This is a question that came up on The Dave Glover Show recently and in real time I had some difficulty deciding exactly where I'd put Yadi. I've written about his Hall of Fame case, which I think should be a lock, but I've never really done that much digging on where he belongs on the all-time list of great catchers.
Let me tell you, this was a lot harder to do than I thought it would be. I thought coming up with the top 20 catchers of all-time would be a pretty quick exercise but it wasn't. I needed days to go through the numbers and the history for all these guys and even after that I had a hard time settling on an exact order.
Part of that is the nature of the position. The work of catchers can't always be quantified, for one thing, and it might be the only position in modern baseball where defense matters more than offense. In my opinion it matters a lot more.
Just think of the things that a catcher has to do game in and game out:
• Execute the game plan for each opponent with and for all of the pitchers on the staff
• Adjust on the fly if the game plan goes south or if something is different for a particular pitcher on a given day (like someone's breaking pitch not working)
• Receive 140-150 pitches per game and be good at presenting (framing) pitches, especially in critical spots
• The receiving part also comes with the requisite 140-150 body squats each game
• Block pitches when runners are on base
• Control the running game
• Direct traffic when the ball is in play
• Take the physical beating that comes with squatting for 9 innings, blocking pitches, getting hit by foul balls, etc...
Oh yeah, on top of all that they also have to hit.
It's a tough job and I don't think we've done a good enough job historically of accounting for all these things when evaluating catchers. I would argue that at least two-thirds of a catcher's value comes from his defense. There are some exceptions (you'll see a few below) but when I evaluate catchers I give a lot more weight to what they do behind the plate than most people. So if you see something in my rankings that seems off, that's probably the explanation.
Don't get me wrong, the offense matters. When a player has both strong defense and above average offensive production they certainly are the most valuable catchers. The thing is, there just aren't many guys in the history of the game that combined both things.
When it came to creating the top-20 list that follows, here's how it broke down for me: the top five were pretty easy, the bottom five were pretty easy and middle 10 were a bear to sort out. As you'll see, the guys at the very top are the ones who combined the best of both worlds – big bats with strong defensive track records. After that it becomes a sliding scale balancing offensive output and defensive excellence.
I know this list is flawed and reflects my biases toward elite catcher defense. It's not meant to be "The Definitive List of Catchers" or anything like that, it's just one baseball guy's list:
20. Jim Sundberg (1974-1989)
Sundberg doesn't get talked about nearly enough. He was a below average hitter (90 OPS+ - 10% below league average) but the fact that he caught 1927 games tells you how much his defense was valued. Only four catchers in MLB history have more Gold Gloves than Sundberg, who had 6, and he likely would have had more in a different era because two other guys on this list were his AL contemporaries throughout the 80's - Bob Boone and Lance Parrish.
19. Bob Boone (1972-1990)
Like Sundberg, Boone was a below average hitter (80 OPS+ - 20% below league average) but only three catchers won more Gold Gloves than Boone and only four compiled more dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) than he did. That's how you catch 2225 games despite not being a productive hitter. Both Boone and Sunberg were well above average when it came to throwing out base stealers and they did that in an era were the stolen base was a commonly used weapon, unlike today.
18. Lance Parrish (1977-1995)
Parrish was a dual threat. He was only a little above league average overall on offense (106 OPS+) but only 4 catchers in MLB history hit more HR than Parrish (324) and he won 3 Gold Gloves as well. If not for the presence of guys like Boone and Sundberg in the AL at the same time he could have easily won a few more.
17. Mickey Cochrane (1925-1937)
Cochrane played before Gold Gloves came into the sport in 1957 but he likely wouldn't have received them anyway since he was a below average thrower for his time (39% CS, league average during his time was 42%) and he only managed 0.7 dWAR in 1451 games behind the dish. He could hit though...his 129 OPS+ is good for 8th all-time among catchers and that's what puts him on the list.
16. Joe Mauer (2004-2018)
I know this is a low based on his peak offensive years and by his JAWS ranking (47.1, #7 all-time) but for me the problem here is twofold: he only spent 60% of his career behind the plate and he only posted 4.6 dWAR during the years he was a catcher compared to 25.8 for Boone, 25.3 for Sundberg and 15.3 for Parrish. Now, I don't think he was that bad defensively because he did end up winning 3 Gold Gloves but given the advanced metrics being down on him and the short time he spent behind the plate (which was NOT his fault) I have to put him in this range. Mauer was a special hitter when healthy and had he been healthy longer and/or able to stay behind the plate for longer he'd be Top 10 on my list.
15. Buster Posey (2009-2021)
I ranked Posey and Mauer together for a reason. While Posey spent a lot more of his career behind the plate than Mauer did, we're still only talking about 1093 games caught. He was a good defensive catcher, winning one Gold Glove, but not an elite one. His 9.8 dWAR is solid but not spectacular and while he was above average when it came to controlling the opponents' running game (33% compared to 27% league average) he was not elite. His 129 OPS+ is tied with Mickey Cochrane and two others for 8th best all-time amongst catchers so he was obviously elite offensively for the position.
14. Bill Freehan (1961-1976)
Freehan played in 11 All-Star games and won 5 Gold Gloves, tied for 6th all-time with Salvador Perez. His career 112 OPS+ makes him a solidly above average catcher even though he was only average when it came to throwing base stealers out (37% CS compared to league average 38%). His value comes in the balance of being a really strong defender and a good-but-not great hitter.
13. Ted Simmons (1968-1988)
Simmons never won a Gold Glove but he wasn't a detriment behind the plate either. He was about average based on the numbers available. He ranks where he does because, close to Cochrane, POsey and Mauer, because he was a long-time offensive contributor. He's 8th all-time in oWAR (50.3) and Yogi Berra (1430 RBI) is the only primary catcher that drove in more runs than Simmons (1389 RBI). I know RBI is an imperfect stat but when you have as many as Simmons it shows you were a good everyday player for a very long time and that means something, especially at this position.
12. Thurman Munson (1969-1979)
If he hadn't died a tragic young death in a plane crash not only would he be higher on this list he'd probably be in the Hall of Fame too. Munson was essentially a slightly better version of Freehan - a strong defender and very good hitter. He won 3 Gold Gloves, won an MVP and was a good offensive performer (116 OPS+) as well. He ranks 12th all-time amongst catchers in Jay Jaffe's JAWS rankings.
11. Gaby Hartnett (1922-1941)
Only 13 catchers in history have a better OPS+ (126) than Hartnett and even though he retired more than 80 years ago he still ranks 12th all-time HR hit as a catcher. His career came before the Gold Glove Award existed but Hartnett was an exceptional defender as well, throwing out 56% of base stealers (league average was 44% during his time), and he posted a solid 13.3 dWAR in his career. Jay Jaffe's JAWS ranking has him 9th all-time amongst catchers.
10. Yadier Molina (2001-2021 pending 2022)
I'm sure I'll get some heat for having Molina this high but I explained my rationale above: defense matters more than anything else at this position. Molina is easily one of the 3-4 most accomplished defensive catchers in history alongside three guys who will appear higher on this list. His 9 Gold Gloves are 3rd all-time, he has the second most dWAR (26.8) amongst catchers of all-time, from 2003-2021 he leads all catchers with a 175 defensive runs (Russell Martin is second with 131), he wildly outperforms his peers throwing runners out (40% CS compared to 27% league average) and with a healthy 2022 he should move into 2nd all-time in games caught. On top of being one of the top 3-4 defensive catchers of all-time he is also a league average hitter (97 OPS+) over 18 seasons. That means a lot more than most baseball people are willing to acknowledge.
9. Bill Dickey (1928-1946)
Dickey is one of the 10-12 best offensive catchers in baseball history and he was a good defender as well, ranking well above league average when it came to controlling the running game and posting 10.2 dWAR overall. Jay Jaffe's JAWS system ranks him, well, right here...9th amongst catchers all-time.
8. Roy Campanella (1948-157 in MLB, 1937-1945 NL)
Campanella is one of my favorite catchers of all-time even though he retired 14 years before I was born. He was a strong defender, throwing out 57% of base stealers compared to the league average of 42%, and posting 8.8 dWAR in just 10 Major League seasons...compared to 10.2 dWAR for Dickey in 17 Major League seasons. He was also a masher posting a 126 OPS+ and he's 11th all-time in HR by a catcher despite not reaching the Majors until he was 26 because MLB wasn't integrated before so he spent his teens and early 20's playing in the Negro Leagues. If the game had been integrated sooner his numbers would rank even higher than they already do.
7. Mike Piazza (1992-2007)
Despite being an average-to-slightly-below average catcher (1.5 dWAR, 23% CS vs 31% league average), Piazza belongs at this level because he's arguably the best hitting catcher of all-time. His 143 OPS+ put him 43% above average amongst all players in one of the most prolific offensive eras in MLB history. 399 of his 427 HR came as a catcher, which is the most all-time for a backstop. This is a case where extreme offensive production can outweigh defense for a catcher.
6. Carlton Fisk (1969-1993)
We're starting to get to the combo offense-defense guys. Fisk's numbers are somewhat due to the length of his career but being very good for 22 out of 24 Major League seasons is an achievement all by itself. He is 2nd all-time (to Piazza) in oWAR for a catcher, 2nd to Piazza in HR as a catcher and 2nd in games caught to Ivan Rodriguez all-time. He was an average thrower but posted 17.0 dWAR which is 13th all-time for catchers.
5. Josh Gibson (1930-1946)
Well, this is the most difficult case of all. We have no Major League numbers because Gibson spent his entire career in the Negro Leagues but it's hard to ignore his production (215% better than league average!) and the legends told about him by other legends. I'm taking the words of Hall of Fame players on this one.
4. Gary Carter (1974-1992)
This is where making this kind of list gets a lot easier. I'm extremely confident about who the Top 4 should be, though I could be swayed to flip flop Carter with #3. He ranks 2nd all-time among catchers in Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, he has 3 Gold Gloves, his 26.1 dWAR is 3rd all-time for catchers and he's one of the Top 5 hitting catchers of all time as well with an oWAR of 56.3. He's also 7th in HR hit as a catcher (307 of his 324 career HR). Hard to argue he should be any lower than 4th.
3. Yogi Berra (1946-1965)
Obviously Yogi was one of the best hitting catchers of all time and an anchor of a whole bunch of all-time great Yankees teams. He has the 4th most HR ever hit as a catcher, leads all catchers in MLB history with 1430 RBI and the 4th best oWAR for a catcher (56.4). Yogi was also a positive defender with 9.2 dWAR and an average rate of throwing out base stealers.
2. Ivan Rodriguez (1991-2011)
As I mentioned with Molina earlier, Pudge is easily one of the 3 best defensive catchers of all time and maybe THE best. His 13 Gold Gloves are the most all-time at the position, his 29.6 dWAR is the most all-time for a catcher and he was an elite thrower nabbing 46% of all base stealers (league average was 31% during his career). If he's not "The Best" defensive catcher ever he's 2nd or 3rd. He was also a plus offensive player. His 106 OPS+ is deceptive. He was an elite hitter for a 5-6 year period in the middle of his career and fell off a lot when he reached his mid-30's. But still...he's 6th all-time in HR by a catcher (311) and 5th all-time in RBI with 1332. His oWAR (54.5) is 6th all-time amongst catchers.
1. Johnny Bench (1967-1983)
Bench is STILL the gold standard for catchers even though he retired almost 40 years ago. His 10 Gold Gloves rank behind only Pudge Rodriguez, his 19.7 dWAR is 6th all-time and he was elite at controlling the running game (43% CS vs 35% league average) as well. He's 3rd all-time in oWAR for catchers (65.7), he's 3rd all-time in HR as a catcher (356 of his 389 HR came as a catcher) and he's 3rd all-time in RBI for a catcher. What makes him the best overall catcher is that he has the best offense-defense balance ranking in the top 3 at the position in important categories both offensively and defensively.
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