The Cooperstown Class of 2003: Catchers

I’m going to skip over the relievers for the moment, since it’s a big can of worms, and move on to catchers.

I was never a fan of Gary Carter. For some reason, I always found him annoying, though I can’t really put my finger on why. It probably had something to do with his earnest, gung-ho attitude combined with the fact that I rooted against the ’86 and ’88 Mets as hard as any teams I ever rooted against. That said, I am absolutely convinced that Gary Carter is a Hall of Famer. I had an unshakeable feeling of watching a Hall of Famer in the prime of his career when I watched him, and I’ll wager that was a consensus perception among those of you reading this right now. If you thought about the question of who was the best catcher in the National League after Johnny Bench declined, there simply wasn’t any other credible answer besides Gary Carter.

Keeping in mind that as a catcher his hitting stats are a bit deflated, Carter still scores well on the James Standards and Monitor methods (41.3 HOFS, 135 HOFM). By his Win Shares method, Carter is fourth among catchers in terms of career value, and in the middle of the top 10 in peak value as well — James rates him eighth overall. Carter hit 324 HRs for his career, topping 20 nine times. He topped 80 RBI eight times and 100 four times — that’s some serious production for a catcher. While he only hit .262 for his career, he was about at a .280 AVG/.360 OBP/.485 SLG level at his peak. He played in eleven All-Star Games (winning the MVP award twice), and won three Gold Gloves. He had a great ’86 World Series, driving in 9 runs, and went for .280 AVG, 4 HR, and 21 RBI in 30 postseason games overall. Everywhere you look, there is evidence of his greatness. Along with Bert Blyleven and Ron Santo (who’s long since fallen off the BBWAA ballot), he’s got a claim on being the best player in baseball history eligible but not yet elected to the Hall of Fame. Carter missed last year by eleven measly votes, but he should have been in several years ago.

Three other catchers are on this year’s ballot: Darren Daulton, Mickey Tettleton, and Tony Pena. While all three have their merits, none of them stack up to being HOFers. Here’s a chart, tossing Carter in as well:

              H   HR   RBI   AVG   OPB   SLG  AS  GG  HOFS   HOFM   WS   Top 3    Top 5

Carter 2092 324 1225 .262 .335 .439 11 3 41.3 135.0 337 33,31,30 141
Daulton 891 137 588 .245 .357 .427 3 0 30.9 25.0 159 31,29,23 101
Peña 1687 107 708 .260 .309 .364 5 4 22.8 97.0 175 21,21,17 84
Tettleton 1132 245 732 .241 .369 .449 2 0 29.0 17.0 184 27,24,24 111

AS is All-Star appearances, GG is Gold Gloves, WS is Win Shares, and Top 5 is Win Shares in a players best five consecutive seasons. Daulton and Tettleton were hitters first, catchers second. Both had low batting averages, but high OBPs and SLGs — efficient but underrated offensive threats out of the Gene Tenace mold. In other words, sabermetric darlings. Each had some very good seasons, and Daulton at his best helped propel the Phillies to the ’93 World Series, but neither had the longevity required of a HOF catcher. Peña is a horse of a different color, a defensive whiz who had a reputation as being one of the best handlers of a pitching staff. His offensive contributions are a thin gruel compared to the meaty chunks offered up by the other two. Does his D make up for it? Not via Win Shares, it doesn’t. Pena’s longer career and good glove doesn’t offset Tettleton’s value with the bat, and Tettleton isn’t close to being a Hall of Famer.

Here’s a look at the candidates using another measure: Baseball Prospectus Runs Above Replacement (BRAR is Batting Runs Above Replacement, FRAR is Fielding Runs Above Replacement, and RAR/162 boils it down to a per season rate with the batting/fielding breakdown in parentheses):

             G   BRAR  FRAR   RAR  RAR/162  

Carter 2296 514 649 1163 82.1 (36.3/45.8)
Daulton 1161 250 210 460 65.6 (34.9/29.3)
Peña 1988 138 570 708 57.7 (11.2/46.4)
Tettleton 1485 429 175 604 65.9 (46.8/19.1)

Carter is clearly at least one or two heads above the other three. He’s the only one of the bunch who combined the offense/defense package (Daulton doesn’t fare too badly, actually) and did it for much longer than the rest.

Though he’s not on the ballot, a catching contemporary of Carter ought to be in the Hall as well: Ted Simmons. Here’s a comparison of the two:

Carter 2092 324 1225 .262 .335 .439 11 3 41.3 135.0 337 33,31,30 141
Simmons 2472 248 1389 .285 .348 .437 8 0 44.5 125.0 315 30,28,28 127

Carter 2296 514 649 1163 82.1 (36.3/45.8)
Simmons 2456 565 328 893 58.9 (37.3/21.6)

Simmons was a slightly better hitter than Carter, and for a longer time. He topped 20 HRs six times, 90 RBI eight times, and at his peak carried around a 900 OPS. His James numbers are right there with the Kid, and he’s ranked 10th in the NBJHA among catchers. Older than Carter, he suffered in comparison with Bench, particularly on defense. That he played a good portion of his career as a DH (279 of his 2456 games) has more to do with his being a good enough hitter to keep in the lineup than it does with his being a lousy defensive catcher (though the DHing hurts his numbers in the RAR analysis). How does he compare to the other HOF catchers? Here’s a chart, sorted by career RAR:

              G    BRAR  FRAR   RAR   RAR/162  

Fisk 2499 622 527 1149 74.5 (40.3/34.2)
Bench 2158 597 495 1092 82.0 (44.8/37.2)
Berra 2120 542 501 1043 79.7 (41.4/38.3)
Hartnett 1990 504 487 991 80.7 (41.0/39.7)
Dickey 1789 515 457 972 88.0 (46.6/41.4)
Cochrane 1482 453 298 751 82.1 (49.5/32.6)
Lombardi 1853 456 203 659 57.6 (39.9/17.8)
Campanella 1215 338 319 657 87.6 (45.1/42.5)
Ferrell 1884 252 397 649 55.8 (21.7/34.1)
Schalk 1762 128 496 624 57.3 (11.8/45.6)
Bresnahan 1446 333 182 515 57.7 (37.3/20.4)

Props to blogger Bob Mong, who did this number-crunching over at Baseball Primer; I’m presenting it in slightly different form. This is a tough mix to grapple with, in part because it includes a couple of the Hall’s more dubious selections in Ferrell (whom Veterans Committee voters apparently thought was his brother, pitcher Wes) and Bresnahan, whose candidacy was aided by him dying a few weeks before the election, garnering a swell of sympathy. We’ve got five legitimately great two-way catchers with long careers, two more every bit as great but with injury-shortened careers (Campy and Cochrane), a good-hit/no-field (Lombardi), a good-field/no-hit (Schalk), the dubious two (who end up pretty even with the one-way guys), and Josh Gibson, who’s no help here.

There’s a chasm between those top five (or seven) and the next tier, both in terms of career value and rate. Carter fits squarely in the top group, with the highest career value and tied for the third highest rate; in other words he’s not only a Hall of Famer, but a Hall of Famer with a claim on being the all-time best at his position (I’m not saying he IS, just that he’s up there). Somewhere in that chasm belong Simmons, Joe Torre at 905 and 66.4, and Bill Freehan at 796 and 72.7. That distinction is really a problem for another day. None of them are on the BBWAA ballot, but Carter is, and he gets my vote.

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