Last time, I introduced a list of catchers with 30+ career WAR and promised future analysis. Today I want to talk about two methods to analyze them that goes beyond WAR—WAR per 600 plate appearances and my new toy, Wins Above Excellence.
I know this is my favorite part of every post, so let me jump right in with the data. As usual, it’s sortable by clicking the column headers.
Wins Above Replacement per 600 Plate Appearances
You would expect Johnny Bench (4.99), Mike Piazza (4.61), Gary Carter (4.47), Yogi Berra (4.45), Ivan Rodriguez (4.16), and Carlton Fisk (4.15) to rank highly. After all, they are the top six in career WAR for catchers (just in a different order). However, in WAR/600 PA there are quite a few players sprinkled in between them.
Five players actually rank higher than Bench. Joe Mauer (6.71) is far and away the best, though he has less than 3000 career at bats and has yet to experience a decline. The truth is, though, that he’s probably going to wind up as the best catcher ever. Hall of Famer Buck Ewing follows Mauer at 5.39. He played in the 19th century with shorter schedules and therefore compiled “only” 5764 plate appearances.
Next is an interesting one—Gene Tenace. Tenace doesn’t have overwhelming traditional stats (.241, 201 HR, 674 RBI), but his WAR (48.6) is impressive and his WAR/600 PA (5.34) is even more impressive. Charlie Bennett (5.24), like Ewing, played in the 19th century and had very few plate appearances (4310). He also happened to own the best catcher rating in history. Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane (5.07) ranks right after Bennett and before Bench.
Two Hall of Famers—Roger Bresnahan (4.73) and Bill Dickey (4.65)—rank in between Bench and Piazza. HOFer Roy Campanella (4.57) ranks between Piazza and Carter. Pretty much tied with Carter and Berra is Thurman Munson. Munson isn’t simply talked up by the New York press. He very much deserves to be in the Hall of Fame conversation.
Three players sit between Berra and Ivan Rodriguez. One is active (Jorge Posada, 4.24), one is enshrined (Gabby Hartnett, 4.20), and one isn’t in the Hall (Wally Schang, 4.19). Behind Pudge is… well, Pudge Fisk.
Here are the top four eligible non-Hall of Famers by WAR/600 PA:
- Gene Tenace
- Charlie Bennett
- Thurman Munson
- Wally Schang
And to recap the career WAR leaders I wrote about last time:
The highest WAR for eligible Non-Hall of Fame catchers:
- Joe Torre (55.5)
- Ted Simmons (50.8)
- Gene Tenace (48.6)
- Wally Schang (43.7)
- Bill Freehan (43.4)
- Thurman Munson (43.3)
There’s Tenace again. No matter what list I build, Tenace is near the top.
So, what happened to Torre, Simmons, and Freehan when you break up their WAR by 600 PA? Freehan (3.82) and Torre (3.81) aren’t far from the group I mention above. Simmons, however, comes in pretty low at 3.18. He’s closer to Jim Sundberg and Lance Parrish than he is to Joe Torre and Bill Freehan.
And what about Bennett? Well, he’s a tough one. I missed him the first time through this research, but he’s compelling. The main reason is his “Catch” rating of 155, which happens to be the best of all time. He also did this in only 4310 plate appearances, which explains his low career total. He never actually reached 400 plate appearances in any season, which drastically cuts down his career totals. Basically, he exhibited similar dominance to Gene Tenace, with the difference being that Tenace’s dominance was through offense while Bennett’s was through defense. Also, Tenace (who had very few plate appearances himself) still outdistanced Bennett. If it is questionable if Tenace has the playing time to be a Hall of Famer, it looks like Bennett, as good as he was, simply falls short.
Let’s look at another metric…
Wins Above Excellence (WAE)
For a refresher, Wins Above Excellence adds up all WAR totals above 3.0. Instead of just WAE, I’ve called this WAE3. Since 2.0 WAR is essentially league average, I think 4.0 might be a better baseline for “excellence”. So, I count this too (as WAE4). I also think it is useful to take a look at seasons above 6.0 WAR, so you can really get a sense of how often that player produced MVP-type numbers. I call this WAE6, but you can also think of it as “Wins Above MVP-level”.
I’ve taken a look at the Top 10 for each of these WAE metrics. Here are the non-Hall of Famers on those lists:
- Ted Simmons (8th)
- Gene Tenace (10th)
- Joe Torre (8th)
- Gene Tenace (10th)
- Darrell Porter (5th)
- Bill Freehan (9th)
- Joe Torre (10th)
Hey, there’s our friend Tenace rounding out the WAE3 and WAE4 lists again. The WAE6 list has some different players on there. Porter is only on there for one mammoth year while Freehan is there for a 2-year stretch that culminated in the 1968 championship. Torre is on there for two seasons spaced five years apart. One of them came exclusively as a third baseman.
What’s it all mean?
So, who’s deserving of induction? Well, I’m not quite ready to say that yet. This is an ongoing look at catcher metrics. But there are a couple things I do know.
First, here’s a list of catchers who are currently enshrined who may not deserve to be:
- Ray Schalk (22.7 WAR): You really wonder how this guy got elected. Because he caught four no-hitters? Or maybe it’s because he still holds the record for 221 double players as a catcher. He was an excellent receiver, with 46 “Catch” runs above average. But still, Jim Sundberg would be a much better choice.
- Rick Ferrell (22.9 WAR): All I got with Ferrell is that he retired as the all time leader in games caught. Perhaps that was enough to get him in? Ferrell was worth the same number of batting runs (-7) as his brother Wes. Wes was a pitcher.
- Ernie Lombardi (39.0 WAR), perhaps: I don’t have much of an issue with him being in. He did win a pair of batting titles and a MVP, after all. But he’s not in the Hall of Merit and his career WAR is a bit low. He’s certainly a borderline guy.
And these catchers are definitely worthy of being in the discussion about who else deserves induction:
- Joe Torre: A unique case because he played many positions. But his career WAR is pretty impressive.
- Ted Simmons: Has the baseball card numbers, so I’m surprised he’s not already in. He and Torre look the best on this list at a glance because they had longevity. But WAR actually cuts him down a notch.
- Gene Tenace: WAR loves this guy. So does WAR/600 PA. And WAE. And… everything but the traditional numbers. And voters.
- Wally Schang,
- Bill Freehan,
- and Thurman Munson: These three are essentially tied in career WAR. Freehan trails in WAR/600 PA but had the best individual seasons. Munson’s peak is right there with Freehan while Schang spread his WAR out over consistent solid seasons. None of them have the traditional numbers needed to get in, with each having right around 1500 hits. Freehan did have 200 homers while Munson had 113 and Schang tripled (90) more than he homered (59). As for awards, Munson (MVP, ROY, 3 Gold Gloves, 7 All Stars) and Freehan (11 All Star, 5 Gold Gloves, Top 2 and Top 3 MVP finishes) fare better than Schang (peaked at 8th in MVP voting, played before there were All Star games and Gold Gloves).
As tempted as I am to put Bennett on that list because of his defensive prowess, his lack of playing time and low career totals would stick out like a sore thumb in the Hall.
Like third basemen, it seems that nobody from the non-Hall catchers group wants to stand out over the rest. Joe Torre possibly deserves induction because he’s likely the best catcher not enshrined. But even his case is flawed since less than half of his games were spent behind the plate. And his time at less important positions drags his WAR down.
Case and point, these eligible players had a higher career WAR than Joe Torre and are not inducted (* will be eligible for the next vote):
- Jeff Bagwell*
- Bill Dahlen
- Lou Whitaker
- Barry Larkin
- Edgar Martinez
- Larry Walker*
- Alan Trammell
- Ron Santo
- Rafael Palmeiro*
- Tim Raines
- Roberto Alomar
- Mark McGwire
- Reggie Smith
- Dwight Evans
- Graig Nettles
- Dick Allen
- Keith Hernandez
- Buddy Bell
- Sal Bando
- Willie Randolph
- Jimmy Wynn
- Sherry Magee
- Jack Glasscock
- Ken Boyer
- Will Clark
- Willie Davis
- Darrell Evans
- John Olerud*
That’s 28 guys, not including the active and retired-but-not-yet-eligible guys (of which there are two catchers, Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez). The fact that you have to go so deep into the list to find a catcher means one of two things:
- There are too many catchers in the Hall of Fame already. or
- Catchers simply aren’t capable of compiling the career WAR of other positions and need to be evaluated on a different scale.
I truly believe that #1 is not the case. So, that means I need to look into #2. But I’ll save that for another time…
* Update: I missed Charlie Bennett in my first round of research. He was a 19th century catcher who not only happens to be in the Hall of Merit, but also owns the best “Catch” rating in the history of baseball. This post has been edited accordingly.