Welcome to the second edition of Top Ten. Two weeks ago, we revealed the top ten pitchers of all time, and this week we’ll cover their battery-mates. You guessed it – it’s catcher time! Catchers are a unique bunch in the world of baseball and, as such, bring with them their own set of criteria. So before we dig into the list, let’s quickly review the parameters used in the compilation.
First off, we restricted the list to players who stayed behind the plate for almost their entire career. Some great players started as catchers but shifted positions later in their careers. Joe Torre and Joe Mauer are examples of two players in the running who were passed on as they spent much of their careers lining up at other positions.
Several different value-based metrics were used in the evaluation process. We leaned on value for the catchers since defense is a critical component of the position. Back-stops who were at least league-average defensively were strongly preferred. That said, they needed to be offensive studs as well. Thus great defensive catchers, such as Yadier Molina, didn’t make the cut if their offense wasn’t up to par. You needed to be great at both to be in the Top Ten!
We used WAR ratings from both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs in our calculations. In addition to career WAR, shorter time frames such as WAR/162 (i.e., WAR per year) and WAR7 (best seven seasons) were considered. It was important for the catchers to not only have longevity, but dominance as well. As our list is comprised of nine Hall of Famers and one almost certain future Hall of Famer, we think the process worked.
Onto to the fun part! Below in descending order, are our Top Ten Catchers of all time. If you disagree, reply below and state your case!
10. Gabby Hartnett
Gabby Hartnett was a great offensive and defensive catcher who spent 19 years behind the plate for the Chicago Cubs. He only spent one year out of the organization, playing his final season with the New York Giants, whom he signed with as a free agent. Harnett was a catcher through and through. Over his long career, he only made 33 starts at another position (all at first base).
Harnett’s appeared in the inaugural All-Star game in 1933 and returned for the next five years. In 1935, he won the NL MVP after hitting .344/.404/.545 with 13 HRs and 91 RBI. The Cubs went to the World Series four times during Harnett’s tenure, the last of which he was player-manager. They lost all four, only winning three games combined in 19 attempts. Such is the fate of a lifelong Cub. In his ninth year of eligibility, Hartnett made it into the Hall of Fame in 1955.
9. Buster Posey
Buster Posey is the closest to an active player that made the Top Ten Catcher list, having just retired this past offseason. In addition, he’s the only player on the list not in the Hall of Fame, though he surely will be one day. Posey retired with a lifetime batting average over .300 and three World Series rings. He spent his entire career with San Francisco, and Giants fans will surely remember him as one of the franchise’s all-time greats.
Posey’s career was relatively short, as he retired after only 12 seasons. However, his run was one of dominance as his WAR/162 and WAR7 numbers are among the best of all time. In his 12 seasons, Posey made seven All-Star teams and was a five-time Silver Slugger award winner. He also was Rookie of the Year in 2009 and won a Gold Glove and a batting title. In 2012, the year of his batting title, Posey was named the NL MVP. That season he hit .336/.408/.549 with 24 HRs and 103 RBI. The Giants also won the World Series in 2012, their second of three over a five-year stretch.
8. Mickey Cochrane
Mickey Cochrane also had a relatively short career, playing only 13 seasons. An errant pitch struck him in the head in 1934, nearly killing him and ending his playing days. Despite this, he’s considered one of the greatest offensive catchers in baseball history. His lifetime .419 OBP is the highest at his position among qualified hitters. The first part of Cochrane’s career was spent with the legendary Connie Mack’s A’s. He would go to three World Series with Philadelphia and come out a champion twice.
In December 1933, the A’s sold Cochrane to the Detroit Tigers, where he would play in two more World Series as their player-manager. After winning his third championship in 1935, he suffered a nervous breakdown due to all the attention. It appears Cochrane was ill-suited to be the face of a franchise. “Black Mike,” as he was sometimes called, won MVP awards with both teams – the first in 1928 and the second in 1935. In addition, he was a two-time All-Star and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947.
7. Bill Dickey
In 1928, Bill Dickey’s first season, the New York Yankees won the World Series. Dickey wasn’t really a part of that club, garnering all of 15 at-bats that year. However, by the time he retired after the 1946 season, he was a seven-time world champion. Dickey was a key but often overshadowed member of the legendary Yankees from this era. Playing with the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio will do that to you. His nickname “The Man Nobody Knows” reflects this, but it can’t take away from the success Dickey enjoyed on the field.
He wasn’t without accolades, though. Dickey was selected to 11 All-Star games despite the first one not being played until his sixth season. He made the team every year except one once eligible. After his monstrous 1938 season, Dickey finished second in the AL MVP voting to Jimmie Foxx. World War II caused Dickey to miss the 1944 and 1945 seasons, but he came back for one final year in 1946. In 1954, he was duly recognized for his greatness when he joined the elite group of players in Cooperstown.
6. Mike Piazza
Mike Piazza is considered by many to be the greatest offensive catcher of all time. He was average defensively, but holds the HR title among catchers with 427. His offensive WAR is also ranked #1 by both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference. Piazza was indeed a remarkable hitter.
Famously drafted by the Dodgers as a favor to family friend Tommy Lasorda, Piazza converted to catcher in the minor leagues and never looked back. He won Rookie of the Year in 1993 after batting .318 with 35 HRs and 112 RBI. Despite being a perennial All-Star, Silver Slugger, and MVP candidate with the team, the Dodgers traded Piazza to the Marlins in 1998. He played only five games with the team before moving on to the New York Mets, where he would spend most of the rest of his career. In total, Piazza would attend 12 All-Star games, winning MVP at one of them, and take home ten Silver Sluggers. The Mets made it to the 2000 World Series with Piazza behind the plate but lost to the Yankees in five games. Piazza was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2016 in his fourth year of eligibility.
5. Yogi Berra
Lawrence “Yogi” Berra picked up where the great Bill Dickey left off, providing the Yankees with another generational star behind the plate. Berra is fondly remembered for his funny sayings such as “it ain’t over til it’s over,” but he was much more than a witty, likable character. Yogi was one of the top offensive catchers of all time and, like Dickey, was blessed with tremendous team success. New York went to an amazing 14 World Series while Berra was with them, winning ten of them.
Berra didn’t miss an All-Star game from 1948 to 1962 and notched three AL MVPs in 1951, 1954, and 1955. After his retirement, Yogi was hired as the Yankees manager in 1964 but was fired after just one season. He joined the Mets the following year as a player-coach but only got into four games that season before retiring for good. Yogi Berra was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972 and is one of the most beloved baseball players of all time.
4. Carlton Fisk
Carlton Fisk, the original “Pudge,” played the most seasons of any of the catchers in Top Ten. His career lasted 24 years, and only Iván Rodríguez played in more games than Fisk. Longevity is undoubtedly a large part of Fisk’s legacy, but it would not have been possible had he not been such a great player. He ranks fourth in career WAR by both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference but also is seventh in WAR7, indicating his dominance during his peak years.
Fisk’s career officially started with the Red Sox in 1969, but he didn’t establish himself as the starter until 1972. That season, Fisk hit .293 with 22 HRs and 61 RBI en route to winning a Gold Glove and Rookie of the Year. He also made the first of his 11 All-Star appearances and finished fourth in the AL MVP voting. Fisk may be best known for his game-winning, 12th-inning HR in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. Despite the dramatics, the Red Sox lost Game 7, and the curse of the Bambino would live on for another three decades. In 1981, at the age of 33, Fisk signed with the White Sox as a free agent. He remained in Chicago for 13 more seasons, retiring at 45 in 1993. The first Pudge made it into the Hall of Fame in 2000 with 80% of the vote.
3. Iván Rodríguez
Apparently, the nickname “Pudge” lends itself to longevity as the only catcher to surpass Fisk in games and plate appearances is Iván Rodríguez. The second Pudge not only played more than any other catcher in history but is considered either the greatest or second-greatest defender at the position, along with Yadier Molina. You couldn’t run on Rodríguez during his peak. Oh, and he could rake, too, as his gaudy lifetime offensive numbers indicate.
Rodríguez joined the Rangers about halfway through the 1991 season and never looked back. He was an All-Star and Gold Glove winner for Texas every year from 1992 to 2001 and won AL MVP in 2001. That season, Pudge hit 332 with 35 HRs, 113 RBI, and 25 SBs. Yes, he could run too. Rodríguez left the Rangers via free agency after the 2002 season and joined the Florida Marlins, who promptly won the World Series. Despite this, he spent only a year in Miami before joining the Tigers, where he played in his second World Series in 2006, this time on the losing side. I-Rod remained with Detroit until 2008, at which point he was traded to the Yankees. He bounced around a bit for the last few years until retiring in 2011 at 39. His final accolades included 14 All-Star appearances, 13 Gold Gloves, and seven Silver Sluggers to go along with his MVP. Rodriguez joined the legends in Cooperstown in 2017, his first year of eligibility.
2. Gary Carter
Gary Carter was dubbed the “Kid” as a 19-year-old prospect with the Expos in 1973, and the nickname stuck. Carter was a workhorse who played with that youthful enthusiasm throughout his 19-year career. Carter’s defensive prowess pushes him towards the top of the list, though he was also an offensive force at times in his career, winning five Silver Sluggers. The Kid led NL catchers in assists and double plays five times, putouts eight times, and caught stealing % three times to go along with his three Gold Gloves. In 1978, he only gave up one passed ball the entire season. Not bad for a guy who played primarily outfield his first few seasons.
Once Carter became the Expos’ starting back-stop in 1977, getting him out of the lineup became hard. He caught 146 games that year and averaged 139 games per year from 1977 to 1987. He made ten straight All-Star games from 1977 to 1986 to go along with his 1975 appearance as an outfielder. In two of those contests, Carter was the MVP, which is not surprising considering his penchant for always hustling no matter the circumstance. After the 1983 season, the Expos traded the Kid to the Mets, where he would spend the next five years. He would win his only world championship in New York when the Mets downed the Red Sox in the classic 1986 World Series. Carter hit two HRs and drove in nine during the series; however, his single in the bottom of the 10th of Game 6 was his biggest hit. This sparked the improbable rally that tore the heart out of Bostonians once again.
Carter bounced around the last few years of his career before his knees finally wouldn’t allow him to catch anymore. He was put into the Hall of Fame in 2003 in his sixth year of eligibility.
1. Johnny Bench
Ask any baseball fan who was the greatest catcher of all time, and most will answer “Johnny Bench.” Bench checked all of the boxes for the position. Great defense? Check. Bench won ten Gold Gloves and was renowned for his handling of pitchers and cannon for an arm. Offense? Check. Bench had tremendous power, leading the league in HRs twice and RBI three times. Only Mike Piazza has more career HRs at the position, and only Yogi Berra and Ted Simmons have more RBI.
Bench joined the Reds late in the 1967 season and became their starting catcher in 1968. He won Rookie of the Year that season, made the first of his 14 All-Star appearances, and won his first Gold Glove. In 1970, Bench was the NL MVP and followed it up with another win in 1972. He led the league in HRs and RBIs both of those seasons. On top of all his personal accomplishments, Bench played for “The Big Red Machine.” This group went to four World Series during the 1970s and won back-to-back championships in 1974 and 1975. Bench was the MVP of the 1975 series, hitting .533 with two HRs and six RBI in the four-game sweep of the Yankees.
After the 1983 season, Bench called it quits and retired. The wear and tear on his body caught up with him, and he mainly played first base during his last few injury-riddled seasons. He was already considered the GOAT by many at the time of his retirement. So it was no surprise that he was an almost unanimous addition to the Hall of Fame in 1989.
Watch for the Top Ten First Basemen in two weeks. If you enjoyed this article, check out our All-Franchise Starting Lineup in the between weeks. You can find both, along with tons of other great content, in the We Love Baseball section.
Photo by Ben Gorman/Unsplash | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)
I think you didn’t give enough attention to peak. Especially to players whose careers were shortened by things outside of their control. See Roy Campella so who couldn’t debut till he was 26 due to the color barrier. Also, Thurman Munson who died in a plane crash when he was 32.
Agree with Roy Campanella. He was a 3x NL MVP and 8x all star in 10 MLB seasons, in an era of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Duke Snider, to name a few. While his career WAR wasn’t quite has high as others on this list, it’s hard to not see him in the top 10 all time. I don’t think he should be penalized for playing half his career in the negro leagues.
I hear you on Campanella. I was surprised he didn’t make it as he certainly had the accolades. His WAR7 rank was only 13, though, and his WAR/162 was 12. So he just missed on the “dominance” stats. By the way, his Negro League stats were included in the calculations, so he wasn’t hindered by years (he played 18 total). Had it not been for the car accident, I’m sure he would have made it. The same probably goes for Thurman Munson.
I’m surprised Joe Mauer was excluded. I feel like if you only included the seasons he started at catcher and ignored his last few years, he would have made the list.
If you only look at WAR7, then yes you are correct. Mauer would’ve made it as he ranks 5th all time on that metric. Unfortunately he only played about half his career at catcher as injuries forced him to first base and DH. This hurt his lifetime defensive WAR as well. It’s too made he couldn’t stay behind the plate, because he was one of the greatest hitting catchers of all time during his prime. Three batting titles from that position is absurd!
Why is Elston Howard not in the Hall of Fame?
Although he was not a great hitter, Jerry Grote was a very fine defensive catcher for the Mets in the late 60s and 70s. Also, Bob Boone was an excellent defensive catcher, and was known as one of the best framers of pitches.
Mike Piazza had a better Cather’s ERA than many of the so called defensive whizzes. Pitcher’s loved throwing to him because he didn’t tip pitches over-moving all around. He always had a good target too.
When you don’t include Roy Campanella, a three times MVP, I can’t give much credence to your list. Three map’s is worth more than a lot of those stats you used to arrive at your conclusion.