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.
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.
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.
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.