Major League Baseball's Top 10 Catchers of All Time

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 29, 2018

Major League Baseball's Top 10 Catchers of All Time

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    Yogi Berra (center)
    Yogi Berra (center)Associated Press

    Yogi Berra was much more than a treasure trove of witticisms. He was also one of the greatest catchers in the history of Major League Baseball.

    Eighteen catchers have been inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame, but how does one pick the best of the best? And do any current backstops stack up well against the retired greats?

    To answer those questions, we ranked dozens of catchers in five categories:

    • Career WAR*
    • Batting/Slugging
    • Defense/Arm
    • Postseason Success
    • Dominance During Five-Year Peak

    *WAR gives a great snapshot of how good a catcher was compared to the rest of the league during his era. WAR is calculated differently on various sites. We used Baseball-Reference's version.

    Scores in those five categories were summed to create one cumulative ranking.

    Not surprisingly, most of the top candidates also rank in the top 10 in career WAR among catchers. However, that was just one of the factors in the ranking process. In fact, one player in our top five doesn't even rank in the top 25 in catchers' career WAR. There's a good reason, though, why that three-time MVP didn't play enough games to rack up that many wins above replacement.

Honorable Mentions

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    Thurman Munson
    Thurman MunsonAssociated Press

    Thurman Munson

    Almost every catcher on this list struggled to some extent in the postseason, but Munson was outstanding in October, batting .357 in 30 career games. He also won the 1970 American League Rookie of the Year Award and the 1976 AL MVP. But his career was cut short by a fatal plane crash in August 1979, and he never led the ALlet alone the majorsin any offensive category in any season. That detail was enough to keep him out of our top 10.

             

    Gabby Hartnett

    Had there been an MVP vote in 1930, Hartnett would have been a great candidate for it. He batted .339 with 37 home runs and 122 RBIboth career highs by a wide margin. He did win National League MVP five years later, batting .344 in 1935. Hartnett also had a great arm, boasting a career caught-stealing rate of 56 percent. However, 19 seasons as a Chicago Cub kept him from accomplishing much in the playoffs. And even at his peak, his WAR wasn't that great.

           

    Joe Torre

    Torre had impressive numbers and even won NL MVP in 1971, but he was only a catcher for about 40 percent of his career. He also spent a lot of time at first base and third base and exclusively played the latter while winning his MVP. But even if he had been a catcher all along, Torre wouldn't have placed in our top 10 because he never played in the postseason.

           

    Joe Mauer

    Similar to Torre, we had to eliminate Mauer from consideration because he abandoned catching midway through his career. He was still a full-time catcher when he won AL MVP in 2009, though. Mauer hasn't been much of a slugger outside of that 28-HR season, but few catchers have hit for average as well as he did.

             

    Lance Parrish

    Only seven catchers in MLB history have hit more than 275 home runs. Six of the seven are in our top 10, and Parrish (324) deserves an honorable mention. He didn't hit for average (.252), he struck out nearly once every five plate appearances and he only went to the playoffs once in his 19-year career, but he did have 15 consecutive seasons with at least 10 home runs.

10. Buster Posey

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    Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

    Career Stats (through 2017): .308 BA, .376 OBP, .474 SLG, 128 HR, 594 RBI, 38.3 WAR

    Five-Year Peak: 2012-16

    When Buster Posey was named NL MVP in 2012, it broke a four-decade drought. Prior to Posey, the last NL catcher to receive that honor was Johnny Bench in 1972. And the only AL catchers to do so since the bicentennial were Ivan Rodriguez in 1999 and Joe Mauer in 2009.

    Posey won the award by doing something catchers almost never do: leading the league in batting. Two years after winning NL Rookie of the Year, he hit .336 with 24 home runs and 103 RBI. All three of those marks are career highs to this day.

    Posey was no slouch for the rest of this five-year peak, though. He batted .309 and averaged 19 home runs and 88 RBI per year from 2012 to 2016. He played in at least 146 games in each of those seasons, finishing top-20 in the NL MVP vote all five years.

           

    Postseason Success

    Like so many others on this list, Posey's bat has a tendency to lose its potency in October. He has gotten hot in the NLDS a couple of times, but the NLCS and World Series are another story. Between those two rounds of the postseason, Posey is batting .208 with two home runs in 145 plate appearances.

    But he was an indispensable piece for the "even-year Giants," starting every postseason game en route to the 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Series titles. He has not been named the MVP of any postseason series, but it's hard to imagine San Francisco makes any of those runs without him.

9. Carlton Fisk

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    HARRY CABLUCK/Associated Press

    Career Stats: .269 BA, .341 OBP, .457 SLG, 376 HR, 1,330 RBI, 68.5 WAR

    Five-Year Peak: 1974-78

    Carlton Fisk didn't really have a peak. Unless you count batting .313 in 49 plate appearances in 1971, there were only two seasons in which he topped .300: 1975 (.331) and 1977 (.315). He hit at least 10 home runs in 19 seasons, but he eclipsed 26 just once, exploding for 37 homers and 107 RBI in 1985. And the only years in which he finished top-seven in the AL MVP race were his fourth-place finish in 1972 and his third-place finish in 1983.

    What made Fisk a Hall of Fame catcher was his longevity. He played in 24 seasons, crouching down behind home plate until the age of 45. He wasn't just hanging around and collecting a paycheck based on the merits of what he did as a youngster either. Fisk hit 18 home runs at the age of 42 and did it again at 43, playing at least 134 games each of those seasons.

    In that regard, he's sort of the Nolan Ryan of catchers. Aside from winning AL Rookie of the Year in 1972, there wasn't a specific year or group of years where you can point to his statistics and definitely say he was one of the best in the business. But he stuck around and played at a high level for so long that his cumulative numbers look great.

           

    Postseason Success

    Fisk only played in 14 games in his postseason career, but he did produce one of the most famous moments in World Series history. In the 12th inning of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, Fisk hit a walk-off home run, wishing and waving it fair as he hopped down the first-base line.

    Aside from that, not much to report here. Fisk batted .259 with two home runs and six RBI. And in the game after that monumental home run, he went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts as the Red Sox lost to the Reds 4-3.

8. Bill Dickey

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    UNCREDITED/Associated Press

    Career Stats: .313 BA, .382 OBP, .486 SLG, 202 HR, 1,209 RBI, 55.8 WAR

    Five-Year Peak: 1935-39

    Bill Dickey was an 11-time All Star and a seven-time World Series champion with the New York Yankees, but most of his greatness was contained to the latter half of the 1930s.

    Though he never won an MVP award, Dickey finished in the top six of the vote in four consecutive years from 1936 to 1939. In each of those seasons, he batted at least .300, hit at least 22 home runs and knocked in at least 105 RBI. He hit 102 home runs during this four-year stretch and hit 100 in the other 13 years combined. These were also the only seasons of his career in which he had more than 97 RBI.

    Dickey wasn't always a slugger, but he was always a quality batter. He hit at least .310 in 10 seasons. He had a career strikeout rate of just 4.1 percent and only had three individual seasons with a rate higher than 4.3.

            

    Postseason Success

    From a contact standpoint, Dickey wasn't anything close to the same hitter in the World Series. In 38 career games, he batted .255 and had a strikeout rate of 7.5 percent. He did hit .438 (seven singles in 16 at-bats) in his first World Series in 1932, but his batting average was underwhelming the rest of the way.

    He provided some pop, though, hitting five home runs and driving in 24 runs. The most noteworthy of those blasts came in Game 5 of the 1943 World Series. In the final postseason appearance of his career, Dickey hit a two-run home run in the sixth inning of a 2-0, series-clinching win.

7. Gary Carter

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Career Stats: .262 BA, .335 OBP, .439 SLG, 324 HR, 1,225 RBI, 70.1 WAR

    Five-Year Peak: 1982-86

    Gary Carter had an "Always the bridesmaid, never the bride" type of career. He was the runner-up for the 1975 NL Rookie of the Year award. He finished top-six in the NL MVP vote four times from 1980 to 1986, but he never received multiple first-place votes in the same year. And with the exception of tying Mike Schmidt with 106 RBI in 1984, he did not lead the National League in a noteworthy category in any season.

    But he made up for a lack of A-plus seasons with a lot of B-plus and A-minus campaigns. He had nine seasons with at least 20 home runs and four with at least 100 RBI, including three straight from 1984 through 1986. He was an All-Star as a rookie and then played in the Midsummer Classic 10 straight years from 1979 to 1988.

    Carter had a cannon behind the plate too. He only caught 35 percent of base stealers in his career, but he threw out 810 of them, which is more than any other catcher on this list.

          

    Postseason Success

    His postseason success almost propelled Carter into our top five. He only played in three Octobers, but he batted 15-for-35 (.429) with two home runs in 1981, and he had two homers and nine RBI while leading the New York Mets to the 1986 World Series title.

    Carter hit both of those taters in Game 4 of the series, but his biggest ABs came at other points in that postseason. First, he had the 12th-inning walk-off single in Game 5 of the NLCS. Later, Carter's two-out single started the 10th-inning rally in Game 6 of the World Series, which eventually led to the Bill Buckner error heard 'round the world.

6. Mickey Cochrane

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    Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

    Career Stats: .320 BA, .419 OBP, .478 SLG, 119 HR, 830 RBI, 52.1 WAR

    Five-Year Peak: 1929-33

    Mickey Cochrane was named AL Most Valuable Player in 1928 and 1934. The funny thing is he was statistically superior in the years between those honors. Cochrane had a 4.1 WAR in 1928 and a 4.0 mark in 1934, but he went 4.7, 5.5, 5.5, 5.6 and 6.3 from 1929 to 1933, respectively. During that half-decade, he batted .330 and mashed 72 of his 119 career home runs.

    There was no AL MVP awarded in 1929 or 1930, which is about the only excuse for Cochrane's not winning more of them.

    One of the things that made Cochrane so great is the man hardly ever struck out. He whiffed 217 times in 6,208 career plate appearances—just 3.5 percent of the time. Meanwhile, he had a walk rate of 13.8 percent. And for these five years of dominance, he averaged 4.24 walks per strikeout. His batting eye in 1929 was particularly absurd, as he had 69 walks and just eight strikeouts in 606 PA.

          

    Postseason Success

    Cochrane competed in five World Series in his career, winning with Philadelphia in 1929 and 1930 and later winning with Detroit in 1935.

    His individual contributions weren't anything special, though. He batted .400 in 1929, but he hit a combined .221 the other four years. Cochrane clubbed a home run in each of the first two games of the 1930 World Series, but that was all he could muster in 31 career games. He wasn't bad by any means, but he wasn't nearly the hitter that he was during the regular season.

5. Roy Campanella

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    JOHN LINDSAY/Associated Press

    Career Stats: .276 BA, .360 OBP, .500 SLG, 242 HR, 856 RBI, 34.1 WAR

    Five-Year Peak: 1951-55

    In MLB history, only 10 players have been named league MVP at least three times: Yogi Berra, Barry Bonds, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Schmidt and Roy Campanella.

    "Campy" did so with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951, 1953 and 1955, batting at least .312 with 32 home runs and 107 RBI in each of those seasons. With the exception of Mike Piazza, Campanella was the best slugging catcher ever. From 1949 to 1956, he hit at least 19 home runs every year, averaging 27.5 during his eight-year stretch of All-Star Games.

    Unfortunately, Campanella was paralyzed in an automobile accident in January 1958, abruptly ending his career after just 10 yearsthe biggest reason his WAR is so much less than most of the guys in the top 10. Had he been able to play another five to eight years, he might have gone down as the best catcher ever.

            

    Postseason Success

    During his eight-year run of greatness, Campanella helped lead the Dodgers to five World Series appearances. They only won one of them (1955), but they put up great fights against the New York Yankees every time.

    Campanella did not hit better than .273 in any of those series, though, compiling a career postseason batting average of .237 with a slugging percentage (.386) more than 100 points below his regular-season average. He did have a trio of three-hit games and clubbed four home runs in 32 contests.

4. Mike Piazza

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    ELAINE THOMPSON/Associated Press

    Career Stats: .308 BA, .377 OBP, .545 SLG, 427 HR, 1,335 RBI, 59.6 WAR

    Five-Year Peak: 1993-97

    Reducing Mike Piazza's peak to five years is unfair because he was remarkable for an entire decade.

    With the exception of the strike-shortened 1994 season, Piazza hit at least 32 home runs in each of his first 10 full years in the majors. (He still mashed 24 moon shots in 107 games in 1994.) He batted .318 with 35 home runs and 112 RBI in the process of winning 1993 NL Rookie of the Year unanimously.

    Piazza also batted at least .300 every season from 1993 to 2001, finishing top-14 in the NL MVP race each of those years. He never won the award, but he did place in the top seven six times. The most noteworthy year was 1997, when he batted .362 with 40 home runs and 124 RBI. Hard to believe that wasn't good enough for MVP, but Larry Walker (.366, 49 HR, 130 RBI and 33 SB) was even better.

          

    Postseason Success

    Four of Piazza's five trips to the playoffs were forgettable. He did hit a home run in the sixth inning of his first career postseason game, but he batted .227 with just that one homer in his first 11 games—10 of which were losses.

    In 2000, though, he was the knight in shining armor for the New York Mets. Piazza had at least one hit in 12 of 14 games, including four home runs. He batted .302 and had an OPS of 1.045 that October. His most famous at-bat wasn't a hit, though, but rather the broken-bat foul ball in Game 2 of the World Series when Roger Clemens fired the barrel of the bat back at Piazza along the first base line.

3. Ivan Rodriguez

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Career Stats: .296 BA, .334 OBP, .464 SLG, 311 HR, 1,332 RBI, 68.7 WAR

    Five-Year Peak: 1997-2001

    Before we hone in on Ivan Rodriguez's five-year peak, let's point out how great he was for 15 years. From 1993 to 2007, "Pudge" batted at least .273 and hit at least 10 home runs every season. He also had an incredible arm behind the plate, throwing out 661 would-be base stealers in his career and picking off 90 other guys who ventured a little too far from their bases.

    Because of that combination of offense and defense, he went to 14 All-Star Games, won 13 Gold Gloves and earned seven Silver Sluggers.

    He was operating on another level from 1997 to 2001, though. He batted at least .308 and hit at least 20 homers each of those five years, peaking in 1999 with 35 dingers, 113 RBI and a .332 average that resulted in his winning the AL MVP. In the defensive department, he threw out 193 of 345 (55.9 percent) attempted base stealers, leading the AL in caught-stealing percentage in all five years.

          

    Postseason Success

    Rodriguez didn't do much in the postseason with the Texas Rangers nor the Detroit Tigers. In 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2006 combined, he batted .209 with one home run, eight RBI and a strikeout rate of 21.5 percent.

    But in his lone season with the Florida Marlins, he was a huge reason they won the 2003 World Series. That postseason, Pudge hit .313 with three homers and 17 RBI. He did most of his damage (2 HR, 10 RBI) in the NLCS and was named the MVP of that series. He had at least one hit in 16 of 17 playoff games that year.

2. Johnny Bench

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    Associated Press

    Career Stats: .267 BA, .342 OBP, .476 SLG, 389 HR, 1,376 RBI, 75.2 WAR

    Five-Year Peak: 1970-74

    The Big Red Machine would never have existed without its anchor behind the plate.

    Johnny Bench was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1968, which was the first of his 13 consecutive years as an All-Star. He received votes for NL MVP in 10 of those 13 years, winning the award in both 1970 and 1972.

    Bench hit at least 22 home runs in 11 seasons, but he really mashed the ball during those MVP years. He had 45 home runs and 148 runs batted in in 1970 and went for 40 and 125, respectively, in 1972. In both seasons, he led the major leagues in both categories. He also had an MLB-best 129 RBI in 1974.

    In addition to his batting prowess, Bench had one heck of an arm, thwarting better than 43 percent of attempted stolen bases in his career. He won the Gold Glove for NL catchers every year from 1968 to 1977. Ivan Rodriguez (13) is the only other catcher with at least 10 Gold Gloves.

          

    Postseason Success

    Bench played in 10 postseason seriesfour World Series, six NLCSin his career. Incredibly, he hit at least one home run in nine of them. In all, he clubbed 10 home runs in 45 playoff games.

    Without question, his best series was the 1976 World Series. The Reds swept the New York Yankees that year, in large part because Bench batted .533 with a pair of home runs.

    The funny thing is that until the postseason, 1976 was arguably the worst season of his career. He batted a career-worst .234 and had just 16 home runsthe only year from 1969 through 1980 in which he had fewer than 22. But when the Reds needed him most, he helped lead them to seven consecutive wins, tallying at least one hit in each of them.

1. Yogi Berra

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    Associated Press

    Career Stats: .285 BA, .348 OBP, .482 SLG, 358 HR, 1,430 RBI, 59.4 WAR

    Five-Year Peak: 1951-55

    It's incredible that two of the best catchers of all time had their five-year peaks simultaneously, but both Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella won their three MVP awards from 1951 to 1955. They weren't battling each other for those honors, as Berra was in the American League and Campanella was in the National League. But the two catchers did end up squaring off in the World Series five times, and Berra's Yankees won four of them.

    Berra's peak extends one year out on each end, though. From 1950 to 1956, not only did he win three AL MVPs, but he finished in the top four the other four years. He batted .295 and averaged 27 home runs and 108 RBI during that time.

    Even more impressive than the hits was the lack of misses. During this seven-year span, Berra whiffed just 166 times in 4,272 plate appearances. Compared to another great at the same time, Mickey Mantle had 578 K in 3,491 PA in his first six years in the big leaguesmore than four times as often as Berra. Though Berra's batting average wasn't as good as Mike Piazza's, Bill Dickey's or Mickey Cochrane's, he had one of the best batting eyes in the history of catchers.

          

    Postseason Success

    These numbers are incomprehensible in the age of wild-card teams and enhanced postseason randomness, but Berra played in 14 World Series with the Yankees, winning 10 of them.

    In the first few and last couple of years, he was riding on coattails rather than powering the charge. If we combine 1947, 1949, 1962 and 1963 into one bucket, Berra batted .105 with one home run and three RBI.

    But in between, it's hard to imagine what the Yankees would have been without him. From 1950 to 1961, Berra appeared in 62 World Series games, batting .303 with 11 home runs and 36 RBI. Shrink that window a bit more to 1953-56, and Berra triple-slashed .400/.494/.671 with five home runs and 16 RBI in 20 games.

               

    Advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.

    Kerry Miller is a multisport writer for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.