Who is the Greatest Catcher in MLB History?

| by Sports Nickel

This is the first in a series of articles dealing with baseball’s greatest players, position by position, culminating in an overall list of the greatest players.  The first Volume covers Catchers.  Who are the greatest in MLB History? 

First, a brief description of what this series of articles will be – for the most part, they will be top ten type lists; though they may be shorter (if there aren’t enough “great” players) or longer (if there’s a log jam of “great” players).  I will say if the player is in the HOF, list any major awards the player won and provide their key stats.  All stats and awards were obtained from Baseball-Reference.   This series was originally published on Informative Sports in 2009, however, they have been edited for publication here  - some players added, some rankings adjusted etc.

A couple of notes about the stats – they will include their total offensive numbers, not just stats for their main position (for example, Yogi Berra’s stats include his batting stats when he played LF or 1B) and any stats in italics mean they were the leader in that category out of the players in the list.  Also, players will be ranked where they were best known at (Ernie Banks at SS for example) or where they played the most games (Pete Rose played the most games at 1B as a single position but he played more total games in the outfield and of those at LF, so that’s where he ended up getting ranked).  To see how I evaluate/use stats, click here for a breakdown of hitting stats.  At the end, I will then describe any reasoning behind my choices and why I ranked them where I did.

Only three caveats to my lists: 

1 – the players have to actually be retired.  They cannot be unsigned players who haven’t officially retired yet

2 -  sorry, but no Negro League players will be on these lists unless they had long-term MLB service (any records or stats from the Negro Leagues are “questionable” at best due to the record keeping; i.e. Josh Gibson’s HR totals etc)

3- no confirmed or heavily-suspected PED users.  This includes anyone who admitted to using steroids knowingly or unknowingly (so guys like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Gary Sheffield are not on these lists) and guys where the evidence is very strong that they used (Roger Clemens for example)

Now for what you’ve been waiting for; time to breakdown the greatest catchers in MLB history!  One of the toughest debates in baseball is; “who is the greatest catcher of all time?”  It comes down to two players in my opinion – Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra.  These two are very close in many areas, and a case could be made for each as the Greatest Catcher ever.  However, I’m not going to cop out and go 1a and 1b; I actually picked one over the other.  So, here’s my list of Greatest Catchers in MLB History:

 # 1:  Yogi Berra:  HOF – 3 MVPs (and 4 other top 5 finishes), 15 time All-Star, 2120 games, .285 batting average, .348 OBP, .482 Slugging %, .830 OPS, 125 OPS+. 358 HRs, 1430 RBIs, 2150 Hits, 1175 Runs, 704 BB and 414 Ks. 

 #2:  Johnny Bench:  HOF – 2 MVPs (2 other top 5 finishes), 1 ROY, 14 time All-Star, 10 Gold Gloves, 2158 games, .267 batting average, .342 OBP, .476 Slugging %, .817 OPS, 126 OPS+, 389 HRs, 1376 RBIs, 2048 Hits, 1091 Runs, 891 BB and 1278 Ks.

#3:  Bill Dickey: HOF – 3 top-5 MVP finishes, 11 time All-Star, 1789 games, .313 batting average, .382 OBP, .486 Slugging %, .858 OPS, 127 OPS+, 202 HRs, 1209 RBIs, 1969 Hits, 930 Runs, 678 BBs and 289 Ks.

#4:  Mickey Cochrane: HOF – 2 MVPs, 2 time All-Star, 1482 games, .320 batting average, .419 OBP, .478 Slugging %, .897 OPS, 128 OPS+, 119 HRs, 832 RBIs, 1652 Hits, 1041 Runs, 857 BB and 217 Ks.

#5:  Roy Campanella: HOF – 3 MVPs, 8 time All-Star, 1215 games, .276 batting average, .360 OBP, .500 Slugging %, .860 OPS, 123 OPS+, 242 HRs, 856 RBIs, 1161 Hits, 627 Runs, 533 BBs and 501 Ks.

#6:  Mike Piazza: 3 top-5 MVP finishes, 1 ROY, 12 time All-Star, 10 Silver Sluggers, 1912 games, .308 batting average, .377 OBP, .545 Slugging %, .922 OPS, 142 OPS+, 427 HRs, 1335 RBIs, 2127 Hits, 1048 Runs, 759 BBs and 1113 Ks.

#7:  Carlton Fisk: HOF – 2 top-5 MVP finishes, 1 ROY, 11 time All-Star, 1 Gold Glove, 3 Silver Sluggers, 2499 games, .269 batting average, .341 OBP, .456 Slugging %, .797 OPS, 117 OPS+, 376 HRs, 1330 RBIs, 2356 Hits, 1276 Runs, 849 BBs and 1386 Ks.

#8:  Elston Howard: 1 MVP (1 other top-5 finish), 9 time All-Star, 2 Gold Gloves, 1605 games, .274 batting average, .322 OBP, .427 Slugging %, .749 OPS, 108 OPS+, 167 HRs, 762 RBIs, 1471 Hits, 619 Runs, 373 BBs and 786 Ks.

Honorable Mention: Gary Carter, Gabby Hartnett, Thurman Munson and Ted Simmons

Current players who will/may be on this list someday:  Ivan Rodriguez (will be top 5 unless steroid use is revealed), Joe Mauer (may be top 3 if he continues his pace) and Jorge Posada (don’t laugh, his final stats will be worthy of top 10 inclusion, though his defense will hurt him more than Piazza’s did).

One thing that is common amongst these eight catchers; for the most part, they were balanced catchers.  What I mean by that is they were equally strong on offense and defense (exception is Piazza, but his offense was so far above his defense and so far ahead of the other catchers on this list he had to be included).

Most of them won the MVP award at least once, some during a time when there were “better” players in the league – Mantle, Dimaggio etc.  They were all perennial All-Stars (Cochrane’s career was ending when the All-Star game was starting).  And for a couple of these catchers, their careers were either cut short by injury (Campy) or because he was behind someone even better (Howard spent many years as Yogi’s backup, so he is very rarely thought of as a great catcher); so we’ll never know just how good they might have been.

On a side note, here are the Yankee catchers from 1928 – 1979:  Bill Dickey, then Yogi Berra, then Elston Howard and finally Thurman Munson.  That’s one hell of a stretch at one position for one team (not counting starting pitchers).  I can’t think of a different position or team that had a run like that (not counting the Yankees and their run of CFs).

Like I said earlier, Berra and Bench could be 1a and 1b.  Their overall importance to their respective teams, overall ability in all aspects of the game etc cannot be argued and any list that does not have both of these guys in the top two spots (in any order) is just wrong. In my opinion, Yogi Berra gets a slight edge for being slightly better overall offensively than Bench (a difference of 1 in OPS+ is not enough for Bench to overtake Berra). 

Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane were considered the greatest ever till Berra and Bench came along (that’s why they are 3 and 4).  Campanella had a great shot at cracking the top 3 in this list if not for a career-ending accident resulting in paralysis.  If Piazza had any kind of defense/arm, he could have easily got into the top 3 based on his offense, but defense is a big part of being a catcher and it hurts him when compared to the others ahead of him on this list.  Fisk’s longevity at the toughest position physically to play justifies him being 7th.  I gave more credit to Howard for being held back early in his career due to playing behind Yogi Berra and the fact that he was a right-handed hitter in the pre-renovated Yankee Stadium of the 50s and 60s, which was death to the stats for right-handed hitters.  Howard was actually a better power hitter on the road than at home and that’s why he rounded out this list.

As for the honorable mentions; they all had something “wrong” with their careers – Munson’s was too short (and he’s one of my all-time favorites and was really hard to not rank him), Carter never had a truly “great” set of seasons in a row etc.

So, what do you think?  Do you have a problem with the order?  Did I leave someone off?  If so, let me know in the comments.  Don’t just say “you left off so-and-so”, give me a good explanation of why they belong and where in the order they belong.  If you present a good enough case, I just might add them to the list.

Come back next week, when I move on to Volume II – First Basemen.

Related posts:

  1. MLB’s greatest players by position
  2. How to Evaluate/Compare Players: Part I – Hitting Stats
  3. Alex Gonzalez to Atlanta!