When you throw out the tiers you can do some fun things with groups of players. So, what we will do for the foreseeable future is compare two players from each position that are not in the Hall of Fame. Some of them will be active players, but if they are active they are at the tail end of their career. We will see one such player as we compare two catchers that are either on the outside looking in or will likely be on the outside looking in.
The idea is to get two similar players utilizing Bill James’ “similarity scores” that he developed decades ago. The idea is that both players will have similar counting numbers and therefore should have similar resumes for enshrinement. As we will see, that is not necessarily the case and as such we will see one of the major reasons why uberstats were invented in the first place. We have made the following comparison before, but Brian McCann has another year under his belt and we’ve slept since we made the comparison with Tigers catcher Bill Freehan. So, if you had to pick one of these guys for the Hall of Fame who would it be?
Of course, counting numbers are only half of the equation for the traditionalist. We still have the percentage statistics to go, but when you look at these numbers they look fairly close until we get to RBI. McCann surpassed the 1000 RBI mark and we know how much the Hall of Fame voters love round numbers. I’m sure it will be enough to get him a few extra votes. Additionally, his 80 extra home runs will come in handy as well.
At this point, it is not clear whether McCann will continue playing or not. His value numbers are not radically different than they were in 2017 or 2018, but he certainly looked a lot better doing it than he did in 2018. That could be enough to convince the Braves and him to give it another go in 2020. Then again, he could decide to hang them up since he had a nice bounce back campaign as well.
Before we hand the trophy to McCann in this comparison we should note that the percentage numbers are the next level up in terms of sophistication. This is especially true when we include numbers like OPS+. None of the counting numbers have been normalized for the era they played in. Let’s see what happens when we include percentage statistics.
Now, we see the first major reason why many of us rely on uberstats like WAR and win shares. The percentage numbers are close, but McCann has a slight advantage in slugging percentage according to the raw numbers. Freehan toiled in the 1960s when pitching was more dominant. McCann toiled in the 2000s when home runs were more plentiful. OPS+ shows us that they are remarkably similar offensively.
Unfortunately, percentage numbers only tell us so much. Yes, both are about ten percent better than the league average. At first blush, this is not particularly impressive until we take into account that most catchers aren’t league average. Before we even address their specific fielding we have to address the relative importance of fielding at that position in their respective eras.
In the 1960s and 1970s, teams routinely stole more than 100 bases a season and some teams even stole 200 bases. If we take a random season (say 1965) we would see that of the ten American League teams, three of them had 100 or more steals and they averaged 70 steals per team. Detroit allowed 50 steals that season and caught 39 percent of would be base stealers. That was 20 fewer than the league average and five percent better than the league average.
In 2010, teams in the National League were averaging 91 steals per season, but the Braves allowed 102 steals that season and they caught 30 percent. The league average caught stealing rate was 29 percent. So, McCann was probably closer to average as a defensive catcher in terms of catching would be base stealers. So, we could add a defensive category to look at different statistics we do look at catchers for.
Traditionally, we can measure how well catchers control the run game and how well they block pitches in the dirt. We could anecdotally measure their ability to handle a pitching staff, but past data isn’t as accurate as current data. So, if we analyze only these two facets we would have to assume that Freehan is vastly superior defensively. He caught far more base stealers and generally had fewer passed balls and wild pitches combined. Throw in a better fielding percentage and the case seems pretty clear.
Both catchers caught some pretty good pitching staffs during their career with Detroit winning the 1968 World Series and the Houston Astros winning the 2017 World Series. We know that Brian McCann was a pretty good pitch framer based on the data at billjamesonline.com, but we don’t have hard data on Freehan. McCann is +48 runs in pitch framing since they started keeping that stat in 2010. That would be five wins defensively and that helps explain why some sources of WAR and win shares vary wildly on his value.
What would happen if we were able to do the same with Freehan? I suppose we could go with anecdotal evidence based on scouting reports and eyewitness testimony, but that would be sketchy at best. We could go with reputation, but we will get to that shortly when we cover the awards voting. For now, we can assert that Freehan was likely better overall defensively, but it is hard to say by how much.
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This is difficult to parse. Freehan played in a ten team league for most of his career. So, if there were three catchers on the all-star team he had a 30 percent chance of being one of them. In a similar dynamic, McCann had a 20 percent chance of being one of the three. In a similar way, MVP voting would also be a bit different. That being said, two top five finishes are pretty strong and Freehan had an excellent reputation as a two-way catcher.
Would you rather have the best offensive catcher in the league or the best defensive catcher in the league? That’s a loaded question. It honestly depends on the era and on the individual team. If we include the element of working with pitchers and pitch framing, a defensive catcher that can excel at those skills in addition to blocking pitches in the dirt and controlling the running game is worth a ton. Yet, having an offensive weapon at a position where most players aren’t explosive could be a huge advantage as well.
What makes it more difficult is the fact that neither player was even average at the other skill. McCann made up for his lack of throwing ability by framing pitches and working with pitchers. Freehan was not tremendous offensively compared to guys like Yogi Berra (early in his career) or Johnny Bench (later in his career) but he was easily one of the top five offensive catchers year in and year out.
Part of the fun of this series is avoiding the trappings of the index. Sure, we are illustrating why we would use it, but we are also bringing the debate back to the masses so to speak. So, given the information you have been given, which one of these guys would you vote for?