When we think of great hitting catchers, we think of Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, and Mike Piazza. Two are already in the Hall of Fame, and the other is well on his way.
But when reading the list of Hall of Fame catchers, you'll see names like Ray Schalk, Roger Bresnahan and Rick Ferrell. For a position that has been pretty underrepresented in Cooperstown, some pretty weak candidates have gained entrance to baseball's most hallowed hall.
So why has one of the best pure hitters of the 1970's, who also happened to be one of the better hitting catcher ever, been locked out of Cooperstown?
I'm speaking, of course, about Ted Simmons.
Anyone who hasn't heard of Simmons needs only to look at his statistics.
Simmons's best stretch came from 1971-80, when he was simply unstoppable at the plate.
In 1970, Simmons backed up Joe Torre, but took over in '71 when Torre moved to third base. Simmons immediately produced, posting a line of .304/.347/.424, good for the second-highest batting average among catchers. His 32 doubles were tied for sixth in the league.
For the next nine years, however, Simmons improved to become one of the greatest hitting catchers around. From 1971-80, Simmons caught over 130 games seven times, accounting for nearly 92% of his games played, leading the league in games caught three times. Simmons was clearly not only the best hitting catcher in baseball, but one of the most durable.
Here's the real kicker, though. In his first ten full years in the bigs, Simmons had an OPS+ of 131, and his single-season mark never fell below 114, the number he posted in his first full season, 1971. To put that into perspective, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg has a career OPS+ of 114, while Robin Yount and catcher Gary Carter have career marks of 115. Remember, that's the lowest Simmons went for an entire decade.
Players with a career OPS+ of 131 or lower include Rod Carew (131), Roberto Clemente (130), Carl Yastrzemski, and Eddie Murray (129).
Among Hall of Fame catchers, none can match that mark. Only Mike Piazza, generally regarded as one of the greatest catchers ever, and Gene Tenace, who played just under 60% of his game behind the plate, have a higher OPS+.
However, as strong as Simmons's 70's campaigns were, in 1981 his first season with a team other than St. Louis, all of those games behind the dish caught up to him.
In 1981 and 1984, he was well below his usual standard, and even the league standard.
His '82 and '83 seasons were above average, but not near the type of numbers he posted in the 70's.
In fact, after never posting a season with an OPS+ below 114 or fewer than 20 Win Shares in the 70's, he only posted one such season in the 1980's, which happened to be the only season in which he got 600 plate appearances.
So with the dust all settled, how does Simmons stack up to catchers who have been deemed worthy to make the Hall of Fame?
Certain catchers, like Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, and Roy Campanella, were in a class of their own. The most comparable to Simmons are Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Gabby Hartnett, and Ernie Lombardi.
At the bottom tier of Cooperstown is Roger Bresnahan, who is has the most stolen bases among catchers, and only two seasons with a .300+ batting average. Some speculate that his induction was a knee-jerk reaction to his death from a heart attack, and Bill James considers him the only Cooperstown backstop not worthy of enshrinement.
Speaking of Bill James, most of his metrics and rankings support Simmons's case for induction. In the Historical Abstract, James ranks Simmons tenth all-time amongst catchers, well ahead of Ernie Lombardi and Bresnahan. In Win Shares, James's famed metric for measuring a player's worth, Simmons is seventh among catchers.
James said this in his Baseball Abstract:
"An exceptional hitter, an underrated defensive catcher. Simmons was on OK catcher his first five years in the league; Bill Deane has studied the records at great length, and demonstrated that Simmons threw out an above-average percentage of opposing base stealers in his prime seasons.
But the Cardinals weren't a very good team in those years; they spent most of the time fighting about something and criticizing one another for their failures, and then, too, Johnny Bench set an impossible standard for a young catcher..."
Not only is Simba one of baseball's finest catchers sabermetrically, but the raw numbers also support him. Simmons has scored more runs than all but four Hall of Fame catchers, has more hits or doubles than any of them, more home runs and games caught than three, and more RBIs than all but Yogi Berra.
His fielding and batting averages would rank sixth among Hall of Fame catchers.
And remember that at the time of Simmons's candidacy, Gary Carter was not yet a Hall of Famer, and Mike Piazza was starting his sophomore season with the Dodgers, so his numbers were even more historically significant.
Among all-time players, Simmons is fifteenth in intentional walks
Yet somehow, Simmons only received 3.7% of the vote, falling off after his first year of eligibility in 1994, yet Carter and Fisk, who have very similar career statistics, made the Hall?
It could be that Simmons was seen as more of a pure hitter and run producer, although not much of a home run threat. In fact, since 1970, there have been fewer than 70 players who have driven in 100 or more runs while hitting 20 or fewer long flies. Of them, only four have done it more than twice, including Simmons, who is the only one to do it in different decades.
There is already a movement within the Veterans' Committee to help Simmons gain entrance to Cooperstown, but it remains a shock to me that Simmons doesn't already have a plaque among the greatest ever to play the game.