Mike Piazza is the greatest hitter ever at the position, but where does he rank overall among the game's legends?
Without even doing any real checking, I'm ready to argue that the 10 greatest catchers, in chronological order, are Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez, and Mike Piazza.
I'm sure some of you might quibble with that list, but I'll tell you that the next few on the list are Bill Freehan, Ted Simmons, and either Thurman Munson or Elston Howard. None of those four are in the Hall of Fame, and all of the Hall-eligible catchers on the larger list have been elected. So while I might not have it exactly right, you have to at least give me points for conventionality.
Anyway, 10 candidates is a lot, so let's split them up, pre-'60s and post-'60s. First, the Old Guys (we might be vulgar and call them the Dead Guys, but fortunately Yogi's still running on all cylinders):
Games Caught OPS+ Hartnett 1990 1793 126 Cochrane 1482 1451 127 Dickey 1789 1708 128 Berra 2120 1699 126 Campy 1215 1183 123
OPS+ is Adjusted OPS as listed in The Baseball Encyclopedia, and describes the player's career on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, "normalized for the context of the offensive level of the league and player's home park(s) and then converted to a scale in which 100 is average."
A couple of notes on these guys:
Next, the five best post-Yogi catchers:
Games Caught OPS+ Bench 2158 1742 127 Fisk 2499 2226 116 Carter 2296 2056 116 Pudge 1652 1590 113 Piazza 1493 1404 156
I've always favored Bench as the greatest catcher, by just a hair over Berra. Why? They played virtually the same number of games, both overall and behind the plate. Their adjusted OPS's were virtually the same. But Bench is a generation younger than Berra and Bench was more valuable with the mitt. Don't get me wrong. Reputation notwithstanding, Berra was a fine defensive catcher. But Bench was incredible. He won 10 Gold Gloves, but here are my favorite things about Bench's defense.
From 1970 through 1976, Bench played in 42 postseason games. In those 42 games, Bench's Reds stole 50 bases and were caught 17 times. Meanwhile, Bench threw out only 12 runners. Big deal, right? Here's the thing, though: in those 42 games the Reds' opponents stole only two bases. In the biggest games of the year, the Reds out-stole their opponent 50 to 2. Bench stole six bases; all by himself, he tripled the opposition's stolen-base output.
And remember, this was an era when teams actually ran. I look at Bench and I see a modern player who hit as well as any catcher but Piazza and fielded as well as any catcher with the possible exception of Pudge Rodriguez (who's had his detractors, by the way), and I see the greatest catcher ever. Here, then, is how I would rank them today, pending the futures of Rodriguez and Piazza:
1. Johnny Bench
2. Yogi Berra
3. Carlton Fisk
4. Bill Dickey
5. Gabby Hartnett
6. Roy Campanella
7. Mike Piazza
8. Mickey Cochrane
9. Gary Carter
10. Ivan Rodriguez
Perhaps I'm giving Fisk too much credit for his longevity, and if that's not your bag you can move Fisk and Dickey down, and Campanella, Piazza and Cochrane up. Some of you might rank Piazza higher because of his obvious superiority with the bat, and some of you might rank Piazza lower (or even much lower) because of his obvious deficiencies with the glove. I think I've struck a reasonable balance. Oh, and while you might think that with the exception of Bench I've ignored defense in this discussion, I can tell you that with the exception of Piazza, I can find laudatory quotes about the defense of all of these guys. And what statistics we have back up the quotes. So while defense certainly matters, it's not easy to distinguish between the defensive contributions here (again, with the exception of Piazza).
Certainly, both Piazza and Rodriguez could still move up as they play more games. I don't think it's appropriate to make that adjustment now, though. Catching is tough on a man, and we shouldn't just assume that the active guys will just keep plugging along for another three or four years.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.