Gibson joins the ranks

Users chime in with their thoughts on the greatest catchers of all-time.

Originally Published: May 14, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

    Rob,

    There's a problem with OPS comparisons like you did with the catchers that you may not have thought of. The adjusted OPS you used compares a player to the league average, but the two leagues might have quite different levels of offensive performance.

    -- Scott

Scott, you're right. But only to a point. First off, I doubt if the biggest difference between the leagues would really change our conclusions by much. And second, the era I suspect of the greatest difference -- the mid '50s through the mid '60s -- happens to have very little overlap with the careers of the greatest catchers. Yes, Yogi Berra's Adjusted OPS probably benefits from the National League's near-monopoly on great black players ... but could the effect be enough to move his OPS+ by even a single full point? I doubt it, in part because Yogi's biggest seasons came before Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, and Hank Aaron were big stars. And before you start talking about the pitchers, Berra's career didn't overlap much with those of Bob Gibson or Fergie Jenkins, either.

The difference between the leagues is a fascinating subject. We don't know nearly enough yet, and I suspect it might be particularly germane when comparing Mickey Mantle to Willie Mays. I just don't think it's all that relevant to this particular discussion.

    Rob,

    I understand that even though you were not explicit that you were talking about major league catchers, so it is perhaps not fair to ask why Josh Gibson is not on your list, but just out of curiosity, where would you put him. I know the data may not help you give him an actual ranking, but I thought Gibson warranted a mention.

    -- John

This was easily the most common reaction to the column. Oh wait, no it wasn't. The most common reaction was, "You're an idiot if you think that 1) Mike Piazza belongs anywhere near the top 10, and 2) that Ivan Rodriguez isn't the GREATEST CATCHER EVER."

But neither of those opinions are supported by any facts, so I ignored them. The comment about Josh Gibson, on the other hand, is well-taken. In a nutshell: Yes I believe that Josh Gibson is one of the 10 greatest catchers, but no I don't know where on the list he belongs. Bill James not only has Gibson No. 1 among catchers, he has Gibson No. 9 among all players, far ahead of both Berra (41) and Johnny Bench (44), his No. 2 and No. 3 catchers (and my No. 1 and No. 2).

Johnny Bench
Johnny Bench hit 389 home runs during his 17-year career.

Maybe Bill's right. The anecdotal evidence suggests that having Gibson on your team was like having Babe Ruth behind the plate. The statistical evidence is impressive, too. According to John Holway, Gibson batted .351 in official league games, and hit 51 home runs per 550 at-bats (Ruth and Mark McGwire averaged 42 homers per 550 at-bats). How good were the pitchers in the Negro Leagues? Nobody has any idea. But I'm comfortable with the notion that Gibson was one of the four or five greatest catchers ever.

Department of Corrections Department:
In a recent column, I wrote that since 1994, every team but three -- the Devil Rays, Brewers, and Pirates -- has finished within five games of either the division title or the wild card. The number three was correct, but one reader pointed out that one team (Pittsburgh) doesn't belong on that list, and another reader pointed out that another team (Detroit) does.

That's true. The Pirates finished five games out of first place in 1997. Granted, they went 79-83, but five games is five games. And the Tigers? They've been absolutely dreadful for 10 seasons running. The closest the Tigers have come to a postseason berth since 1994 was 2000, when they went 79-83 (yes, them too) and finished 12 games out in the wild card race.

On another subject ...

    Rob,

    In your latest column, you noted that Bill James has described the earliest known instance of platooning as occurring in 1887. This is not true.

    As I wrote in an article for the National Pastime about 10 years ago (I don't have the issue to reference to), Cap Anson platooned on the 1886 Cubs, sitting the left-handed-hitting center fielder Abner Dalrymple, generally in favor of pitcher/outfielder Jocko Flynn, every time the Cubs faced a left-handed pitcher. There were only three regular lefty starters in the NL that year, so Dalrymple didn't sit very much, but the pattern was consistent; I don't believe he started a game against a lefty all year.

    There is a wealth of detail about the Chicago lineups in my article, if you happen to have that issue of The National Pastime around. The piece was called "Captain Anson's Platoon." This is the only remotely original baseball research finding I can claim, so I do my best to make people aware of it.

    -- Tom Nawrocki

As well you should, Tom. I do have that issue of The National Pastime (for the uninitiated, it's annually published by the Society for American Baseball Research), and I suspect that I read your article when it was first published. Looking at it again, it's a great piece of research and I'm glad you're setting the record straight.

Another correction: In Tuesday's column about great starting pitchers in their early 40s, I transposed two digits in Nolan Ryan's 1989 season. His ERA wasn't 2.30; it was 3.20. That's just a trifle, a slip of the fingers at two in the morning. What really bothers me is what bothered a lot of you: Somehow I forgot about Jamie Moyer's great Age 40 season, which is pretty embarrassing considering Moyer was 40 just last year. I'm not sure he belongs on the list, though. Yes, Moyer went 21-7 with a 3.27 ERA. But does he knock Ryan off the list? Ryan pitched 24 more innings than Moyer. Small edge to Ryan. Ryan certainly didn't enjoy the outstanding defense behind him that Moyer enjoyed. Small edge to Ryan. And on a related note, Ryan struck out 301 hitters, which means he was doing more of the heavy lifting than Moyer was doing. Another small edge for Ryan.

Moyer should have been a part of the conversation, and he probably was just as good as Ryan. I'm not quite convinced he was better, though.

Spitballer Jack Quinn is another pitcher who should have been mentioned, as in 1928 he turned 45 and went 18-7 with a 2.90 ERA in 211 innings. A couple of readers also mentioned Satchel Paige, and Paige certainly did pitch well in his 40s. But the discussion was about starters, and Paige never started more than seven games in an American League season. In his best season, 1952, he went 12-10 with a 3.07 ERA in 138 innings. He turned 46 that July and was a marvel. But he wasn't a starting pitcher.

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.

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