The Worst and Best Catcher of All Time

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Since last night’s game went on into the early morning, this post has absolutely nothing to do with that game. In fact, it actually has absolutely nothing to do with these current Mets at all. So, you’re welcome. Instead, this has to do with the worst defensive and best offensive catcher in baseball history. Guess who . . . (Hint: he’s in the picture, and isn’t Melvin Mora. Or the Beanie Baby.)

Both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs.com have recently added Wins Above Replacement (WAR) numbers to their respective websites. If you’re not familiar with WAR, it’s an attempt to take everything a player does on the field — batting, pitching, baserunning, fielding, what position he plays — add it together, and come up with the number of wins the player was worth to his team compared to how many wins a replacement player would provide instead. What’s a replacement player? A replacement player is supposed to be someone who could easily be called up from AAA — in other words, the lowest level of talent that could acceptably fill-in at the major league level. Remember all those guys that played shortstop for the Mets last year, like Angel Berroa, Wilson Valdez, Anderson Hernandez, and Ramon Martinez? Those are replacement players. To come up with wins above replacement, you don’t want to compare Jose Reyes to someone random like me, because my elite baseball experience consists of making the 14-year-old All-Star team — okay, the 14-year-old All-Star “B” team — and would provide nothing to the Mets. I would never be called upon to replace Jose Reyes. You want to compare him to someone who would contribute something, such as the Angel Berroas of the world who actually replace him. So you take everything Jose Reyes did better or worse than an Angel Berroa, figure out how many wins it was worth, and you have “Wins Above Replacement.”

That, in a nutshell, is WAR. If you take a look at the all time leaderboard in Wins Above Replacement on Baseball-Reference, there aren’t any real surprises:

1. Babe Ruth, 190 WAR
2. Barry Bonds, 171.8 WAR
3. Ty Cobb, 159.5 WAR
4. Willie Mays, 154.7 WAR
5. Cy Young, 143.2 WAR
6. Hank Aaron, 141.6 WAR
7. Walter Johnson 139.8 WAR
8. Honus Wagner 134.5 WAR
9. Tris Speaker 132.9 WAR
10. Roger Clemens 128.8 WAR

Nothing particularly surprising there — maybe Cy Young seems a bit high, but it should be noted that he threw 7,356 innings in his career and WAR works as a counting stat. For comparison, Roger Clemens threw 4,916.2 innings in his 24 season career and is only a couple notches below Young. In other words, Clemens is obviously more valuable on a per-inning basis — but this is a mindless counting statistic, so no adjustment is made for Cy Young pitching forty games a year and finishing almost all (92%) of them. Roy Halladay doesn’t seem so tough now, does he?

You need to delve deep into the all time leaders in WAR to channel your inner Billy Wagner and find any real shockers. Bert Blyleven, ranked 43 all time, is the highest ranked player eligible for the Hall of Fame who isn’t in. Yet. After Blyleven, the next highest ranked player who isn’t in the Hall is deadball era shortstop Bill Dahlen, in 64th place. I had never heard of him until I just looked. So 62 of the highest 64 ranked players are already in the Hall or are virtual locks, and Blyleven is likely to get in soon. You apparently don’t need a WAR leaderboard to figure out Ted Williams was an okay at playing baseball.

So while looking at the best by WAR isn’t all that interesting, looking at the worst is far more informative. Try this: off the top of your head, list five of the best hitters of all time — just for batting ability, so ignore things like position played and fielding. Just pure hitting. I said Ruth, Cobb, Aaron, Bonds, and Williams. I’m going to assume that everyone says Ruth, and then everyone else’s other four vary.

Fangraphs lists Ruth, Bonds, Cobb, Williams, and Lou Gehrig, in that order, with Stan Musial sixth and Aaron seventh. Mays, Speaker and Mickey Mantle round out the top ten. It’s easy enough to guess at least some of the top ten, even if you’re just naming famous baseball players at random. Still no surprises.

Now try to list the five BEST fielders of all time. This is a little bit trickier, but doable. My guesses: Willie Mays, probably. Roberto Clemente, mostly for the arm. Brooks Robinson. Ozzie Smith . . . then I have no idea. Keith Hernandez? Robin Ventura? Ivan Rodriguez, perhaps?

According to Fangraphs, the five fielders who saved the most runs all time are, in order, Brooks Robinson, Andruw Jones, Mark Belanger, Ozzie Smith, and Roberto Clemente. Willie Mays shows up in seventh place. Maybe you got a few, but the list makes sense.

Okay, so that was tricky but possible. NOW try to guess the five worst fielders of all time. This is where it gets really tough. I would have no idea who to say without looking. Dick “Doctor Strangeglove” Stuart is the only one I might guess, solely based on the nickname. Adam Dunn, right? He’s a butcher with leather. Manny Ramirez inexplicably cut off Johnny Damon’s throw to the infield that one time, so he’s likely.

Well, Fangraphs can make a list of the worst fielders, and this is where it’s really interesting . . . actually, hold on a second. The list Fangraphs spits out for worst fielders of all time isn’t really a list of the worst fielders of all time, and the list of “worst” hitters of all time isn’t actually a list of the worst hitters of all time either. It doesn’t quite work like that. The problem with it reminds me of a conversation I had with my father a week ago at the Mets-Yankees game:

Me: [Blabbering nonsensically]. . . actually, over the past few years, Jeff Francoeur has been among the worst players in baseball . . .

Poppa Flood: No, no, that’s not possible. People wouldn’t keep playing him if he was that bad.

Me: Well, he’s has the [fourth lowest WAR, only said in a way Poppa Flood would understand without having to explain WAR] of anyone in the past three seasons. He’s been really, really, really . . .

Poppa Flood: Yeah, but there have to be worse players. They just don’t get a chance to play, because they’re worse. Francoeur has to be good enough at some things that people will keep giving him at-bats.

Me: . . . really, really bad. Oh. That makes sense.

And . . . scene. Poppa Flood nailed it. Just like Jeff Francoeur isn’t actually the “worst” player to play baseball over the past three years, the “worst” fielders of all time aren’t actually the worst fielders of all time. They’re the “worst” fielders who were talented enough at doing some other things that their teams felt comfortable playing them despite their lackluster defense. In fact, the worst fielders of all time tend to be great hitters. Vice versa for the worst hitters of all time — they tend to be decent fielders. You need to be REALLY good at something in order to be REALLY awful at something else.

Anyway, Fangraphs lists, in order of historic defensive ineptness: Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, Bernie Williams, Ricky Gutierrez, and Bobby Bonilla. Yup, Gary Sheffield, who has 302 games at DH, is still EASILY the worst defensive player of all time. On the other hand, Adam Dunn is already seventh and needs to move the AL at some point to avoid becoming the new king. Derek
Jeter is fourteenth. Sorry Yankee fans, that silly jump-throw thing doesn’t give him much of an edge. Still, it’s easy to see that they were all good hitters, with the one exception being Gutierrez, who was not spectacular at much of anything. I have no idea why he got to play so much.

We can also sort by position to make an “all inept fielding team”, and see who was historically bad. This brings me to what I really wanted to mention here, one of my favorites: Mike Piazza.

Perhaps surprisingly, he’s not the worst defensive catcher of all time. That honor belongs to former Reds catcher Eddie Taubensee, who was just a bit worse than Piazza in about half as many games. Piazza is second-worst all time though, which I think is something a lot of people suspected while he played, only now it’s been quantified and suspicions have been confirmed. This is the real use of the WAR numbers, to go on something a bit sturdier than suspicions and reputations. Well, it’s useful for that and wasting time at work.

The defensive numbers for catchers are based on stolen bases, caught stealing, passed balls and wild pitches. Most of the damage to Piazza’s defense came from allowing 1400 stolen bases in 1630 games as a catcher, throwing out just 423 runners (23%). How many stolen bases is 1400? It ties Piazza with the awesomely named Red Dooin for seventh-most given up all time, behind five other deadball era catchers and Gary Carter. That doesn’t sound all that horrible, but the seven catchers in front or tied with Piazza all have caught stealing percentages of 35% or better. The 2009 NL threw out 29% of all would-be base stealers, so all of the deadball catchers (and Gary Carter) would, in fact, be considered good defensive catchers by today’s rates. I should note that stolen bases and caught stealing numbers aren’t tracked for chunks of the deadball guy’s careers, so that there were even more steals against them than listed, but they were gunning down runners at a decent enough rate where it doesn’t make a difference. So, to answer the above question, 1400 stolen bases is a LOT. Batters stole at deadball era rates against Piazza because there was no fear of being cut down. For example, the 155 stolen bases he surrendered in 1996 were the most ever in baseball’s modern era.

But the point of this isn’t to bash Piazza’s defense, as if it were something that needed to be torn down. He was not a stellar defender, most of the damage was done with the Mets, and everyone already knew that. The only news is that numbers can now be easily found to prove it. That being said, by WAR, he’s still the seventh greatest catcher of all time — and that’s while being the SECOND WORST defensive player at that position. Ever. What that means, as you might have guessed, is that Piazza was easily the best offensive catcher of all time. It’s not even close. I draw attention to how awful he was defensively only to point out how ridiculously awesome he was offensively. It’s like what Poppa Flood pointed out: You need to be good at something in order to be really bad at something else.

Other things I noticed playing around with WAR defense tables that I didn’t have room anywhere else.

- Keith Hernandez is indeed the best defensive first baseman ever. John Olerud is second best. The Mets have been spoiled at first base defensively.

- Todd Hundley: not good defensively.

- Howard Johnson: also not good defensively.

- Gary Sheffield was exactly as bad as he looked, and spent way more time than I thought as an infielder.

Okay, that’s all I got. This didn’t really have a point, it rambled, but maybe there was something interesting in here. Or not. At least there was a picture of Piazza with a Beanie Baby.

Somewhat odd but useful picture of Mike Piazza via slgckgc’s Flickr photostream.

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2 Comments

Filed under Mets, Statistics, Words

2 responses to “The Worst and Best Catcher of All Time

  1. Anonymous

    >Dude, you rule. And to phrase what Poppa said a different way, since WAR is a counting stat, in order to be the worst (defensively, or by whatever criterion) you have to have been good enough to have a long career. I would bet that if you looked up the ten batters who struck out the most or hit into the most double plays, or the pitchers who walked or balked the most, most of them would be pretty good ballplayers.It's actually intuitive.

  2. Patrick Flood

    >@ AnonymousOff the top of my head, I believe Nolan Ryan is the all time leader in walks. So you're right on with that.

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