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Buck Ewing

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The Best 125 Catchers Ever

For some time, we’ve told you that we’d be sharing longer lists so you can see where all of your favorites land in the game’s history. So it’s time we welcome you to our top-125, the best players at each position by Eric’s CHEWS+ and my MAPES+. At the end of this series these lists will find a permanent home on our site so that you’ll be able to refer to them whenever you would like.

Before we get there, you may see some surprising inclusions or omissions. Let me explain. Eric places players at the position at which they had the most value. His reasoning can best be seen in a guy like Ernie Banks. Banks is a no-brainer Hall of Famer. That’s clearly based on his time as a shortstop where he had six seasons of 5+ WAR, including four of 7.9+. At first base, he never topped 3.5 WAR, averaging only 1.3 per season over a decade at the position. While Eric’s theory makes total sense, not every player is as easy to understand as Banks. Should we break down each season? What if the guy played 80 games at two positions in the same season? I just use games played with no preference for value. Just games played. It’s simpler. I don’t think either decision is incorrect, but I do want to point out the reason you may not see certain players. For example, you’ll see Deacon White, Jack Rowe, and Mike Napoli on Eric’s list below. For me, White is a third baseman, Rowe is a shortstop, and Napoli is a first baseman.

Here are our complete lists.

Catchers, 125

Stop by again on Friday when we’ll look our similarities and differences at first base.

Miller

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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.

The HoME 100: #60–51

We pick up our latest HoME 100 entry this week at #80. Go back and check out #100–91, #90–81, #80–71, #7061 if you want to catch up.

#60–51

60. Ed Delahanty (ESPN Rank: NR)

MILLER: What a human tragedy. Big Ed died at 35 after either jumping or falling into the Niagara River. According to his SABR Bio Project post, he was found dead and naked, except for shoes, socks, and tie. Had he been able to control his drinking, he might find himself twenty of more spots higher on this list.

ERIC: Controlled drinking is the dream of every alcoholic, and their nightmare is reality.

59. Curt Schilling (ESPN Rank: 91)

MILLER: Not long ago I went on a Mussina-oriented rant. Well, Curt Schilling is just about the same pitcher in terms of career value. There are two differences. First, Schilling might be the best pitcher in playoff history. He’s certainly close. Second, he’s a jerk. I’m not that broken up about him on the outside looking in.

58. Smoky Joe Williams (ESPN Rank: NR)

ERIC: If Satchel Paige is the Lefty Grove or Walter Johnson of the Negro Leagues, Smoky Joe Williams is the Pete Alexander or even the Cy Young. Long, long career, highly effective for damn near all of it, if not quite the peak of the Paige, and not necessarily the flashy personality. It’s not far-fetched at all to suggest that Williams would have won 300 games in MLB. That’s why he’s on this list after all.

57. Buck Ewing (ESPN Rank: NR)

ERIC: The best catcher of the 19th Century. But because he was such a good hitter, he didn’t play catcher as much as today’s backstops do or even those that came just 25 years after his debut. But like Jackie Robinson later, Ewing appears to have excelled no matter where he played on the diamond, and that was everywhere.

56. Al Kaline (ESPN Rank: 64)

ERIC: Al Kaline is what you get if you take Roberto Clemente, stick him in Tigers’ Stadium, and give him a few more walks. Here’s their career road totals, which strip out some of the park effects that frame our perceptions of them. I’ve projected Clemente to the same number of PAs as Kaline (he trailed by about 700):

 NAME     PA    H   2B 3B  HR  BB  K  SB CS  AVG  OBP  SLG GDP HPB ROE  
======================================================================== 
KALINE   5864 1499 251 42 173 628 522 77 37 .292 .369 .458 143  27  96 
CLEMENTE 5864 1667 244 71 156 343 760 58 28 .306 .347 .463 165  15 111

It would be entirely reasonable to say that these two players were very, very similar. Kaline’s got more walks and fewer GDPs. Clemente has a higher average and more triples. Of course, this comparison extends outside of the batters box. Kaline won 10 Gold Gloves to Clemente’s 12. Kaline’s 152 runs above average according to BBREF’s rfield, while Clemente is +205. Kaline’s arm was a defensive weapon which netted his team 60 runs more than an average outfielder, and Clemente probably had the greatest outfield arm in history, or one of the top five (Willie Mays, Jesse Barfield, Harry Hooper, and a few others may take exception). BBREF gives him 83 runs more than an average outfielder. Michael Humphreys DRA sees a much larger divergence between the two in terms of their range. It shows Kaline with a healthy 81 runs above average in flycatching but Clemente with an addition 130. That’s a really big deal.

Add it up and BBREF gives Al Kaline 92.5 WAR and Roberto Clemente 94.5. Kaline spread his out a little more over a longer career. Clemente was a late bloomer, whose career was cut short tragically, and his best years are a little more clumped together. Yet we rank Clemente 20 spots ahead of Kaline and ESPN ranked Clemente 45 spots higher. I certainly can see the peak argument pushing Clemente up a little bit, and perhaps in between the two we are slicing hairs very thinly, but it’s amazing how differently the world sees two players who were very similar despite very different contexts. Or maybe not? Maybe it sees two very similar players and somehow also sees intuitively what DRA sees in the difference between their respective ability to catch up to flyballs.

55. Cal Ripken (ESPN Rank: 47)

MILLER: One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received came from Eric, a ticket stub to then game in which Ripken stroked his 3000th hit.

ERIC: Ripken didn’t want to, but he moved to third base when a better defensive shortstop showed up (Mike Bordick). I know of an extraordinarily popular shortstop who idolized Cal Ripken, and who wouldn’t move off shortstop when a better defender came along. Just sayin’ is all.

54. Joe DiMaggio (ESPN Rank: 15)

ERIC: ESPN’s #15 ranking for Joe D is silly. DiMaggio was an amazing player, of course…and he was done at 36. But the World Wide Leader in Sports has this tendency to embrace the narrative: The Yankee Clipper, voted greatest living ballplayer in 1969 (poor overlooked Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, et. al.!), “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio/a nation turns its lonely eyes to you/woo, woo, woo,” Marilyn Monroe, Mr. Coffee, yadda yadda yadda. Why would DiMaggio finish at #15 and Mel Ott finish at #59? They were rough contemporaries, and here’s some stuff. Mel Ott earned at least 7 WAR in six seasons. Joe DiMaggio did so in four, though his best years are better than Master Melvin’s. Ott also tacked on three seasons with 6+ WAR and another five years of 5+ WAR. DiMag had two seasons with 6+ WAR and three at 5+ WAR. Overall, Ott ended up with 107 WAR and DiMaggio 78. Had the second world war not snatched three seasons from DiMaggio’s career, it’s easy to imagine Joltin’ Joe blasting out another 20 to 25 WAR, which would leave him 5–10 Wins short of Ott. It’s a peak/prime/career kind of argument about which one ends up higher in one’s personal rankings. But somehow ESPN sees a gap of 40 rankings. I can only assume that either it’s the narrative or it’s about counting the ringzzzzz. If it’s the latter, well, that’s silly. DiMaggio hardly earned them by himself. He was surrounded by a team of All-Stars every year. And here’s the funny part. While DiMaggio was on the World Series stage each and every year, in Mel Ott’s three World Series appearances, his overall lifetime October line much more closely approximates his career hitting than DiMaggio’s. Ott went 304/414/533 from April to September then 295/377/525 in the Series. DiMaggio hit 325/398/579 during the regular year and just 271/338/422 in October. Gang, I’m just not seeing it. It’s all about that Yankee thing. But we know Mystique and Aura’s real names: Ed Barrow and Joe McCarthy.

53. Steve Carlton (ESPN Rank: 43)

ERIC: I am such a fan of Carlton’s hair in the 1970s and early 1980s. Curls just exploding from under his cap, framing up the hawk-like nose menacing grimace he always seemed to wear. What else is there to say about Lefty that hasn’t been said? He had one of the most devastating sliders in history. He was a fitness freak like Nolan Ryan and lasted forever as a result. He had that Eastern-like focus and a super competitive nature. He didn’t talk to reporters. OK, here’s something. Steve Carlton was murder on the running game.

Of course, as a portsider, Carlton had an advantage. Lefties in general do a lot better against the running game. But Carlton, in the steal-happy 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s did better than just an average southpaw. The league caught base stealers at a rate of 34% regardless of who was on the hill. Carlton and his catchers nabbed them 42% of the time. That’s 23% better than the league average. But I looked up lefties who were rough contemporaries of Lefty’s and who threw 1500 or more innings. There were 48. As a group, they averaged 21% better than the league in CS%. On a per-inning basis, the league ran on Carlton just a smidgen more often than they ran on this group. So Carlton was around average overall when looked at in these ways. Where he excelled, however, was in picking off runners. In fact, Carlton’s 146 career pickoffs are the highest total in MLB history (at least for those years that we have information on pickoffs). He picked off about 5.5 runners for every 200 innings he hurled, the highest figure in the group. Ken Brett is a sliver behind, and they are the only two who exceeded 5 pickoffs per 200 innings. The entire set of pitchers picked off 2 men per 200 innings. To give you a sense of how Carlton was at nabbing potential base nappers, Andy Pettitte and Mark Buehrle probably owned the most feared pickoff moves in the game over the past twenty years, and they hovered around 6 pickoffs per 200 innings. If we add all those pickoffs into the CS rates of each pitcher, the group now averages a 49% CS rate, a 6% overall boost from its 43% rate with just SB and CS in the equation. Carlton improves 12 percentage points to 54%, or double the boost of the entire group. His is the second largest boost in the entire group, behind only Bill Lee, who was merely average in raw CS rate. Carlton goes from 23rd in the group in raw CS rate to 12th when the pickoffs are added in.

One question we might ask is why would anyone try to run on Carlton in the first place with such a tough move? While I don’t know the answer, I suspect the answer is that the very wipeout slider that made him so difficult to hit probably also made him a tempting target for thievery. Burying a slider, especially to a left-handed hitter would make it very hard for a catcher (usually Tim McCarver or Bob Boone) to pop up quickly and make a quick release. This is especially true if Carlton got the slider down and wide in the right-hand batters’ box. Teams no doubt scouted Carlton’s pitch selection carefully looking for what counts he would throw it, especially with runners on. Developing a wicked pickoff move, which he did improve over time, helped him neutralize a natural disadvantage. It was just another way in which Carlton’s intense dedication to his craft enabled him to squeeze everything out of his game that he could.

52. Gaylord Perry (ESPN Rank: NR)

ERIC: Not ranked?! WTF?!

MILLER: If he has any saliva left, Perry should use it on this list.

51. Robin Roberts (ESPN Rank: NR)

MILLER: From 1950–1954 he posted 42.5 WAR. That’s 8.5 per year. Even with my adjustments that allow for more value to be earned by modern pitchers with extra playoff rounds, only Bob Gibson, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, and Tom Seaver have had five straight years as great as Roberts’ run.

THE WORLDWIDE LEADER IN SPORTS’ #60–51

  • Willie McCovey
  • Mel Ott
  • Manny Ramirez
  • Tony Gwynn
  • Eddie Mathews
  • Reggie Jackson
  • Jim Palmer
  • Carl Yastrzemski
  • Hank Greenberg
  • Derek Jeter

MILLER: I don’t rank Derek Jeter in my top-20 shortstops ever. He’s 21st. If you’re being fair, I think he has to rank somewhere from 14–24. ESPN’s is a foolish and irresponsible ranking. If the Yankee public relations staff put together a similar list, this is about where they’d rank Jeter.

ERIC: You give Yankee PR too much credit. They’d rank Jeter like number five after Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, and DiMaggio. I’m actually surprised that the WWLinS dared rank him so far down the list. I would’ve guessed in the 20s before seeing the actual document. Look, we’re likely to catch a lot of flack for not having Jeter anywhere on our list. Well, that is if anyone is really paying attention to us. There’s an argument out there that says, well defensive stats aren’t very trustworthy, and the Yanks wouldn’t have kept running him out there if he was that bad on defense, and there’s probably something about how the team positioned him, and there’s probably something askew in the batted ball profile of the team, and, and, and, and. But there’s nothing, no defensive system anywhere with any credibility that shows Jeter as being merely below average, as if he were Rich Aurilia or Roy Smalley. No, they all show Jeter as being awful. Historically awful. Doubly as bad as any other long-career shortstop. Doubly as bad as anyone at any other position.

Now another common argument goes, well, but Jeter was playing a more difficult defensive position so we shouldn’t treat him as though he was a shortstop since he was being played out of position, not playing out of position. Had the Yanks moved him to third base or centerfield…. Yes, and they didn’t, and he didn’t offer to move when they signed A-Rod, a better defensive shortstop. (See how I worked that in twice in one article?) But even had they moved him, our tools for measuring value already take into account the defensive difficulty of the job. WAR includes a position adjustment designed for this very reason. Jeter’s defensive difficulties dwarf that adjustment. BBREF’s position adjustment is +135 runs for all that shortstopping. He rates defensively as -246. He nets out at -10 or so Wins on defense with that adjustment. Thus his BBREF dWAR (WAR for defense only) is -9.7, which in turn is the worst of any shortstop in baseball history no matter how many or how few games they played.

So the truth as best we understand it, with error bars and all that, suggests that The Captain was so bad defensively, that his amazing batting and baserunning contributions aren’t good enough to get him into the top 100 players of all time. And this is why Jeter will continue to be one of the most divisive figures in baseball history, at least among the eggheady crowd.

Oh, also: Willie McCovey? That’s a ridiculous stretch.

Best Player/Manager, Part III

Great play gets Berra and others only so far by this measure.

Great play gets Berra and others only so far by this measure.

As we continue with our player/manager project today, we review candidates 16-40. If you’ve missed them, check out the primer, where I narrow the list, and next post, where review candidates 41-80. In search of the best combination player and manager ever, we’re going to review 25 guys today. Some were good to great players. Others were good to great managers. However, none were excellent both on the field and in the dugout. So without further ado, here are the next 25 managers on our list.

#40 Lou Piniella (MAPES: 13; ZIMMER: 50; Player Manager Score: 20)

Piniella is the best manager we’ve seen so far on this list who had a playing career of at least 10 MAPES points. He was AL Rookie of the year in 1969, an AL All-Star in 1972, and the owner of two World Series rings. He managed the Yankees, Reds, Mariners, Devil Rays, and Cubs to 1835 wins, good for fourteenth in history. The highlight of his run had to be the 1990 World Series upset of the A’s by his Reds. He also made the playoffs four times in Seattle and twice more in Chicago. And he won three Manager of the Year Awards.

#39 Hank Bauer (MAPES: 25; ZIMMER: 18; Player Manager Score: 21)

Bauer shows more balance than most everyone who has come before him. He was a very solid player and a very solid manager, but great at neither. Bauer played almost his entire career with the Yankees, winning seven rings. That’s most of the reason we think he was better than he really was. He made three All-Star teams and has three seasons of at least 4 WAR, but he wasn’t much to talk about otherwise. His main managerial success came in 1966 when he led the Orioles to the World Series title. Frank Robinson’s triple crown that year didn’t hurt, and the O’s plummeted to 7th place in 1967. Overall, Bauer managed just four full seasons and won 594 games. Still, this overall placing is impressive.

#38 Jimmy Collins (MAPES: 51; ZIMMER: 13; Player Manager Score: 21)

Collins is one of the games great 3B. He was a solid hitter and a wonderful defender. Only Mike Schmidt, Stott Rolen, Adrian Beltre, and Robin Ventura best his numbers in both batting WAR and fielding WAR, and Collins played 300 fewer games than any of them. Managing was less glorious for Collins, as he led only one team, the Boston Americans from 1901-1906. He won the first World Series in 1903 and may have won again in 1904 had one been played. Overall though, just 455 wins means he can’t be placed any higher on this list.

#37 Yogi Berra (MAPES: 60; ZIMMER: 13; Player Manager Score: 21)

While Berra is a bit overrated to me as a player (it’s unlikely he’s among the three or four best catchers ever), he was nonetheless an outstanding player. He won three MVP Awards and finished in the top-4 four more times. On top of that, the guy has ten World Series rings. Ten! In the dugout, he took both the 1964 Yankees and the 1973 Mets to the World Series, losing both. With more than his 484 career wins, he’d be a lot higher on our list.

#36 Ozzie Guillen (MAPES: 19; ZIMMER: 25; Player Manager Score: 22)

Raise your hand if you’re surprised to see Ozzie Guillen here. That’s harmonic mean for you. Guillen is really close to equal in his playing and managing career, so he doesn’t take the huge harmonic mean hit that some unbalanced guys do. He was the 1985 AL Rookie of the Year, and he made three All-Star teams as a White Sox shortstop. As a manager, the fiery Guillen gained some value. In 2005 he led the White Sox to their first World Series championship since 1917. And he won 88 games four times in his seven full seasons in Chicago. Overall, his 747 wins (so far) bring him to 36th on our list.

#35 Bob Lemon (MAPES: 42; ZIMMER: 16; Player Manager Score: 23)

Because he won 20 games on seven occasions and was really popular as a player, Bob Lemon is in the Hall of Fame. He probably shouldn’t be. The seven-time All-Star is without a 6-WAR season and has only two above 4.8. But still, he was one heck of a player compared to most and was a real workhorse for the Indians from 1948-1956. As the result of being a Yankee during the Billy Martin days, he’s also a little overrated as a manager, perhaps. He was in the dugout for three teams over parts of eight years, but he only managed three full campaigns. He had four stints in New York, but none lasted a full season. He managed just 25 games in the 1981 regular season but won a pennant, and he managed just 68 games in the 1978 regular season but won a World Series.

Tris Speaker#34 Tris Speaker (MAPES: 108; ZIMMER: 13; Player Manager Score: 23)

The all-time leader in doubles and the four-time OBP champ might be the most under-appreciated inner circle Hall of Famer. With defense included, his value is quite similar to Ty Cobb’s. Managing was just his side gig, which is all it needed to be to get him here. He won the World Series in 1920, his first full season running the Indians. He had two more second place finishes and 617 total wins. A member of the Hall’s second class in 1937 is the 34th best combination player manager ever.

#33 Don Mattingly (MAPES: 37; ZIMMER: 18; Player Manager Score: 24)

This is a score I expect will go up. After 446 wins in five seasons with the Dodgers, Mattingly is no longer running the show out there, but there aren’t too many guys who don’t get another job after making the playoffs three years in a row. Mattingly is a relatively young man, just 54 right now, and it’s not like back problems will curtail this part of his career. On the field, Donnie Baseball was a heck of a hitter when healthy. The six-time All-Star has a batting title, a ribbie title, and three doubles titles to his credit. And he also won the 1985 AL MVP.

#32 Bucky Harris (MAPES: 17; ZIMMER: 41; Player Manager Score: 24)

This is another mistake we thing the Hall made when electing managers. Yes, he’s seventh in career wins and third when he retired, but he posted a losing record. He’s third in career losses. Yes, he led mediocre teams, mostly the Senators, but it’s not like he got a ton out of them more than a typical manager would. His ZIMMER score is so high because he was a plus manager overall, and for a lot of years. Maybe he’s the Rusty Staub of managing? He also gets a nice bonus from World Series wins in 1924, the first year of his career when he was leading the Senators, and 1947, when he was running the Yankees. As a player, he homered nine times in approaching 5000 at-bats. He got hit by a lot of pitches, drew some walks, and could lay down a bunt, but he’s not a guy you wanted up with a man on first and a couple of outs.

#31 Felipe Alou (MAPES: 33; ZIMMER: 19; Player Manager Score: 24)

I’m not sure if Alou gained more fame as a player or as a manager. He was a three-time All-Star who led the NL in hits a couple of times. And he played seventeen seasons for six teams, so he was at least a little wanted. And he’s the only guy in baseball history to play at least 400 games at first base and at every outfield spot. He found some level of success as a manager too, though he only made the playoffs once in fourteen tries with the Expos and Giants. To be fair, his Expos were leading the NL East when the game shut down in 1994. Still, we can’t count what never happened.

#30 Jimmy Dykes (MAPES: 29; ZIMMER: 21; Player Manager Score: 25)

The first guy to earn 20 points by each of our measures, Dykes was a 22-year infielder for the A’s and White Sox. He wasn’t much with the bat, yet he managed to stick around, probably because of a feel for the game that eventually made him a manager. In that capacity, he never once made the playoffs. He holds the record for most games managed without seeing October at 2962. Still six teams in 21 years thought highly enough of him to give him work. A nice, long career for Dyles makes him the #30 player/manager our list.

#29 Al Dark (MAPES: 35; ZIMMER: 22; Player Manager Score: 27)

“The Swamp Fox”, as he was known, had an interesting career, playing for five teams in fourteen years while making three All-Star teams. It wasn’t until he was 26 that he got a major league job, and he quickly became an impressive offensive shortstop. But shortstops in their 30s begin to regress pretty quickly, which is exactly what Dark did. In 1962 his Giants lost an epic World Series with the Yankees 1-0 in the seventh game when Willie McCovey’s liner was snagged by Bobby Richardson. Perhaps making up for some bad luck, he won the 1974 World Series with the A’s, the last of their dynasty years, after Dick Williams resigned. Overall he won 994 games in thirteen seasons. Not bad.

#28 Mike Hargrove (MAPES: 27; ZIMMER: 28; Player Manager Score: 27)

Hargrove won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1974, was an All-Star in 1975, and had a productive career as a singles hitter who could draw walks. His profile overall was really interesting. Only nine players ever posted more walks while compiling fewer hits. He’s Miller Huggins or Roy Thomas 70 years later, which isn’t a bad little player. Of course, we want more power from our DH types. As a manager, he was blessed with some incredible talent while in Cleveland. Once they rounded into form in 1995, they won five straight AL Central titles. And they got to the 1995 and 1997 World Series, losing to the Braves and Marlins respectively. The O’s and M’s took him on after that, but after six straight fourth place finishes for the two clubs, he was fired the next year and is likely done in the dugout.

#27 Pete Rose (MAPES: 60; ZIMMER: 17; Player Manager Score: 28)

Given how many he signs, it’s no wonder that Pete Rose has one of the prettiest autographs in baseball. Also, it’s kind of remarkable how many guys on this list have won the Rookie of the Year Award, as Pete did in the NL in 1963. Though I don’t think I’m likely to say anything new here about Pete Rose, with the help of BBREF’s Play Index, I’ll try. While Pete is 75th all-time in triples, only 14 of the 74 guys ahead of him also hit more than his 160 homers. And only three – Willie Davis, Willie Mays, and George Brett – top Rose in 3B, HR, and SB. I don’t know how much his gambling hurt the Reds in the standings, if it did at all. What I do know is that in each of the four years he both started and ended as Cincy’s manager, the Reds finished second. In the first full year he was gone, the Reds beat the A’s in the World Series.

Casey Stengel#26 Casey Stengel (MAPES: 17; ZIMMER: 70; Player Manager Score: 28)

As a manager, we’re talking about an inner-circle HoMER. Ten World Series and seven titles tell that story. Sure, he had oodles of talent. But winning isn’t just a matter of having talent. Ask Mike Hargrove and his four HoME-level hitters in 1999, for example. Stengel was also the first manager of the New York Mets and retired after 25 years in the dugout and 1905 wins, good for eleventh all-time. Stengel had a bit of value as a player too. He led the AL in OBP in 1914, and he won a ring in 1922. It’s clear, however, that Stengel reaches this height as a manager primarily.

#25 Ned Hanlon (MAPES: 23; ZIMMER: 35; Player Manager Score: 28)

Mainly for the Detroit Wolverines, outfielder Ned Hanlon held his own as a player. He drew more than his share of walks, and he ran the bases very effectively. But Hanlon’s greatness was as a manager. He won pennants with the NL’s Baltimore Orioles from 1894-1896. And he did the same with the Brooklyn Superbas of 1899-1900. Though it’s not part of this equation, the most impressive thing about Hanlon is his legacy. Many of the greatest managers ever played for him, including John McGraw, Miller Huggins, Connie Mack, Hughie Jennings, and Wilbert Robinson.

#24 Red Schoendienst (MAPES: 35; ZIMMER: 24; Player Manager Score: 28)

Some people say that when Red Schoendienst was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1989, it was as a combo candidate. And if you’re going to elect him, that’s the way to do it. A ten-time All-Star at second base, Schoendienst won a SB title, a 3B title, and a H title. His career, while a bit longer, is similar to what we’ve seen so far from Dustin Pedroia. Red was mostly a Cardinal as a player. He was exclusively a Cardinal as a manager. His best season was 1967 when St. Louis won the World Series. He made the playoffs one other time and thrice finished second. Overall I rank him below the Hall level, but Schoendienst’s career deserves celebration.

Mickey Cochrane#23 Mickey Cochrane (MAPES: 56; ZIMMER: 19; Player Manager Score: 28)

Schoendienst might have been a combo candidate, but as we move up one in our rankings, we see that none yet have been great as both aspects of their career. Cochrane certainly was a great player, winning the MVP for the A’s in 1928 and for the Tigers in 1934. Overall, he’s one of the ten best catchers ever. He only managed for two full seasons and parts of three others, so perhaps his ranking here is high. On the other hand, he led the Tigers to a pennant in 1934 and to a World Series win in 1935. Almost nobody ever had a peak in the dugout like “Black Mike”.

Al Lopez#22 Al Lopez (MAPES: 20; ZIMMER: 52; Player Manager Score: 29)

Not many had more admirable careers than Al Lopez. He’s “only” ninth in games caught right now, but let’s consider who’s ahead of him. His career ended in 1947. Everyone ahead of him played in 1989 or later. No, Lopez wasn’t a great player, though he did make two All-Star teams. What we can assume is that he had a great baseball mind. Otherwise, he wouldn’t likely have been given so much playing time. He displayed that acumen for the game when he was given the chance to manage the Cleveland Indians in 1951. In six years he finished second five times and first once, losing the 1954 World Series to the Giants. From Cleveland, he moved to Chicago where he had five more runner-up finishes. And he took the 1959 team to the Series where they lost to the Dodgers. He had the misfortune of managing teams in the AL when the Yankees were in the midst of their greatest dynasty. Yeah, his was an incredibly admirable career.

Gil Hodges#21 Gil Hodges (MAPES: 42; ZIMMER: 22; Player Manager Score: 29)

If Red Schoendienst can make it to the Hall as a combo candidate, perhaps Hodges can too. Hodges was a very, very good player. No, he’s not at HoME level, but he’s in the conversation. I like neat stats, thought I admit they’re not telling. Only 21 players can top Hodges in runs, ribbies, and Gold Gloves. They’re a who’s who among greats of the last 50 years. Of course, that list also includes Torii Hunter, Gary Gaetti, and Steve Garvey. You can put together a lot of weird lists to make your candidate look great. If we include homers in our calculation, we’re down to eleven guys. Anyway, while lists like this are nice, they’re not a reason someone should make the Hall. But what about managerial greatness too? Hodges led some rough teams in Washington. His best finish in five years was sixth place. Then he got another crappy job with the Mets. But a funny thing happened in 1969. You might call it a miracle. I’m not so sure there’s a spot in Cooperstown for Hodges, but I do know he’s a great combination player/manager.

#20 Fielder Jones (MAPES: 42; ZIMMER: 22; Player Manager Score: 29)

Jones was a turn-of-the-century outfielder who posted only one All-Star type of season. On the other hand, he’s the only ten-time 4-win player among center fielders outside the HoME. Actually, he and Jake Beckley are the only position players with that distinction. His managing career has been similarly forgotten today. But it was pretty good as well. He won 683 games in ten seasons, and he took home the World Series with the 1906 White Sox. Still though, we’re without a candidate who was an excellent player and an excellent manager.

#19 Billy Southworth (MAPES: 20; ZIMMER: 56; Player Manager Score: 30)

And it seems we’re going to have to look beyond candidate #19 to find one. Southworth was mainly an outfielder for five teams over thirteen seasons from 1913-1929. He was a decent player but certainly no star. He was absolutely a star manager though. His thirteen seasons and 1044 wins helped him get to the HoME. But it’s the four World Series appearances and titles with the 1942 and 1944 Cardinals that got him there. Still, I kind of thought this project would offer for us more guys who were stars both as players and as managers.

#18 Frank Robinson (MAPES: 76; ZIMMER: 19; Player Manager Score: 30)

While Al Lopez absolutely had an admiral career, I think I’d trade his for Frank Robinson’s. Robinson is one of the least appreciated superstars ever. As Fred McGriff supporters might say, “He hit 586 home runs when that was still a big deal.” He won the NL Rookie of the Year in 1956, MVP Awards in both leagues, and the 1966 AL triple crown. As you know, he’s also the first African American manager ever and one of the game’s statesmen. He was never once given a good team when he was managing, not with the Indians, Giants, Orioles, or Expos/Nationals. He took over the O’s in the midst of an 0-21 start in 1988. The next year they won 87 games and finished second in the AL East. The 2001 Expos won 68 games and finished fifth in the NL East. The next year Robinson came in, and they finished second. Maybe he was underrated as a manager too. He got jobs where the team needed stability, not when they were ready to win. It’s very possible that Robinson would be close to the top of this list were he just given some playoff-caliber rosters.

Walter Johnson#17 Walter Johnson (MAPES: 123; ZIMMER: 18; Player Manager Score: 31)

Speaking of superstars, it’s no surprise that the best pitcher ever ranks this high. I can’t tell you much that’s new about Johnson, I know that. But it’s remarkable that he averaged 26.5 wins per year in the 1910s. Managerially, he wasn’t a lot more than just another guy. But perhaps he could have had a longer career. He managed only five full seasons. Among those seasons, he finished third three times and second once. He won 90+ games three times. Clearly though, he’s not a star as a player and a manager.

#16 Buck Ewing (MAPES: 66; ZIMMER: 21; Player Manager Score: 32)

It’s hard to try to equate the game in 1890, say, to the game today, but that’s precisely what I try to do with MAPES. And MAPES tells me that Ewing is one of three to six best catchers ever. My adjustments put him at the MVP level four times and the All-Star level six more. As a manager he didn’t do quite as much, though he managed a .553 winning percentage and 489 wins over seven seasons.

I know who the best fifteen combination player/managers are, and I think this is a good place to stop this post since the next guy on our list looks to be the first star both on the field and in the dugout. We’ll talk about him and about the fourteen better combos a week from today.

Miller

1900 Manager Candidates

He’s in the Hall as an executive. Might he make the HoME as a manager?

As we get started with our Hall of Miller and Eric manager project, we’re going to look at 13 managers whose careers ended by 1900. Given our fairly lenient rules (five seasons with a winning percentage above .500) for managerial consideration in the time before what we know as the World Series, it may be a little surprising that there are so few players to consider. However, this was a time of tremendous turnover in the managerial role. Of the 694 men who have ever managed major league teams, 181 of them were done by 1900. That’s over 26%. So it should come as no shock that of those 181 managers during this period, only 78 of them managed in more than one season. Now it all makes sense.

These guys weren’t like the managers today. Often, they were veteran players — ten of our thirteen nominees in this election started as player/managers. And often they were  business men. Chris Jaffe explains that they were a lot more like today’s traveling secretaries and clubhouse attendants than today’s managers. There just wasn’t enough money in the game to hire too many people, so manaers played multiple roles.

Strategy in any form didn’t really exist for much of this period. For a time, teams used just one pitcher. There wasn’t bunting for many years. There was no platooning to speak of. There was so little managing for many of these seasons that we’ve discussed not inducting managers before a certain point in time regardless of their performance. Luckily for us, our structure allows us to put off that decision for some time.

So here are our candidates in election number one. Those who are in the Hall in any role are so marked. And the World Series column refers to what were essentially exhibitions from 1884-1890, 1892. Thanks to the good folks at BBREF for these stats.

	                                                      G>     WS   Flags
                      Yrs   From         W      L       %    .500    Won  Won
=====================================================================================
Dick McBride           5   1871-1875    161     85    .654     76    0    1
Jimmy Wood             5   1871-1875    105	99    .515      6    0	  0
John Morrill           8   1882-1889    348    334    .510     14    0	  1
Jim Mutrie             9   1883-1891    658    419    .611    239    2	  3
Bill Sharsig           5   1886-1891    238    216    .524     22    0	  0
Harry Wright HOF      23   1871-1893   1225    885    .581    340    0	  6
Charlie Comiskey HOF  12   1883-1894    840    541    .608    299    1	  4
John Ward HOF          7   1880-1894	412    320    .563     92    0	  0
Bill McGunnigle        5   1888-1896	327    248    .569     79    0	  2
Cap Anson HOF         21   1875-1898   1295    947    .578    348    0	  5
Bill Watkins           9   1884-1899	452    444    .504      8    1	  1
Patsy Tebeau          11   1890-1900	726    583    .555    143    0 	  0
Buck Ewing HOF         7   1890-1900	489    395    .553     94    0	  0

The election results will be shared on Friday with those getting into the HoME, those moving on, and those out of our active consideration set being announced.

Miller

DRA and Misperception

Michael Humphries lays out DRA in his exceptional book, Wizardry.

Michael Humphries lays out DRA in his exceptional book, Wizardry.

Tommy Leach, the 3B/CF, who was outshined by teammates Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke, is in the HoME. Eric’s piece about Leach on Friday explored how Defensive Regression Analysis (DRA) helped to get him there and how we see DRA vis-à-vis Rfield. Eric splits them at 2/3 for DRA and 1/3 for Rfield. I’m at 3/4 to 1/4. Basically, we both see DRA as the better system, but neither of us is willing to disregard Rfield, a system that clearly has some merit.

Let me explain, in brief, part of why we find DRA more appealing than other systems. Other defensive systems essentially double penalize a player for an error, both calling it a play not made and an error. DRA just calls it a play not made. After all, says DRA, most errors allow the batter/runner only one base, the same number of bases he’d have had if the fielder never laid a glove on the ball. While imperfect to count only one base when some errors create more havoc, it’s much wiser to do so than to count errors double. In short, players who avoid errors are preferred by Rfield, while players who make plays are preferred by DRA. Too crudely explained? Perhaps. But it gets to the point.

What I want to do in this post is nothing groundbreaking, just look at the players most preferred by DRA and those most preferred by Rfield. Maybe we’ll see some trends. Maybe not. Through these charts and over the coming elections, we’ll absolutely see some guys who become HoMErs because of these defensive chops and some who lose that status.

DRA Beneficiaries

       HoF in Bold              Rfield     DRA     Difference
1      Ewing, Buck                74      301.1      227.1
2      Collins, Jimmy             12      220.5      208.5
3      Smith, Germany            160      351.7      191.7
4      Sheckard, Jimmy            77      264.7      187.7
5      Leach, Tommy               67      250.9      183.9
6      Griffin, Mike              66      232.6      166.6
7      Farrell, Duke             -11      149.1      160.1
8      Veach, Bobby               30      188.0      158.0
9      Speaker, Tris              92      245.3      153.3
10     White, Roy                 34      178.8      144.8
11     Ashburn, Richie            76      218.9      142.9
12     Selbach, Kip               26      166.1      140.1
13     Hooper, Harry              77      212.6      135.6
14     Tinker, Joe               180      314.3      134.3
15     Dahlen, Bill              139      272.0      133.0
16     Fletcher, Art             144      276.7      132.7
17     Evans, Darrell             37      168.5      131.5
18     Clarke, Fred               91      219.8      128.8
19     Latham, Arlie              90      218.2      128.2
20     Frisch, Frankie           140      266.9      126.9

Our DRA hero appears to be Buck Ewing, a stalwart defensive backstop whose career ended before the turn of last century and who is viewed at nearly 23 wins better by DRA. Ewing and each of our top seven on this list played at least a little in the 1800s (as did four others in the top-20). And four of the top five have been inducted into the HoME. Only Germany Smith is on the outside looking in, and will almost certainly remain there.

Eight of the top-20 are in Cooperstown. And we’ve already inducted nine into our HoME. Plus, we’re still considering six others, and we haven’t begun to review the cases of Roy White and Darrell Evans. Would Leach and Jimmy Sheckard be in the HoME were it not for our understanding of DRA? I can say with tremendous confidence that they wouldn’t be in yet. And I’m pretty sure that without DRA we wouldn’t be considering the likes of Art Fletcher and even Joe Tinker so seriously.

He's second in errors all-time, but he's an obvious HoMEr and a fine defender by any measure.

Bill Dahlen is second in errors all-time, but he’s an obvious HoMEr and a fine defender by any measure.

Is there a bias on the part of DRA toward players who haven’t been in the bigs in a century? Well, you could say so. But I might explain it more simply that there were many more errors a century ago than today. Thus, it was easier to avoid errors. Some excellent defenders who made errors because their range allowed them to get to more balls than contemporaries maybe don’t see the full greatness of their defense realized until DRA is applied.

What DRA means for more recent players like White and Evans, we won’t know until the 1985 and 1995 elections respectively. What we can say is that with 13 or 14 extra wins, they will certainly vault up in our rankings.

DRA Losers

      HoF in Bold            Rfield       DRA        Difference
1     Harrah, Toby             96       -123.2        -219.2
2     Blair, Paul             175         12.5        -162.5
3     Jones, Chipper           23       -137.3        -160.3
4     Vizquel, Omar           129        -31.0        -160.0
5     Fox, Nellie             121        -36.1        -157.1
6     Doyle, Larry            -22       -174.7        -152.7
7     Manush, Heinie           -1       -141.1        -140.1
8     Rice, Jim                24       -109.3        -133.3
9     Yastrzemski, Carl       183         58.5        -124.5
10    Aparicio, Luis          147         22.9        -124.1
11    Snider, Duke            -22       -143.6        -121.6
12    Ripken, Cal             179         64.9        -114.1
13    Griffey, Ken Jr.          2       -111.4        -113.4
14    McKean, Ed              -48       -160.3        -112.3
15    Boggs, Wade             104         -6.2        -110.2
16    Higgins, Pinky          -60       -169.1        -109.1
17    Surhoff, B.J.           111          3.4        -107.6
18    Myer, Buddy              -1       -106.1        -105.1
19    Heilmann, Harry         -44       -149.0        -105.0
20    Knoblauch, Chuck         26        -77.9        -103.9

The DRA losers are, in many ways, a more interesting group – especially if you were born in the last 100 years. This group is both more recent and more diverse than the former group. First, the DRA beneficiaries were almost all above average or very good defenders who DRA saw as even more above average to great. The DRA losers are all across the board – some were great by Rfield and less great by DRA, others poor by the former and even worse by the latter, and everywhere in between.

You can see for yourself who these players are and what the differences between the two measures are. What I’d like to do is consider a few of these players and try to parse the difference between their reputation and reality.

Chipper Jones: Jones, as I understand it anyway, was always considered a pretty poor fielder. Rfield tells us differently. DRA is more in line with what we’ve been led to believe. No matter what his fielding was line, he’s an easy HoMEr.

Omar Vizquel: We’ve been told by announcers for decades that Omar Vizquel wasn’t just a good fielder, but a great fielder. In fact, that great defense plus 2877 hits have helped some create Hall of Fame arguments for the Venezuelan infielder. The reality is that Vizquel was great in only a couple of seasons, and it’s his flair and error avoidance (which is important, but less important than out conversion) that have helped create the false narrative.

Nellie Fox: A lot like Vizquel on the other side of second base, Fox is nearly as poor a Hall choice as Vizquel would be. He had a couple of seasons where he was a good fielder, but he aged, as we all do, and he regressed considerably. For the last five seasons of his career, he was a bad defender. Combine mediocre to below average defense with a below average bat, and you have, well, Omar Vizquel.

Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski: Michael Humphreys, creator of DRA, admits that his system has difficulty with left field in Fenway Park. Let’s ignore this pair other than to say their shared team and position tie them historically more than they should.

For the Red Sox, Luis Aparicio never should have been playing the field.

For the Red Sox, Luis Aparicio never should have been playing the field.

Luis Aparicio: If Omar Vizquel had a baseball papa, it’d be the nine-time AL stolen base champ who’s almost as overrated defensively as Vizquel. But Aparicio is actually a little more like Fox; he was good in the field, sometimes very good, but teams kept trotting him out there well beyond his expiration date. And like many things past their expiration date, he stunk. His glove was a bit better than Omar’s, but his bat was just as anemic. I don’t think that bodes well for him in the 1979 HoME election.

Duke Snider: Having not seen the Duke of Flatbush play, I can’t speak so easily to how he was evaluated during his day. I can only say that he was miscast in center field from the start. He started poor and remained that way throughout his career. But like Chipper, he had more than enough bat to carry him.

Cal Ripken: Much of the narrative surrounding Ripken came from George Will’s book, Men at Work, a book that was at times more mythology than fact. Will spoke of Ripken’s brilliant positioning. And indeed that may have been the case. To be fair to Will, Ripken was an outstanding defender in the three or four years before the publication of his book. Then he wasn’t. But the mythology (and the error avoidance at the expense of converting batted balls into outs) lived on.

Ken Griffey: Start a career perceived as a great defender, have a few highlight reel catches, and forever be remembered as a great defender. But I offer you this question. Why is it that Griffey didn’t break every hitting record known to man? It’s because of his balky hamstrings (I exaggerate, but you get the point). Now, if he had trouble getting onto the field and hitting when he was there because of those hamstrings, how is it that he could have possibly been a good fielder?

Even if he won Gold Gloves, Wade Boggs wasn't a good defender as a Yankee.

Even if he won Gold Gloves, Wade Boggs wasn’t a good defender as a Yankee.

Wade Boggs: Perhaps the mythology around a player’s defense, at least among recent players, is no more wrong for anyone than Wade Boggs. When Boggs came up, he was considered mediocre. And the stories were told of how he worked and worked to become an average and then an elite defender. His Gold Gloves in his 13th and 14th seasons would seem to support his improvement to the point of greatness. However, Boggs was much more like most players than announcers would have us believe. When he came up, he was young. And fielding is a young man’s game. That’s right, he was easily a plus defender when he came up. As the story goes, he put in tremendous work in the field and got better and better. Well, something also happened over the years. Boggs aged. We all do; it’s not so bad. And as Boggs aged, he slowed. And you know what? His defense got worse. When Boggs was very good, announcers though he wasn’t. When Boggs was below average, he won Gold Gloves.

What does all of this DRA stuff mean? It means that we have to recalibrate. It means we have to reconsider what we always knew to be true. Because just because it’s what we always knew, doesn’t mean that it’s true.

Miller

When Men Were Men and Catchers Were Ground to Bloody Stumps

mcguirehandAn x-ray is worth 1,000 words. The one to the right (the left hand of longtime 1800s catcher Deacon McGuire) may lead us to information that support the case of Charlie Bennett for the HoME. Howard has carefully sifted through Bennett’s case and asked me, as Bennett’s advocate: Just how tough was it to catch back then?

We can answer the question through both the statistical record of catchers’ durability and the evolution of a catcher’s suit of armor.  I’ve done a little of my own data digging about durability, and a wonderful SABR article provides a history of catcher’s gear, so let’s fuse them together into one informative timeline.

If catching in Charlie Bennett’s day (1878–1893) was tougher than it is now, we would predict that olde-tyme catchers would play far fewer games compared to their league’s schedule than today’s catchers do. So to explore this, quick and dirty, I took the third-highest finisher for each season in games at catcher (to avoid one-year durability wonders). Then I found the percentage of the league’s schedule that they played. We’ll start the data at 1876 when the league adopted a fixed schedule, meanwhile splicing in pieces of narrative from the article.

Early 1870s: Catchers move closer to batter. Fingerless gloves with little protection.
1876 (70 game schedule): 79% Catcher's mask invented
1877 (60): 88% First "padded" glove, fingerless. Catchers use 2 hands til hinged mitt, 60s.
1878 (60): 88%
1879 (84): 75%
Early 1880s: Foul-tip rule for 3rd strikes. Facemask in wide use. First chest protector.
1880 (84): 80%
1881 (84): 83%
1882 (84): 83%
1883 (98): 76% Bennett wears first outside-the-uniform chest protector.
1884 (112): 71% Overhand pitching allowed.
1885 (112): 61%
1886 (140): 51%
1887 (140): 54%
1888 (140): 56% 
Late 1880s, first well-padded mitts.
1889 (140): 59%
Early 1890s, catchers wrap legs in newspaper or leather (under uniforms)
1890 (140): 76% 
1891 (140): 74%
1892 (154): 71%
1893 (133): 69% Pitching box moved back ten feet to current distance; mound created.
1899: Pillow mitt created
1900 (140): 56%
1901: New rule—catcher must squat within box behind plate 
1907: Bresnahan wears first full suit of catching gear by donning shin guards, heckled.
1910 (154): 76%
1920 (154): 95% Catchers still don’t wear helmets.
1930 (154): 82%
1940 (154): 85%
1950 (154): 84%
1960 (154): 84%
1970 (162): 86%
1980 (162): 91%
1990 (162): 82%
2000 (162): 88%
2012 (162): 83%
================
1876-2012:  80%

The numbers show that catchers were really only able to go about 70–75 games until the very late 1880s and early 1890s. Improvements and inventions such as the pillow mitt, better masks, and wide use of chest protectors didn’t take until after the schedule began to lengthen. So teams had to have two regular backstops and a lot of arnica. That’s why HoMErs Buck Ewing and King Kelly, catchers by trade, spent so much time in right field and elsewhere to keep their bodies fresh and their bats in the game.

Back to Bennett, his heyday was over by the late 1880s/early 1890s. He was in his mid-30s by then and even the rapid pace of catching technology couldn’t take back a decade of pitch-by-pitch pounding. Not to mention spikings by opposing runners. And home-plate collisions. And foul tips to various pieces of the body.

With 130 years of perspective, it’s easy to overstate these advances in catching gear. It was all still primitive, as McGuire’s x-ray suggests. Plus, thanks to the he-man sports culture, adoption may have been sporadic, after all Bresnahan was ridiculed in his full outfit nearly fifteen years after Bennett retired. For that matter, the mandating of batting helmets took decades after Ray Chapman’s beaning. Yet, shortly after Bresnahan’s shinguards debuted, catchers’ games played climbed to the levels we see today and stayed there.

Catching hurt. A lot. It was dangerous work, so dangerous that a backstop could only handle a half a season until equipment became sufficiently protective. And catching hurt so much that eventually pain trumped machismo. This is all to the good, of course. It means we see the I-Rods, Mauers, Piazzas, Benches much more often than fans saw Charlie Bennett.

Will Howard vote for Bennett? We’ll see. But in the meantime, we’ve learned a vital life lesson: Always use protection.

—Eric

Getting to the Heart of the HoME’s Standards

“I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.
—Groucho Marx

“No one, I think, is in my tree—I mean it must be high or low.
—John Lennon

A Hall of Whatever is only as good as its worst member. The Hollywood Walk of Fame includes John Tesh. Seriously. Heart is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Heart?!  We aspire to better.weakest-link

“These Dreams Nightmares

Those Halls got nothin’ on the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

The Hall lost much of its credibility in the late 1960s and early 1970s when for no good reason it started electing guys no one, for good reasons, had heard of. Guys with funny names like Highpockets, Pops, Sunny Jim, and Chick. To do better we need better standards.

After our 1926 election, we’ve selected 29 guys, 14 percent of our eventual total. We have at least one at every position except for relief pitcher. So how do our standards look?

“Magic Men

You can get more information from the HOME STATS link on our honorees page, but here’s a recap:

C (1): Ewing
1B (3): Anson, Brouthers, Connor
2B (2): Barnes, Lajoie
3B (1): White
SS (5): Dahlen, Davis, Glasscock, Wagner, Wallace
LF (4): Burkett, Clarke, Delahanty, Joe Jackson
CF (1): Hamilton
RF (2): Crawford, Kelly
SP (10): Clarkson, Keefe, Mathewson, Nichols, Plank, Radbourn, Rusie, Waddell, Walsh, Young

Our typical position-player inductee, by my own way of looking at things, ranks in the top 8 to 10 at their position: about as good as Ed Delahanty or George Davis. Our average pitcher is a little better than Eddie Plank, and clearly in the top third among all pitchers historically.

The median position-player HoMEr earned about 31 points of Black Ink (about the same as Roger Connor, Jesse Burkett, or Willie McCovey) and 180 of Gray Ink (Deacon White or Eddie Murray). They were the best player in their leagues by position-player WAR twice during their career and in the top ten four times (that is, as equivalent to the top ten in a 16-team league). In history, only fifty guys have led their leagues twice or more.

Our typical pitcher collected 55 points of Black Ink (about the same as Amos Rusie or Tom Seaver) and 225 of Gray Ink (between Jim Bunning and Bob Feller). They’ve been top ten in pitching WAR 2.5 times and 5 times in the top-ten. Only fifty-three pitchers have led their leagues twice or more.

“Crazy On You

Here’s the currently-eligible players the Hall of Fame has taken that we haven’t:

C: Bresnahan
1B: Beckley, Chance
2B: Evers, McPhee
3B: Collins
SS: Jennings, Tinker, Ward, Wright
LF: Kelley, O’Rourke
CF: Duffy
RF: Flick, Keeler, McCarthy, Thompson
SP: Bender, Brown, Galvin, Joss, McGinnity, Welch, Willis

Obviously, we’re taking things a little more slowly, but this isn’t a terrible group. Still, only Hughie Jennings (4 times) and Monte Ward led their leagues in position-player WAR. On the mound, Vic Willis (twice), Joe McGinnity (twice), and Pud Galvin led their leagues in pitching WAR.

Several of these fellows have a strong shot at getting a vote or a plaque, some in the near future. In fact, we won’t see the Hall of Fame’s biggest out stinkers until our 1940s elections. But Tommy McCarthy, Sam Thompson, Chief Bender, and Addie Joss will not get much consideration hereafter. They are truly substandard selections. McCarthy is a head scratcher; Thompson and Joss have markers that make sense given the kinds of insight and information prevalent when they were elected; Bender, well, I guess it’s the Connie Mack halo.

“Never

So far, we have elected the best of the best, or damn close to it. But like that terrible moment when every woman realizes they can only marry down, our standards can only decrease from here. That’s inevitable, of course. We committed to matching the Hall of Fame’s membership total. We’re off to a good start, we’re taking it slowly, and we’re picking carefully. The toughest times lay well ahead of us in terms of what defines our standards, our worst honoree, before we “burn into the wick.”

—Eric

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

1916 HoME Election Results

Congratulations to our fourth class of inductees: George Davis, Bill Dahlen, Buck Ewing, Old Hoss Radbourn, and Amos Rusie for gaining entrance to the Hall of Miller and Eric with our 1916 election.

The HoME is now populated with 16 of the greatest players in the game’s history.

Per our rules, all five had to be named on both ballots for induction. Let’s look to see how we voted.

Rank

Miller Eric

1

George Davis George Davis

2

Bill Dahlen Bill Dahlen

3

Old Hoss Radbourn Buck Ewing

4

Buck Ewing Amos Rusie

5

Amos Rusie Old Hoss Radbourn

6

George Wright

7

Jesse Burkett

8

Paul Hines

9

Charlie Bennett

10

Ross Barnes

George Davis is easily a top-ten shortstop in big-league history – think more of Ripken and Yount than Larkin and Trammell. He put up over 1500 runs scored and 1400 runs batted in to go with over 2600 hits. Plus, he was a very impressive defender. His career WAR total is bested by only 31 hitters in the game’s history, and he outclasses the likes of Ken Griffey, Brooks Robinson, and Joe DiMaggio on that list. Notably, he was once traded straight up for fellow Hall of Famer and HoMEr Buck Ewing, and he was baseball’s first man to triple and homer in the same inning.

Bill Dahlen may not be in the Hall, and won’t have another chance until the Pre-Integration Era Committee reconvenes in 2015, but he finds his way into the HoME on the first ballot. The longtime National Leaguer spent parts of 21 seasons in the bigs and ranks 45th on the all-time WAR list for position players right between Paul Molitor and Johnny Bench, guys you might have heard of. He placed in the top-five in the NL in WAR five times, and for those who want more conventional numbers, if a bit obscure, he held the all-time record for games played when he retired, he still holds the all-time record for total chances by a shortstop, and he has the longest hitting streak by a right handed hitter in NL history. He’s a worthy addition to the HoME.

Buck Ewing is the best catcher of the 19th century and likely the best before Gabby Hartnett. He combined great defense, adept base running, and an outstanding bat with endurance behind the plate at a time when the position was almost unimaginably hard to play without getting hurt. A catcher who can both lead the league in home runs (1893) and in triples (1894) is a rare player indeed. His WAR total, just thirteenth among catchers, underrates his ability. None of the twelve catchers ahead of him played in as few games. In fact, no catcher in baseball history has more WAR per 100 games played. Only Mickey Cochrane and Johnny Bench are close.

Old Hoss Radbourn was likely the best pitcher in the game from 1881-1885. The highlight of his career was the 1884 season during which he won an astounding 59 games for the Providence Grays. Overall, he managed 309 wins in just 11 major league seasons. Among pitchers, his WAR total is 29th, right between Tom Glavine and Don Sutton, two pitchers who were in the majors for a decade more than Hoss. And only seven pitchers in history averaged more WAR per year than Radbourn.

Amos Rusie is one of the players on that made up list. He’s immediately in front of Radbourne in seventh place. In only nine full seasons, “The Hoosier Thunderbolt” managed 246 wins and five strikeout titles. Like Radbourn, he had a five-year stretch where one could argue he was the game’s best – 1890-1894. After the 1898 season, the Giants wanted to cut his salary, so he sat out – for two years. Before he made it back in 1901 he made his final contribution to the Giants when he was shipped to the Cincinnati Reds in what might have been the most lopsided trade in the game’s history. For the Reds, he pitched 22 innings without a win and then retired. The man the Giants got for him pitched for 17 seasons and accumulated 373 wins. That man, of course, was Christy Mathewson.

Each season, some guys are elected, while others receive votes from only one of us. Below we’ll explain our reasons for such votes

Miller: With all of my votes being seconded this election, I don’t need to lobby for any candidates going forward.

Eric:

George Wright: Part of me wonders if I’d be electing too many SS in the 1800s if I take Wright. Then I am reminded that the NL had no SS worth a damn between Ernie Banks and Ozzie Smith. Waves hit and they go back out to sea as well. Wright was the best player in the country by contemporary and historical acclimation. He was excellent in the early professional era, if not the equal of Rosco Barnes. His career is longer than Barnes’, which gives me a little more confidence in voting for him than voting for Barnes.

Jesse Burkett: One of the most prolific singles and triples hitters of all-time, he was the Billy Williams of his era. That means he’s right in the meat of left fielders historically – neither one of the best of the best, nor anywhere near the borderline. Even this early in the process, it’s safe to commit to players not near the HoME borderline at their positions.

Paul Hines: He’s Deacon White in centerfield, and the best CF before Billy Hamilton. Since CF is a little more packed with talent than 3B, he’s not quite as high on the all-time CF lists as White at 3B. But that’s baseball for you. The impressiveness of his longevity and performance is masked by the length of the schedules in his day. And perhaps overshadowed by the extreme longevity of Cap Anson and Jim O’Rourke.

Charlie Bennett: He’s an iron-man behind the plate whose bat would have played at any other position as well. His greatness is often overlooked due to what appears to be a paucity of games played. However, catcher really beat a guy up back then, and he routinely either led the league in games caught or was among the leaders. If you catch that much you probably won’t be fit to play elsewhere. But if you don’t catch that much you might not be considered a catcher…like King Kelly!

Ross Barnes: All the outward indicators point to an amazing player who absolutely crushed his league for six consecutive years. I like that a lot, and I need to see it if we’re talking about a time when the level of play was in the infancy of its ever-upward trajectory. The short career is not ideal, but he remained an average player after his salad days, so he obviously was able to come down a long way to stay productive.

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Please visit our Honorees page to see their plaques and to see more information about the HoME and those who have been elected.

Institutional History

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