Friday, September 25, 2009

Best Catchers By Season, 1954-2008

Here's the first installment of my series on the best players at each position using Sean Smith's WAR and Fangraphs' Value Dollars. You can read my previous post for more details. First up: catchers.

No other position on the diamond requires a more unique skillset than catcher. A player who can master every element of the game from behind the plate is rare indeed. Catchers are often taken for granted, but the ones who truly excel manage to find a place in the hearts of fans. Let's check out the best catcher list by league and season.

Well, we have a few of Hall of Famers who live up to their reputations, namely Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench and Gary Carter. I wasn't expecting to see Bench beaten out by Manny Sanguillen or Joe Ferguson during his prime, though. To be honest, when Gary Carter was up for induction I had a hard time thinking of him as worthy, despite the fact that everyone else seemed to take for granted that he belonged. When comparing him to his positional peers it's easy to see that his place in Cooperstown is well-deserved. Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez are both future shoo-ins, which this chart only confirms. As you can also see, Joe Mauer is on his way to greatness.

Yankee and Red Sox fans loved to debate the merits of Thurman Munson vs. Carlton Fisk back in the day, as they were two of the best catchers of the '70s. While Fisk got into the Hall of Fame on just his second try, the honor eluded Munson. Many fans (particularly Yankee fans) argue that he deserves to be in, and for a long time I was firmly in the anti-Munson camp. After doing this project I'm tempted to rethink that position. The data shows that from 1970 to 1976 he was the AL's best catcher an astounding five times. I'm not 100% in support of him, but I no longer write him off as another overrated Yankee either.

As for Fisk, he was injured in 1975. Had he played enough innings he might've taken that year instead of Munson. Injuries seem to have prevented Fisk from qualifying several other years too. Despite his reputation, he was never the AL's best catcher between 1979 and 1988. Of course, I will concede that Butch Wynegar (yes, Butch Wynegar) only barely qualifies for 1983. Fisk was second-best that year, so if Wynegar had played more he might've fallen behind Fisk. Fisk does deserve some credit for his resurgence in 1989 and '90, though. How often is baseball's best backstop over the age of 40?

Ed Bailey, Del Crandall, Johnny Romano, Elston Howard, Joe Torre, Bill Freehan and Darren Daulton all show up three times. Some of them are borderline Hall of Fame candidates while others have mostly been forgotten. Smoky Burgess, Earl Battey, Darrell Porter, Ted Simmons, Jim Sundberg, Rich Gedman, Craig Biggio, Mickey Tettleton, Chris Hoiles and Jorge Posada each show up twice. Battey and Gedman seem the most unlikely of that group to me.

While Craig Biggio is better known for his exploits at second base, he was twice the NL's best catcher, including his final season there. As you'll see throughout this series, it's not unheard of for a player to be moved off a position the very season after he was the best in the league at manning it.

Terry Steinbach was the best catcher in baseball his rookie year, yet he failed to garner a single Rookie of the Year vote. He was overshadowed a bit by a certain teammate who hit 49 homers that year.

Ellie Rodriguez tied as the AL's best in 1974. If you've never heard of him, don't feel bad. Even a baseball fanatic like me didn't know who he was before I did this project. Would you have believed that Johnny Edwards, Duke Sims, Ron Hassey, Bob Brenly, Rick Wilkins, Brian Schneider or Ryan Doumit were once the best catchers in their respective leagues either?

The White Sox had to be kicking themselves at the end of the 1960 season. Earl Battey and Johnny Romano had emerged as the AL's two best catchers...a year after the Sox traded both of them away.

The NL team with the most best catchers is the Dodgers, with six. The Braves and Pirates are tied for second, with four each. Over in the AL the winner is (unsurprisingly) the Yankees with six. Like the Senior Circuit, two teams are tied for second place with four: the Indians and the Tigers.

In the next entry we'll take a look at the first basemen. Like Thurman Munson, another player I never regarded as Hall of Fame-caliber has significantly increased his stock after I saw the results of this project. Check back next time to find out who it is!

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