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All-Time HoME Leaders, Sidebars

All-Time HoME Leaders, Catcher – 1-20

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.

[MAPES+], [CHEWS+], [1B, 1-20], [1B, 21-40], [2B, 1-20], [2B, 21-40], [3B, 1-20], [3B, 21-40], [SS, 1-20], [SS, 21-40]

Catcher – 1-20

C, 1-20

Where do we project the active player(s) to finish in our rankings?

Joe Mauer

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

Buster Posey

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.

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Discussion

13 thoughts on “All-Time HoME Leaders, Catcher – 1-20

  1. Kid Carter is the most underrated backstop of all time and is #2 in my book by a comfortable distance. But I cannot juggle the metrics in such a way to place him above Johnny Bench. Carter’s defense was a bit better, but Bench’s bat bested The Kid’s. And this goes for any version of WAR/WAA I use, whether it’s BBRef, Fangraphs or Baseball Gauge.

    Other than Max Marchi’s handling numbers, what are you guys seeing differently? I always wondered if The Big Red Machine’s pitching staff was under/overrated, but perhaps Bench’s skill set was poorest in handling hurlers? Carter worked with great staffs in Montreal and New York, objectively better than the staffs Bench worked with — how is this dealt with in WOWY?

    Posted by hersheydavinci | May 19, 2018, 11:28 am
    • Hey there,

      Thanks for reading!

      Don Gullet and Gary Nolan are pretty underrated in my book, Fred Norman was a solid guy for a number of seasons, and there’s that Seaver guy too. But I agree with you. Carter caught better hurlers.

      Check out http://www.tangotiger.net/catchers.html for some WOWY numbers. Very interesting take, I think. In short, Bench was great, and Carter was better.

      But to your question, other than Marchi’s numbers, what else are we seeing differently? For me, nothing. Without the diluted version I use, Bench is first. My “system” calls Carter the best catcher ever. I don’t think I do. And even if I did, catcher is the position where I trust my rankings least.

      Posted by Miller | May 19, 2018, 11:43 am
  2. You both rate Gene Tenace higher than Bill Freehan on you’re catcher rankings yet Freehan is in and Tenace out. What gives?

    Posted by CARL J GOETZ | June 29, 2018, 4:44 pm
    • The answer is timing. When we elected Freehan, we hadn’t yet discovered Max Marchi’s catcher handling data. It didn’t help Freehan, and we had elected him at least in part on the basis of his defensive reputation for handling pitchers. We also nit d that during a dry period for catchers, particularly in the AL, he was the loop’s leading backstop. Tenace isn’t close in that regard.

      Posted by eric | June 29, 2018, 5:06 pm
  3. How are you incorporating the Marchi numbers? I know Carter is listed as preventing 94 runs through handling. Are you simply giving him roughly 9.4 additional WAR for this?

    Posted by CARL J GOETZ | June 29, 2018, 4:57 pm
    • I use it at half strength.

      Posted by eric | June 29, 2018, 5:07 pm
    • I use half of what Eric does. While I buy into it, I’m a bit troubled by the idea that it matters as much as Marchi suggests. I don’t mean to imply that he’s wrong. I’m merely suggesting that doubt keeps me from using at more than the 25% I apply.

      Posted by Miller | June 29, 2018, 7:22 pm
      • I’m struggling with it a bit as well. The runs saved numbers seem larger than I would have expected. Eyeballing it, the distribution seems reasonable, with a relatively small number at the extremes and most guys between +-50 runs. My other issue is giving 1948-2011 catchers a bump (or penalty) for this when I can’t do it for earlier catchers. Schang may deserve such a bump as well and I just don’t know. That said, it looks like Munson doesn’t change much with this data. Posada takes a hit here, but he was 3rd of that group for me going in. This probably doesn’t affect my HOM ballot this year much, but I’m trying to rank the catcher position overall as well.

        Posted by Carl J Goetz | June 30, 2018, 10:23 am
        • While only looking at 1948-2011 is disappointing, I can’t let that bother me. Throughout baseball history, we use the best stats we have. For example, BBREF baserunning numbers used to include only SB and CS. And defensive numbers have a different level of precision today too. I want to use everything I can and admit my evaluations are imperfect.

          Posted by Miller | June 30, 2018, 10:42 am

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