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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.