5 Best Catchers All-Time

Let me first say that we all like lists. Lists are uniform, clear, and debatable. The first aspect makes them organized and rankings are as simple as the number system they use. First place is better than second place, and everybody understands that. The second aspect makes my opinions easy to interpret. I can give you all the statistics in the world, and we could both be using the same ones, and still we could end up with different conclusions. However, a list forces me to prioritize some criteria over others. The last aspect is the best, though, because that makes them fun. Plain old stats aren’t debatable (despite what the steroid-aphobes whine). No one can argue with me when I tell you that Cy Young has more wins than any pitcher in history. However, I’ll be right there in line to argue against the usefulness of that stat in ranking talent.

With that, I want to dive right in to the first in my collection of lists. However, I can’t. I am too knowledgeable about the art of argument to just begin shouting, as fun as that is. So, before I really start my list, I have to elaborate on some of the criteria I used to make the following list.

  • All determinations are made based on offense. Baseball is an old game. I am a young man. At this point, there is no reliable way to judge defense across history. Someone can tell us who “the best fielder I’ve ever seen” is, but that is a subjective and incomplete judgement. There are some fielding numbers, but they are in no way a proper representation of a player’s skill. Errors show some type of mistakes, but not all. Assists show how many balls a player got to, but how many opportunities did he have? More advanced metrics show what percentage of balls “in the fielding zone” a player got to, but it says nothing about hard hit balls vs. slow grounders, etc. For example, the best fielding center fielder I’ve ever seen is Jim Edmonds. Is he the best fielding center fielding ever? I don’t know, but at least I’m aware enough not to make judgments based on incomplete data.
  • All offense is regular season offense. Jose Offerman had an OBP of .491 in 50 postseason plate appearances. Lou Gehrig had an OBP of .477 in 150 postseason plate appearances. Who is better? How would we even begin to compare them? Was one of them in his prime during those plate appearances, while another was at the end of his career? There are way too many variables such as opportunity, surroundings, opponents, and situations to even begin to evaluate them. Take Reggie Jackson’s home run fest during the 1977 World Series for example. Should his stats be given extra weight because he really helped his team get a ring that year? Or should his stats be given less weight because other than that year, he wasn’t very good in the postseason? The answer: I don’t know, you don’t know, and anybody who tries to tell you differently is probably either a smug Yankees fan or a disgruntled Dodgers fan.
  • As far as positions go, I will use the position that the player has the most total games played at. So, I will count all of Alex Rodriguez’s offensive stats in my argument, but consider him in my shortstop rankings. Standing 45 feet to the right should not interfere with our evaluation of him as a hitter, and there just needs to be an objective way of deciding where to look at him.

With that out of the way, I am ready to share my first list, the top 5 catchers of all time. The countdown will include the players name, the years he played, the teams he played for, and then some information about him. Included in each one will be his noteworthy career statistics and his best 162-game average over a 5 year span (to give an idea of what this player’s prime was like).

1. Johnny Bench

CIN 1967-1983

162-game average during prime:

.267/.347/.499  36HR  120RBI  78BB  94K

Johnny Bench sets the standard for what a catcher should be. His counting numbers are not what they could be, because he didn’t stick around long after his usefulness ran out like some players. In fact, his whole career is impressive, considering he went to the All-Star game in his first and last seasons. 389 career home runs still stacks up better than almost anyone at the position, and his prime lasted for longer than 5 years, exhibiting dominance throughout. Neither of these things played a factor in my ranking, but he also is considered a great defensive catcher by most people (10 Gold Gloves) and was the focus on both sides of the ball for the Big Red Machine. Playing in a time where offense was slightly depressed, he was one of the best hitters at a position where hitting is at a premium.

2. Mike Piazza

LAD 1992-1998, FLA 98, NYM 98-05, SDP 06, OAK 07

162-game average during prime:

.331/.401/.592  42HR  129RBI  71BB  87K

Mike Piazza’s numbers are slightly more gaudy than Bench’s, but so were all of baseball’s. His offense had no flaws to speak of; he was a prolific power hitter, swatted a high average, and walked nearly as much as he struck out. Drafted in the 62nd round of the draft, there were 1,389 amateur players taken before him. He was traded twice in 98, though for now fault of his own, as it was one of best seasons. As a Met, he is known for the conflict with Roger Clemens during the 2000 World Series where he broke his bat on a foul ball, and the bat shard flew towards Clemens. He picked it up and threw it towards Piazza. An iconic moment in Mets history normally would provide enough attention, yet he is often overlooked when discussing the best catchers, but his numbers speak for themselves.

3. Mickey Cochrane

PHA 1925-1933, DET 34-37

162-game average during prime:

.332/.417/.515  18HR  118RBI  87BB 22K

Mickey Cochrane rarely is thought of among baseball’s elite. Not a power hitter, he did record 100+ walks twice in a season. His rates are fantastic, but what doesn’t stand out quite the way it should is his walk-to-strikeout rate, especially during his prime. During his career, he walked 857 times compared to 217 strikeouts. His 2nd MVP award is not notable because he won it but because Lou Gehrig didn’t win it, despite winning the Triple Crown (check it out: Lou he finished fifth). And sadly, his career ended because he was hit by a pitch in the head that nearly killed him. In the end, though, his rates show that he is one of the best hitting catchers of all time.

4. Roy Campanella

BRO 1948-1957

162-game average during prime:

.298/.377/.554  38HR  131RBI  70BB 66K

Roy Campanella’s career numbers are not as powerful as they could be, unfortunately. He played in the Negro Leagues starting in 1937, but he didn’t make it to Major League Baseball until 1948. Then, his career ended abruptly after being paralyzed in a car crash. His average season during his prime stacks up with anyone’s at the position, and in this case the 3 MVP awards in 10 years accurately depict his dominance. He had an impressive batting eye, as he walked as many times as he struck out throughout his career. Also, he has the fewest at-bats per home run of any catcher in history, making everyone wonder what his career total could’ve been if he had played a full career.

5. Yogi Berra

NYY 1946-1963, NYM 65

162-game average during prime:

.299/.365/.503  31HR  122RBI  61BB  27K

Yogi Berra has never been one to go under the radar. His personality and the team he played for guaranteed that. His 3 MVP awards and 9 championship rings also tend to lead people into overrating him. However, he certainly was no slouch, either. He placed in the top 5 in the league in many offensive categories: home runs-5 times, RBIs-6 times, WAR for position players- 5 times. He was dominant over a period of time, and he has career numbers that rank among the best all time at his position. Those factors make him a top player, regardless of all of the nonsense that comes to mind when we think of Yogi Berra.

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