Monday, June 18, 2012

Greatest Possible Baseball Team: Slot 8, Catcher

Catchers may be the least appreciated position in baseball. Catching body destroying work, and unlike other position players, catchers are involved in every single pitch. Every pitch that isn't hit and some that are opportunities for a catcher to make a mistake... or a big play.

A truly bad catcher can cost you severely: passed balls and wild pitches, dropped third strikes, poor game calling and an inability to control the running game can cost a team dearly (though no catcher at the major league level is actually bad). Not surprisingly, a catcher's bat is often secondary to role behind the plate. As a result, truly potent offensive catchers are rare and cherished resource at the major league level.

At the same time, a big bat or the ability to get on base can cover a few mistakes behind the plate. Particularly given the sort of line up that surrounds our catcher, those offensive skills are even more valuable normal. A strong argument can be made for true bat first catcher since his hits and home runs are morely to find runners on to score and the outs he doesn't spend mean more plate appearances for the hitters of the Ted Williams variety.

Selection Johnny Bench

That said, I've chosen to be cautious in my catcher selection and taken the best all round catcher of all time, Johnny Bench. His bat, while not as big as some, is still powerful. And his defense -- his ability to control the running game in particular -- is not something I want to risk doing without. Particularly since I've already got a high OBP, bat first catcher in Joe Mauer, I'll take Bench.

Johnny Bench is probably the best catcher of all time. His defense seems to have been above average to explemplary, never below average until his final two seasons and four times above 10 runs saved above average according to Fangraphs, totally 71.0 runs saved above average. His offense wasn't bad either, with a career .267/.341/.476/125 (avg/obp/slg/wRC+) and a peak in 1972 of .270/.379/.541/155 to go with 13.0 runs saved above average and an fWAR of 10.2, the best season ever by a catcher. He's also the career leader in fWAR at catcher, with 81.5.


Mike Piazza

Given the run scoring environment created by the rest of the line up, there's a strong argument to be made that a bat first, (relatively) bad defensive catcher would more than make up for his flaws behind the plate from the box next to it. Piazza is the premier, bat first, glove... somewhere down the line catcher. Defensively, he appears about as far below average as Bench was above it with Fangraphs estimating that Piazza was worth a 62.9 runs below average behind the plate, though his poorest defensive years all came later in his career.

But, wow, could he hit. His .308/.377/.545/140 line is the best ever for a catcher with over 1000 games. Piazza's best season was probably 1997: .362/.431/.638/183 and roughly average defensively for 9.4 fWAR, the 2nd best season for a catcher, ever, after Bench's 1972.

Gene Tenance

Tenance is one of those forgotten greats that you might rediscover looking through Adam Darowski's Hall of wWAR or by sorting catcher's by OBP. Tenance is one of the player's most shorted by the "Batting average is the best offensive stat" crowd, with a lifetime .266 batting average, but an OBP of .388, a slugging of .429 and wRC+ of 138, just behind Piazza. With roughly average defense across his career, Tenance makes a good alternative for offense first catcher to Piazza without being quite the defensive liability Piazza seemed to be.

Furthermore, in this line up, simply not getting out is worth even more than it is normally, and Tenance's .388 OBP leads all catchers with at least 1000 games in the post integration era (though Joe Mauer is only 22 games away from 1000 at the time of writing).

Josh Gibson

Arguably the greatest Negro league player to never get his opportunity in the traditional big leagues, Gibson's power hitting ability is most often compared to Babe Ruth's. Gibson died young, of a stroke at age 35 and lived and played the last few years of his life with a diagnosed brain tumor. His Negro League line looks strong: .359/.413/.644. Roy Campanella, an excellent player and a good choice in his own right, managed only .314/.346/.481 across his Negro League time, though that was quite early in his career. More on Gibson.

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