How in the world do you decide what pitch to throw? And who decides? It is the manager? The pitcher? The catcher? A bit of all three? We will answer none of those questions below.
We know that sometimes the catcher decides what pitch should be thrown. And if the pitcher has both command and control, maybe the right pitch goes to the right location, and the batter fails. That’s if the catcher/pitcher/manager chooses the right pitch and location. And if the batter also fails. There’s merit to the idea that the best catchers ever are the ones best at calling games, if they’re actually the ones responsible for calling the games. I don’t think we really know who had such responsibility. And there’s no way to really know if they got the most out of their pitchers. There are just so many variables that we can’t control for.
The best receiver in history would have to have all of the physical attributes, and he’d have to be an expert on game theory, someone in league with the world’s best poker players. We just can’t measure that.
I’d like to note two more things before we get started. First, neither one of our numbers puts Johnny Bench on the top of the catcher list. And second, it’s extremely hard to figure out what’s right at this position. We’re trying our best.
Catcher – 1-20
Where do we project the active player(s) to finish in our rankings?
Mauer is a made man. Unless he turns in a few -2.0 WAR seasons in a row, he’s over the line for good. The question is whether he can gain ground on the rest of the field. Given recent history, his peak appears locked in, so it’s about chasing down the career value of guys above him on the totem pole. Bill Dickey feels like his top end to me. After my various adjustments, Dickey’s ahead by 9 career WAR, but their peak is exactly the same. Mauer certainly could catch up, though as a thirty-five year old with a history of concussion syndrome, the wear and tear of catching, and an overall long-term decline in performance, especially in power, I’m not sanguine about his odds to hit on that prop. He’ll pass Joe Torre this year, but Charlie Bennett is a pretty far in the distance, let alone Hartnett and Dickey.—Eric
There’s actually quite a bit going on here. After three years when it seemed Mauer was done as a plus hitter, he rebounded nicely last season. On the plus side, his K-rate fell to pre-concussion levels. He also made more hard contact than he had in four years. Maybe he’s back??? I know that’s not the way aging works though. On the other hand, there’s not a lot of data we have on people who have recovered from concussions. In the last four seasons, he’s averaged over 138 games, 18 more than his previous four. In terms of wear and tear on his body, perhaps he’s looking better than a few years ago? Then again, the last four years have seen him with a 106 OPS+, while the previous four were at 134. And his 116 from last year isn’t really too impressive. He’s 35 now, and it’s quite possible his surprise 3-win campaign of 2017 was the last year of that quality he’ll ever have. That’s what I’m guessing. If we plug in seasons of 2.2, 1.1 and -0.4 WAR, he gets by Joe Torre, and that’s it. I say he finishes at #12.–Miller
This is one incredibly healthy catcher we’re looking at, a guy who’s played in at least 140 games every year since 2012. What’s more, he’s been worth over 4 wins each season. He’s 31 now. As he ages, the Giants can move him out from behind the plate more and more. If he can maintain last year’s level in 2018 and then decline slowly, he can get to #14. Maintaining a little more value and playing until age 38, he’ll battle Mauer for that #12 spot. I’ll take the more positive run out in this case.–Miller
Where do our rankings diverge the most from the conventional wisdom?
It has to be Gary Carter, right? Everyone calls Johnny Bench the best MLB catcher ever. Well, everyone except me and Eric. I have to admit to being unsure of how catcher handling should be interpreted, and I think my catcher ratings are less likely to be “correct” than those at any position. I use Max Marchi’s handling numbers, albeit at a reduced rate, which vaults Carter to the top. Somehow, it’s actually not very close.–Miller
We could make a baseball TV comedy show called That 70s Catcher. Bench, Fisk, Simmons, Munson, plus big hunks of Carter’s career. Oh, and Gene Tenace. Gino Fiore Tenace is one of those analytical darlings who walked a lot, hit for power, moved around the diamond a bit, and whose excellence was hidden by baseball’s traditionalist mindset until the last twenty or so years. There’s that and the fact that his career was very short, under 6,000 plate appearances, and that defensively he wasn’t an outstanding backstop. I’m pretty sure that given the opportunity to name the twenty best catchers ever, a supermajority of baseball watchers and sports journalists wouldn’t include him. Especially when Ernie Lombardi, Bill Freehan, Lance Parrish, Yadier Molina, and a few other more famous catchers rank below him.—Eric
Where do we disagree with one another the most?
I have Charlie Bennett 28% over the line, while Eric sees him only 13% over. The difference between 10th best and 12th best, however, really isn’t a big deal. Perhaps Johnny Bench is our biggest disagreement? We are in lockstep on #1 and #2 at every other position, so when my #2 is his #5, we might say that it’s a big difference.–Miller
Are there any players who MAPES+/CHEWS+ might overrate or underrate?
Yes, just about anyone. We use the handling numbers we have, which we think makes sense. Unfortunately, those numbers don’t exist for the first 80 or so years of the game, nor the last six. We’re not guessing. We’re doing the best we can, and we think we’re reasonably close. It’s just that the error bar at catcher is greater than at any position. Far greater, I think.–Miller
You know, Buck Ewing bugs me. I know that some folks in his own time considered him the best player in the game, but the second-best catcher of all time? I’m not so sure. Could be an issue with how I’m extrapolating playing time. But I can’t shake the feeling that we’re overcommitted on Ewing. Miller is absolutely correct that among all nine positions on the diamond (ten if you want to consider the DH separately), catcher is the fudgiest. We have all the usual things to account for such as schedule length, league quality, in my case standard deviation, differing defensive systems. Then we also have to introduce a ton more uncertainty because no defensive system captures catchers well, and the developers of those systems will tell you so. No system has successfully figured out how to add framing because framing is dependent on the umpire and the pitcher as well as the catcher. No system has incorporated pitcher handling either. Is plate blocking included in any of them? Where does pitch calling fit into this? Plus we have to account for the negative impact catching has on playing time so that we can bring catchers as close to other positions as possible. It’s not a cluster, not a whack-a-mole, more like those Russian nesting dolls. You’re trying to get down to the smallest doll, but there’s just so many other dolls ahead of it that eventually your hands get crampy from all the twisting apart of the dolls. And they are all wearing masks!—Eric
Next week we’re back with the next 20 catchers. And unless you’ve studied this subject, a bunch of names will be at least a little surprising.