Bench-mark position

Mike Piazza is the greatest hitter ever at the position, but where does he rank overall among the game's legends?

Originally Published: May 12, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

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.

Johnny Bench
Johnny Bench won 10 Gold Gloves his first 10 seasons.

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:

  • Cochrane's career ended early as a result of a serious beaning in 1937, when he'd just turned 34. He's very highly rated in some quarters, but I'm not quite sure why, as his adjusted OPS doesn't blow the other guys away. Cochrane did play key roles for five pennant-winning teams (and managed two of those), and he did have more big seasons than the other guys. But overall I don't see the argument.

  • I think Campanella's often a bit overrated, too. He was a wonderful player, of course, a three-time MVP who drew raves for his defense. He also gets credit for the seasons he missed because of the color line (Campanella didn't reach the majors until 1948, when he was 26). But in his early 30s, Campanella started suffering various injuries, and even before he was paralyzed in a car accident he'd hit poorly in three of his last four seasons. Don't get me wrong here. Campanella was a great player. I just don't think he's a part of the discussion about the greatest catcher, which is where I've occasionally seen him listed.

  • Berra's numbers don't particularly stand out from the others in the group. Like Campanella, Berra was a three-time MVP. Also germane to the discussion is the fact that Berra played on 14 pennant-winning teams (the record, of course), and played a key role on 12 of them. In Allen Barra's new book, Brushbacks and Knockdowns, Barra argues that Yogi is the greatest "team player" in the history of professional sports. Whether you buy Barra's argument or not -- and I urge you to find the book -- it's hard to argue that Yogi doesn't deserve at least some "extra credit" for the Yankees' successes from 1947 through 1961.

    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:

    Rodriguez
    Rodriguez

    Piazza
    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.

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