Jim Sundberg, and Ivan Rodriguez at the end of his career.

Where you can find me

The Hall of Fame Index

Most of the same topics we are covering on this site were covered here originally back in 2011. However, I also offered commentary on players elected by the Veterans Committee and also gave a complete list of who should be in and who should be out. I’d honestly recommend both. Please go with the paperback option. Tables and graphs don’t translate well to e-books.

Combating Ignorance: Inside and Outside the Classroom

These are a collection of stories from my first ten years in the classroom. The names, dates, and places have all been changed to protect the innocent, but the stories or all true. They are weaved in a way that will explain the world of education to those that live outside of it. Of course, fellow teachers know how true and believable all of the stories really are.

The State of Baseball Management

This is an earlier book from my writing career where I looked at the decision making of the best five teams and worst five teams between 1993 and 2003. The idea is that money plays a role in team success, but the biggest factor in success and failure are the quality of decisions teams make in trades and free agent signings.

Checks and Imbalances

This was my first book back in 2002. This book looked at the economics of the sport and the history of competitive balance (or not) from history. In the end, I made some suggestions on how the sport could gain more competitive balance.

The Fantasty Fix

I currently write for the Fantasy Fix where I share my thoughts on fantasy baseball. I am currently working on my rankings for players in advance of the 2018 season, but I also comment on trades and signings and how they affect the typical fantasy baseball player.

 

 

 

 

 

The New Catcher Index

A lot has changed with the index, but we’ve almost come full circle since the book was published. The inclusion of win shares was controversial at the time because wins above replacement had leapfrogged Bill James contribution and that hasn’t really changed in terms of popularity. However, James recently criticized WAR because it is based on runs scored and allowed instead of the number of games a team actually wins or loses. For most fans, their eyes gloss over when hearing this kind of talk, but for the mathematicians out there this is a huge deal.

Teams usually finish within five games one way or another of their “expected wins”, but occasionally there are wider ranges in play. This happened last season in the American League when the Yankees finished nearly ten games worse than they were expected to. So, some of the positive run differential may not have been as valuable as WAR would make it out to be. In short, WAR did not account for the clutch element. In terms of a career these things usually even themselves out. From season to season there could be significant variance. The goal of the index is not to come down one way or another, but to gather a collection of the top sabermetric minds in the industry. So, we include what most people know as bWAR, fWAR, and win shares. For those new to this, bWAR stands for the WAR configured by baseball-reference.com, and fWAR stands for the WAR configured by Fangraphs.

James configured his win shares to be three times the number of wins a team earned in a season. So, a 100 win team would have 300 total win shares. Even with that multiplier, win share totals end up being considerably higher than WAR totals. Part of this is based on the fact that win shares always begin at zero whereas players can have negative WAR totals. James would later develop loss shares, but we aren’t going to confuse the process further. Instead, we will divide the win share totals by five in order to scale win shares similarly to the two WAR formulas.

Admittedly, we are creating a bit of a Frankenstein monster in terms of math. This is usually what happens when a liberal arts guy starts crunching numbers. However, the goal is not to determine who the best catcher was or pinpoint exactly who is where. The goal is to measure a player’s fitness for the Hall of Fame. We do this by determining what the industry standard is for guys that are already in. Occasionally, we find outliers (or players that shouldn’t be in), but most of the time we are simply using what the BBWAA has already done to determine what they should do in the future.

We will try to define things as we go, but if you want a more in-depth overview of why we are doing what we are doing you can take a look at the home article that describes the process. In short, there are ten catchers in the Hall of Fame that were voted in by the BBWAA. We are ignoring the Veterans Committee selections because they are rife with so much bias that it ends up muddying the waters beyond recognition. We will start with career value and then break that down first. Then, we will move onto peak value and go from there. In a book format we would look at offense, fielding, and other considerations all at once. At the website we can look at those things individually.

Career Value 

WS/5 bWAR fWAR Total
Johnny Bench 71.2 75.0 74.8 221.0
Yogi Berra 75.0 59.5 63.7 198.2
Roy Campanella 41.0 34.2 38.2 113.4
Gary Carter 67.4 69.9 69.4 206.7
Mickey Cochrane 55.0 52.1 50.6 157.7
Bill Dickey 62.8 55.8 56.1 174.7
Carlton Fisk 73.6 68.3 68.3 210.2
Gabby Hartnett 65.0 53.9 53.7 172.6
Mike Piazza 64.8 59.4 63.7 187.9
Ivan Rodriguez 67.6 68.4 68.9 204.9

There are two major differences between the index and most other rating systems. First, it combines a career and peak value element. The idea is that career value can sometimes be misleading on its own. Some players are solid players for a very long time but are rarely ever great. You don’t want a Hall of Fame of stat compilers. Using these kinds of formulas does limit that to a certain extent. A player could be replacement level for a considerable time and add nothing to their career value. However, usually players offer some minimal value even when they are merely average.

The second major difference is that there are no hard and fast rules as to what is Hall of Fame worthy and what isn’t. It’s more about the players’ proximity to each other. When we see separation we begin to take notice. Roy Campanella is obviously separated from his peers, but there are clear extenuating circumstances there that we will get to in another article. The rest all fall above 150 combined wins. The beauty is that you don’t have to know what that means in order to offer sound analysis.

Mickey Cochrane is also lagging behind the others in career value because his career was cut short due to injuries. However, his peak value might mitigate those differences and some and he might close the gap. So, we will look at their peak values. In this case, we take the top ten year stretch for each player. Campanella only played for ten seasons, so his peak value will be the same.

Peak Value 

WS/5 bWAR fWAR Total
Johnny Bench 54.6 59.9 60.4 174.9
Yogi Berra 55.2 47.2 50.8 153.2
Roy Campanella 41.0 34.2 38.2 113.4
Gary Carter 52.4 60.8 59.0 172.2
Mickey Cochrane 49.6 47.0 45.4 142.0
Bill Dickey 46.0 42.4 42.7 131.1
Carlton Fisk 38.0 41.9 40.2 120.1
Gabby Hartnett 41.0 35.8 35.2 112.0
Mike Piazza 54.6 54.0 59.1 167.7
Ivan Rodriguez 43.0 51.8 50.2 145.0

Bill James once described good statistics as having the qualities of language. While that kind of description is compelling, I’ve always likened it to either a painting or photograph. Good numbers paint a more accurate picture of a player. When you compare career and peak values you get a sense as to what a player must have been like during his prime. Someone like a Carter, Piazza, or Bench was truly dominant throughout the decade. Players like Hartnett not so much.

What is interesting is that all three statistical sources begin from the same premise. They are comparing players with a replacement level player. In other words, we don’t compare them with the average because even an average player has value. We compare them with the triple AAA equivalent. However, what that looks like varies differently depending on the source. What specific value specific events have also varies slightly. This is particularly true when we evaluate the fielding side of things. We will focus on fielding in a subsequent article. The purpose of this article is to give us a baseline for catchers where we can jump off on as many tangents as we deem fit.

The Hall of Fame Index 

Career Peak Total
Johnny Bench 221.0 174.9 395.9
Yogi Berra 198.2 153.2 351.4
Roy Campanella 113.4 113.4 226.8
Gary Carter 206.7 172.2 378.9
Mickey Cochrane 157.7 142.0 299.7
Bill Dickey 174.7 131.1 305.8
Carlton Fisk 210.2 120.1 330.3
Gabby Hartnett 172.6 112.0 284.6
Mike Piazza 187.9 167.7 355.6
Ivan Rodriguez 204.9 145.0 349.9

It’s at this point where I must remind the crowd of my usual disclaimers. First, the index is not meant to identify the greatest player at a particular position or in history. There are a number of problems with it that we will get to later when we cover individual categories like fielding. So, if people want to use it to justify that Bench is the greatest catcher of all-time be my guest, but that isn’t my intent. Secondly, there are no hard and fast cutoffs of who should be in and who should be out. It seems silly to set 300 as a line of demarcation and suggest that Cochrane doesn’t belong in. At the end of the day, we are talking fractions of a win even in the case of Hartnett. Remember, we have three different systems that are divided into career and peak value. The differences are magnified.

Additionally, identifying outliers is not the same thing necessarily as identifying mistakes. Roy Campanella is not a mistake by any stretch. He is a player with extenuating circumstances that override the statistical exercise. As an outlier, we place him aside and consider the rest. When a player gets north of Hartnett then he becomes a viable candidate. That doesn’t mean he definitely deserves to be in. It means that he should be a very compelling candidate. We will get those examples as well in other articles. Still, we will always use this article as a reference point for every other catcher we consider from here on out.