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Charlie Bennett Goes Saberhagen

Does this man belong in the HoME?

Does this man belong in the HoME?

The Hall of Miller and Eric is a collaborative process. It has to be. And per our rules, we must select 209 players for induction by the tie we complete our 2013 election. Those same rules tell us that nobody gets inducted without a vote from both of us. Thus, players who get votes from one of us need tremendous consideration from the other. Otherwise we’re going to run into quite a predicament when we get to our last few elections.

Eric has voted for three players – George Wright, Paul Hines, and Charlie Bennett in each of our six elections. And while I haven’t voted for any of them yet, I’ve maintained from the start that George Wright is a very strong candidate who will very likely receive my vote one day. And I’ve recently decided that there’s about a 70% chance I vote for either Paul Hines or center field contemporary Pete Browning at some point. But I’ve never given serious consideration to Eric’s third solo nominee, Charlie Bennett.

Charlie Bennett was a catcher whose career lasted 15 years in the National League (1878, 1880-1893). Unlike many catchers of the period, Bennett was a true backstop, playing 88% of his innings behind the plate. In order to get a better grasp on Bennett and see what Eric’s votes have been all about, I’m going to run the durable catcher through our Saberhagen List to see if anything comes to the surface for me.

Full disclosure, I go into this exercise wanting to vote for Charlie Bennett. Either that or I hope my results tell Eric that he should stop doing so. Let’s see what happens!

1. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have?

One way to measure this is to look at his WAR compared to other NL catchers each year of his career. Since there were never more than eight teams in the NL until his last two seasons, he’d have to lead catchers in WAR or be pretty darn close to have an All-Star type season. For the last two, first or second would be fine.

1878: 7th
1880: 4th
1881: 1st, by a good margin
1882: 1st, by a good margin
1883: 1st, toss-up between him and Buck Ewing
1884: 3rd
1885: 1st
1886: 1st
1887: 3rd
1888: 3rd, very close to the top spot
1889: 8th
1890: 2nd
1891: 5th
1892: 16th
1893: 16th

It seems clear that Bennett played at an All-Star level in 1881, 1882, 1885, and 1886. He certainly could have been called the best catcher in the game in 1883 and 1888 too.

2. How many MVP-type seasons did he have?

For a catcher, this is trickier than for most players. Catcher is a tough position to play today, and it was just brutal 120 years ago. It was the seventh year of Bennett’s career before chest protectors came into use. And it wasn’t until 1891, when Bennett had only three more years to play, that large padded mitts were allowed. So we should be more lenient for Bennett than for some others. We’ll consider all of the times he was in the top-10 in the NL in WAR for position players.

1881: 2nd, trailing Cap Anson by 1.6 WAR
1882: 6th, trailing Dan Brouthers by 1.8 WAR
1883: 3rd, trailing Dan Brouthers by .9 WAR
1885: 5th, trailing Roger Connor by 3.7 WAR

By this measure, we can only consider three seasons. He just wasn’t close to Connor in 1885. For the others, let’s look at DRA so we can get a grasp of Bennett’s contribution behind the plate. He wasn’t a very good catcher in 1881. He was good in 1882, but perhaps not enough to jump past five players. In 1883, however, he was very good. I can see a reasonable case that he was the best player in the game that year.

3. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

There’s lots of gray here. Depending on how one views his prime, the case could be made that he hung on for as many as five or as few as two seasons after that period ended. A more fair measure for Bennett is to say that he had a long and productive career for a 19th century catcher.

4. Are his most comparable players in the HoME?

It’s still pretty early in our process for this question. With the caveat that it’s a sub-optimal measure, there are only three catchers in Bennett’s era within 15 WAR of his 39.1. Buck Ewing has beats him with 47.7, and he’s already in the HoME. Jack Clements has 32.0, and we continue to review his candidacy without either of us voting for him yet. The same can be said of Deacon McGuire and his 31.1 WAR.

But the comparison to Ewing might sell Bennett short some. Ewing caught less than half the time. Bennett, as mentioned above, was behind the plate 88% of the time. And while Clements and McGuire caught a similar number of games to Bennett, neither was as talented with the bat or the glove.

I’m not sure Charlie Bennett has any other truly comparable players in the history of baseball.

5. Does the player’s career meet the HoME’s standards?

I suppose he’d bring the average value of the HoME down, but there are a lot of reasons I don’t care about that.

6. Was he ever the best player in baseball at his position? Or in his league?

When running Jimmy Collins through Saberhagen not long ago, Eric brought forth the idea of looking at a three-year run as a sign of positional dominance. Let’s see how Charlie Bennett fares by this measure.

• 1878¬-1880: 9th
• 1879-1881: 5th
• 1880-1882: 1st
• 1881-1883: 1st
• 1882-1884: 1st
• 1883-1885: 1st (dead heat with Buck Ewing)
• 1884-1886: 1st
• 1885-1887: 1st
• 1886-1888: 3rd (King Kelly and Ewing)
• 1887-1889: 3rd (Ewing and Fred Carroll)
• 1888-1890: 5th
• 1889-1891: 10th
• 1890-1892: 10th
• 1891-1893: 11th

It could be argued that this is pretty compelling stuff. For six consecutive three-year periods, Bennett was the best catcher in baseball. Let’s not get too excited though – there were only seven other starting catchers.

7. Did he ever have a reasonable case for being called the best player in baseball? Or in his league?

From 1881-1883, he notched 13.3 WAR compared 13.8 for Dan Brouthers. Given the difficulty of catching, one could argue that Bennett was the game’s best player for that period. Perhaps one should argue that.

8. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

Here we have to bring up his position again. There’s no doubt that squatting, catching, and being bombarded by baseballs took away from his hitting ability.

9. Did he have a positive impact on pennant races and in post-season series?

Through 1885, Bennett played on only mediocre to terrible teams. His Detroit Wolverines were a strong team in 1886, but they lost out to the Chicago White Stockings. In 1887, Wolverines won the NL title and beat the American Association’s St. Louis Browns 10 games to 5 in what was the exhibition equivalent of the World Series. Bennett hit .262/.311/.357 on a team that hit .243/.275/.326. He was fine.

By 1891, Bennett was a member of the Boston Beaneaters, winners of the NL pennant. There was no post season that year. Even if there had been, Bennett’s career was winding down. He wasn’t one of his team’s best players. By the time the Beaneaters won the NL pennant in 1892, Bennett wasn’t a very good player. In the Championship Series against the NL’s second best team, the Cleveland Spiders, Bennett was a back-up who came to the plate just seven times during Boston’s 5-0-1 victory, though he did homer. Boston won again in 1893, Bennett’s final season, but again there was no post-season.

Bennett’s impact on pennant races and post-season series is negligible.

10. Is he the best eligible player at his position not in the HoME?

Maybe. Or maybe it’s the newly eligible Roger Bresnahan. I think I prefer Bennett, though I haven’t yet given it a lot of thought. I’m quite confident Eric prefers Bennett, calling him the second best catcher before Gabby Hartnett.

11. Is he the best eligible candidate not in the HoME?

I don’t think so. Right now, I prefer Monte Ward.

At no point has Eric ranked him the best among those eligible, always ranking George Wright, Paul Hines, or both higher.

Though the 1931 class is generally weak, I believe Home Run Baker, at least, is also a better candidate.

Okay, we’ve now answered all of the questions. And I’m not yet compelled to vote for our man Bennett. But I have three more questions I want to answer first. If I can answer any of these in the affirmative, I might be forced to change my mind.

1. Is his position within his era grossly underrepresented in the HoME?
No, it’s not. We’ve elected a 19th century catcher in Buck Ewing. There would be nothing wrong with having a second, but we certainly don’t need one.

2. Is his era, in general, grossly underrepresented in the HoME?
No, it’s not at all. We have nineteen guys from the 19th century in the HoME right now, which I think is an underrepresentation but not a gross underrepresentation. Should we get another 180 or so players into the HoME without giving that honor to another 19th century guy, there might be a problem. Right now, I’m comfortable with the era’s representation.

3. Is his position, in general, grossly underrepresented in the HoME? No, it’s not at this moment. We’ve elected Buck Ewing from his era and nobody yet from the first quarter of the 20th century. That omission isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, unless there’s much more love for Roger Bresnahan or Ray Schalk than I’m anticipating, we’re not going to elect another catcher until Mickey Cochrane comes up in 1946 (Gabby Hartnett began his career earlier but ended it later, so he’s not eligible until 1951). While I see no problem today, I think there may be an issue as we move forward.

Based on Eric’s voting record and his stated reason for putting Bennett on his ballot, he’s already noticed this catcher problem. I don’t want to turn a blind eye to it, nor do I want to vote for someone about whom I’m just not certain.

This exercise has not convinced me to vote for Charlie Bennett in 1931. It has, however, moved me to believe there’s a better than 50% chance I’ll be compelled to vote for him at some point. I expect that I’ll continue to consider Bennett for many, many elections.

Miller

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  1. Pingback: When Men Were Men and Catchers Were Ground to Bloody Stumps | the Hall of Miller and Eric - September 13, 2013

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