Tools of Ignorance: The 10 Greatest Catchers in MLB History
We've seen some really good catchers over the past decade. Mike Piazza is probably the greatest offensive catcher in Major League history, and Ivan Rodriguez probably the best defensive catcher.
Joe Mauer, who's already won three batting titles in his short career, can do both at a high level and will likely, someday, end up in baseball's Hall of Fame.
But who are the 10 greatest catchers in Major League history? That's a tough question to answer. These rankings are based on career totals and prime level performance.
Historical WAR data played a large role in compiling this list, though obviously there is some subjectivity in any ranking. As always, these players are judged against their peers.
Assumptions are made about the quality of play, but players from all eras are ranked together.
Players contributions both offensively and defensively have been considered, so players like Gary Carter, and on the flip side, players like Mike Piazza, can be given serious consideration.
10. Buck Ewing
Widely regarded by his contemporaries as the best baseball player of the 19th century, Ewing was a fantastic defensive and offensive catcher.
His career numbers do not measure up to others on this list as teams in his day played fewer games each season, but per 162 games, he has the second highest WAR on this list, just a single tenth of a win behind the top catcher listed here.
Catchers in the 19th century, by virtue of standing behind home plate rather than kneeling, were no less athletic than players at other positions. Ewing was no exception.
In 1884, he led the league with 20 triples. Over his career, he is credited with 354 stolen bases, despite the stolen base statistic not being counted until 1885.
Those 354 steals came in 898 games. Ewing was also a career .303 hitter. While he didn't walk too often, he almost never struck out, and his .351 OBP was well above the league average during his career.
His defensive play also garnered much attention. In the 1938 Spalding's Guide to Baseball, John Foster said of Ewing: "As a thrower to bases Ewing never had a superior, and there are not to exceed 10 men who could come anywhere near being equal to him."
Ewing was the man of whom it was said, "He handed the ball to the second baseman from the batter's box."
When the Hall of Fame had it's first election in 1936, Ewing tied Cap Anson for most votes among pre-1900 players.
For most of his life, Ewing was regarded as perhaps the greatest player who ever lived. While his name has faded over the past century, his greatness should not be forgotten.
9. Bill Dickey
Bill Dickey played for the Yankees during the 1930s, alongside Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio, and he was replaced as the catcher of the Yankees by Yogi Berra.
In my opinion, Dickey often isn't give the credit he deserves. in his prime, he was a better hitter and catcher than Berra, and one of the best players in all of baseball.
Over his career, Bill Dickey compiled an impressive .313 batting average, with 1969 hits in just 1789 games.
He broke in with the Yankees in 1928, and by 1929 he was their starting catcher. That season he hit .324. He would hit over .300 in ten of the next 11 seasons, batting over .320 six times.
His best season came in 1936, when he hit .362, a record for catchers that stood until Joe Mauer broke that record last season.
He hit 22 homers that year, drove in 107 runs, and posted an OPS well over 1.000. He finished fifth in MVP voting that year, and the next, second in '38, and sixth in '39.
Dickey was also a fine defensive catcher, who could handle a pitching staff and had a good arm. When Yogi Berra broke in with the Yankees, Casey Stengel instructed Dickey to teach Yogi how to catch, and he did.
8. Carlton Fisk
Fisk ranks third among catchers in career WAR, and given his unusual longevity, there is an argument to be made to rank him higher.
Fisk was a very good player for a long time. Not many catchers play 24 seasons, and post an OPS+ of 117 over their careers.
Fisk first broke in with the Red Sox in 1969, and again had a cup of coffee in 1971, but in 1972, his rookie season, he hit .293 with 22 homers and a league-leading nine triples.
He was the unanimous choice for American League Rookie of the Year. Fisk's '72 season was one of the best a catcher has had, and probably the best any rookie catcher has had.
He posted a 162 OPS+, and played Gold Glove defense behind the plate, finishing fourth in MVP voting.
He followed up his rookie campaign with several more good seasons, but played just 131 games in 1974 and 1975 combined, due to a knee injury he was told could end his career. In the 1975 World Series,
Fisk hit one of the most famous home runs in baseball history to win game six in the 12th inning.
Fisk was one of the games best players in the late '70s, capable of hitting .300 with 20+ homers, walking 70 times, and playing gold glove defense.
Following the 1980 season, Boston management missed the deadline to renew Fisk's deal by one day. He signed a $3.5 million contract as a free agent that year, moving from the Red Sox to the White Sox at the age of 32.
Given his age, and the position he played, it was not unreasonable to believe Fisk was nearing the end of his days as a baseball player. But he had quite a bit left in the tank.
He would play 13 seasons with the White Sox. In 1983, he finished third in MVP voting, hitting .289 with 26 homers. In 1985, he hit a career high 36 homers, and although he hit .238, he drove in over 100 runs that season.
After a couple poor years, he posted an OPS+ of 140 from the age of 40 to 42. He played a few more seasons, but was basically done by 1990.
7. Gary Carter
Gary Carter was another catcher with an unusually long and productive career. While he is widely regarded as a fine defensive catcher, he is often unfairly left out of discussions as to the greatest defensive catcher in the history of the Major Leagues.
Carter had a long prime. Unlike Fisk, who had a long career, and several stretches of good play, Carter's career was much more linear. For a decade, he was unbelievable.
From 1977 to 1986, Carter was a .270-.290 hitter, for the most part, who hit 25 homers a year, walked 60 times, and four times drove in over 100 runs.
His OPS was nearly 30 percent better than the league average. Carter was a tremendous all around catcher, winning three Gold Glove, and five Silver Sluggers.
Carter actually has the second highest WAR of all time among catchers. Part of that is his long career. Not many catchers play 19 seasons. But Carter had some really good seasons.
At one point, he received MVP consideration in seven of eight seasons, making 10 straight National League All-Star teams.
6. Ivan Rodriguez
There is a very reasonable argument to be made that Gary Carter should rank ahead of Ivan Rodriguez, and I think the two are very similar players.
Carter had the better career offensive numbers when you adjust for the era he played in, with an OPS+ about ten points higher. Pudge and Carter had similarly long primes, though I think offensively, Pudge was slightly better.
Pudge was able to find a Major League job a bit longer, and given how he's hitting this year, it might not be his last.
But that really shouldn't factor into this...he clearly hasn't been an above average Major Leaguer for about five years.
In my opinion, Pudge was the greatest defensive catcher in baseball history. You can make an argument for Bench, or for Carter, but Rodriguez in his prime was incredible.
From 1996 to 1999, he was credited with 85 runs saved behind the plate. Nine times he led catchers in caught stealing percentage, and nine times in Total Zone rating.
Pudge was also a very good hitter for a very long time. He's a career .299 hitter in 20 Major League seasons, and his 2,751 hits are the most by any catcher in big league history.
In 1999, Rodriguez hit .332 with 35 homers, 113 RBI, and even 25 steals, winning the MVP award. 2000 might have been an even greater season for Pudge had he not suffered a season ending injury in July.
The 28-year-old catcher was hitting .347 with 27 homers through 91 games, and had an OPS+ of 155.
Pudge came into the league at 19, and after a fantastic 2004 season at 32 years old, he never posted an OPS above league average.
It's pretty incredible to see a player, any player, post their final above average offensive season at 32, yet still end up with over 2700 hits and a .299 batting average.
Rodriguez had his limitations (mostly he just didn't walk) but his combination of .330 hitting ability, power, and once in a generation defensive skills place him at the six spot on this list.
5. Mickey Cochrane
Mickey Cochrane was among the five greatest offensive catchers in baseball history. He played just 13 seasons, but played them extraordinarily well.
A career .320 hitter with a .419 OBP, Cochrane hit .330 or better six times, and knew how to draw a walk. He broke into the league in 1925 as a member of Connie Mack's Athletics.
That season, he hit .331 and finished tenth in MVP voting. After a poor sophomore campaign, he won his first MVP in 1927 at just 24 years old.
Cochrane has both the highest career batting average and on base percentage among catchers with at least 1,000 career games. He also has the second highest career OPS.
These numbers need to be taken in the correct context, as Cochrane did play during the 1930s. Still, his 128 career OPS+ is extremely impressive for a catcher.
As great a hitter as Cochrane was, he had his flaws. He wasn't a tremendous power hitter, especially for the 1930s, peaking with 23 homers in 1932, but usually sitting around 10-15.
He wasn't a horrible defender, but he wasn't a good one either, and wasn't known to throw out baserunners.
But in his 13 years in the Major Leagues, Cochrane was one of the greatest hitters to ever play the position, a two-time MVP who put up some incredible offensive seasons.
4. Roy Campanella
Campanella has the lowest WAR of any catcher on this list, but maybe the second- or third-best prime.
Campy played in the Negro Leagues in his early 20s, breaking in to the big leagues in 1948 with the Dodgers. That season, he was 26 years old.
After a solid rookie year, Campy posted an OPS+ over 130 the next two seasons. Then, at 29, he won the 1951 MVP award, hitting .325 with 33 homers.
Two years latter, he won the 1953 MVP award, hitting .312 with 41 homers, and leading the league with 142 runs driven in. After a poor '54 season, he won his third MVP award in five seasons in 1955, hitting .318 with 32 homes and 107 runs driven in.
Campanella declined quickly after that. While he was just 33 years old, like Ivan Rodriguez, he had been catching for a long time.
He was just 16 years old when he started playing in the Negro Leagues, so by 1956, he had been playing professional baseball for almost 20 years.
After a couple of sub-par season, he was involved in a debilitating automobile accident, and forced to retire.
Campy doesn't have the career numbers to rank this high, but when you consider the first decade of his career was spent in the Negro Leagues, and he still won three National League MVP award, it's tough to keep him off of this list.
What he did in the short time he had in the league was incredible.
3. Yogi Berra
Yogi didn't have the greatest prime, and he also didn't have the longest career. But his prime lasted longer than any other catcher on this list. He was so remarkably consistent.
Yogi broke in with the Yankees in 1946, but played just seven games. In 1947, he played 83.
From that year on, he would receive an MVP vote in 15 straight seasons, make 15 All Star teams, winning three MVPs, finishing second twice, third and fourth once.
His OPS was a good deal above league average every year until 1962, when he was a 37-year-old catcher turned outfielder.
Yogi was by no means an Ivan Rodriguez or Gary Carter type of catcher, but he was a solid one. He was a good hitter. Never a Mickey Cochrane or Mike Piazza level hitter, but always good for across the board production.
He had a career .285 average, and for most of his career, hit very close to this average. He hit over .300 just three times, under .270 also just three times.
He didn't walk all that often, but had a solid on base percentage, and hit about 25 homers a year. Again, he was remarkably consistent.
He never hit more than 30 homers, but was almost never under 20. He had a career 125 OPS+. Over 140 just once, but under 110 also just once.
Of all the catchers on this list, Yogi's career is most properly summed up by his impressive career numbers. He adjusted quickly to the big leagues, played from his early 20s to late 30s, and didn't stick around after he knew it was over.
He was always about 25 percent better than the league average offensively, a .285 hitter who hit 25 homers a year, and drove in 100 runs.
He played solid defensive, caught, and did this all at an All-Star level for 15 years, leading the Yankees in their greatest period of success.
2. Mike Piazza
If Mike Piazza had been an OK defensive catcher, he would have a more reasonable argument to rank first. But he wasn't.
He could catch, sure. He could call a decent game and block the plate, but base runners ran wild on Mike throughout his career, and he probably cost his team a few runs behind the dish.
Piazza could hit though, better than any man to ever catch in the Major Leagues. A non-prospect when he was drafted by the Dodgers in the late-80s, Piazza debuted around the same time as Pudge Rodriguez.
In his rookie season, he hit .318 with 35 homers and finished in the top-10 in MVP voting. The following year he hit .319, with 24 homers in the strike shortened season, and finished sixth in voting. The next year, he hit .346 and led the league in OPS, smashing another 32 homers.
His best season would come in 1997. That year, he hit .362 with 40 homers and 124 run batted in. He again led the league in OPS, and likely should have won the MVP award.
This season ranks as the greatest offensive season any catcher has ever had, possibly the greatest season period.
In 1998, he was traded to the Marlins, and after five games, to the Mets. On the year, he hit .328 with another 32 homers. In his first year in New York, he hit over .300 yet again, with another 40 homers.
He chipped in .324 an 38 in 2000, leading the Mets to the pennant, then .300 and 36 in 2001. At the age of 32, Piazza had a career .325 batting average, 314 homers, and 155 OPS+ as a catcher.
Piazza's play diminished over the next few seasons. After a few more solid seasons in New York, and another in San Diego, he finished his career in Oakland.
In 16 seasons, he posted a .308 average, hit 427 homers, and compiled a 142 OPS+, the highest mark by a catcher in Major League history. He also has the most homers and the highest OPS.
1. Johnny Bench
When I sat down to make this list, I had a feeling Bench would be No. 1 on my list. There really is no doubt in my mind that Bench was the greatest catcher in Major League history.
Bench leads all catchers in career WAR, by a lot. He had the best prime of any catchers, and per 162 games, was the best.
His career ended pretty early, but his prime didn't end any earlier than did the primes of Campanella, Piaza, Rodriguez, Carter, or even Cochrane.
Bench's rookie year came in 1968, the year of the pitcher. While his .743 OPS is rather pedestrian, his 117 OPS+, for a 20 year old, rookie, Gold Glove-winning catcher is fantastic. The following year, he hit .293 with 26 homers and 90 RBI.
In 1970, Bench won his first MVP award, hitting .293 with 45 homers and 148 RBI. He won his third straight Gold Glove award. Two years later, he had perhaps his best season. In 1972, he hit .270, lower than the previous few seasons, but walked twice as much as the previous year, posting a .379 OBP, and leading the league with 40 homers and 125 RBI. He posted a career high 166 OPS+.
He won three more Gold Gloves the next three seasons, and hit 86 homers with a 134 OPS+. He was an effective player up until the age of 32 or 33, but was out of baseball by 35.
His career numbers are impressive. A 126 OPS+, 389 homers in 17 years, and the highest WAR among catchers at 71.3. He was basically a Mickey Cochrane-level hitter with a Gary Carter type of glove.
In my opinion, Johnny Bench has to be considered the greatest catcher in Major League history.