Catchers and the Hall

According to Bill James' Hall of Fame Standards metric, the average member of that hallowed body has around 50 career points in the metric. The average Hall of Fame catcher, on the other hand, has 33. For comparison, John Olerud has 38. Jack Clark and Andres Galarraga have 35. The average Hall of Fame catcher would get about 3 seconds of batted eyelash from a Hall of Fame voter if he were a first baseman. In fairness, that average of 33 is sandbagged a little by incorrect choices Ray Schalk, Ernie Lombardi, Roger Bresnahan, and Rick Ferrell, but the only catchers not in the Hall of Fame who would raise the average are Ivan Rodriguez (a shoo-in when he's eligible), Mike Piazza (ditto), Joe Torre, and Ted Simmons. The Hall Standards metric--and most Hall standards people use to vote--are biased against catchers, who are almost never the best hitters on their team or in the league, and whose careers are really difficult.

Catchers have it rough. They need more rest or their stats deplete (considerably, as some recent work over at Baseball Prospectus showed). Resting makes them lose some counting stats and games-played value. Their careers are often short. Those who move away from catcher don't end up playing most of their games there. A good list of the top 40 catchers of all time
almost certainly includes such "pretty good for a while" type players as Terry Steinbach and Jim Sundberg, as well as flashes in the pan like Darren Daulton or the unfortunately injured Jason Kendall. Not a list inspiring you to sepia-tinted baseball nostalgia after about the first ten, as it turns out.

But such is the nature of the catcher. Somebody has to do it, and very often it's the light-hitters who do. When you stick a heavy hitter back there, they lose production and often can't handle the defense. There's a greater risk of injury, too.

Still, the Hall needs to give credit where credit is due for some great catchers who have done exceedingly well in obscurity. They don't reach the hitting heights of great outfielders, and when they are excellent at their defensive jobs they aren't spectacular like middle infielders. Think of a great play by Ozzie Smith. Now think of a great play by his catching equivalent, Ivan Rodriguez. Could you even do it?

Catchers need different standards of evaluation. More of them need to be in the Hall of Fame than are currently, and we still need to jettison the overrated Bresnahan, the completely average but long-tenured Ferrell, the light-hitting Schalk, and the defensively-inept plus 1940s-inflated Lombardi.

So how do we test these guys? What do we want from a catcher? How do we give them a bonus for being catchers? Those questions are fairly easy to answer. And the hard one: how many catchers *are* worthy of the Hall, compared to those at other positions, given their shorter careers and generally lower totals of Win Shares/WAR/WARP3/whatever? Where the hell is that cutoff?

Test Case 1: Joe Torre

Joe Torre is not in the Hall of Fame as a player. Luckily he'll get in anyway because of this -- and more power to him. But Torre needs to be in the Hall of Fame because, as it turns out, he looks an awful lot like the cutoff to me.

Various historical things that rank players' assessments of Joe Torre:

Modified Bill James Objective Function: 64.87, 72nd best non-pitcher ever, between Billy Williams and Barry Larkin. Verdict: Obvious Hall of Famer, one of the best players and catchers of all time.

Chone's WAR: 54.8, 84th best non-pitcher since 1955, between Andre Dawson and Jason Giambi. Verdict: Dawson and Giambi aren't Hall material for various reasons, so Torre shouldn't be either.

Baseball Prospectus' WARP3 and JAWS: 75.1 career Wins Above Replacement Player, adjusted for all-time. This is a respectable total in Dwight Evans and Darrell Evans territory. His JAWS score, which combines that with the player's seven best peak years, is 61.5, lower than perennial Hall borderliner Dewey's 66.2 and higher than Hall borderliner Darrell's 61.1. And here's the thing. Darrell, who was a third baseman-turned-first baseman, was useful at accumulating your favorite all-encompassing counting stat until age 42. Dwight, a career outfielder, did it until age 39. Torre was burger at 36. Piazza was semi-burger by 33 but hung around a little. Pudge Rodriguez has moved into replacement-level territory now at age 37. Bench moved to third base at age 34, sucked, and retired a season later.

Yes, indeed, there are guys like John Olerud that were unhelpful after 34, but the aging curve for catchers is just tougher. Catching is tough on your knees, your arm, your hitting, and your desire to keep playing baseball. So here is my modest proposal.

John Olerud, Dwight Evans, Darrell Evans, and (let's say) Buddy Bell are legitimately borderline Hall players not quite in. They also fall in the realm of players we might remember, or be able to "grok" how they played from looking at their stats. This is less true for dead ball-era players or whoever. These guys are probably on the right side of the aisle at the moment (though Bell has the most legitimate beef because of his position). So how about this to:

If a catcher, at the most scarce position, puts up numbers that are comparable to a borderline Hall guy at a less scarce, more productive position, they should be a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. If they're comparable to a legitimate Hall catcher, that's good too. This is a simple metric, easy to apply by comparing guys.

So here we go.

Just as a sample, we'll start with the best and work from there. The way that Bill James' similarity scores work means that you get comparables from your own position first and it goes down the more difficult their position was compared to yours (and vice versa), so bear that in mind...

Johnny Bench's lifetime comparables from Baseball-Reference:
Yogi Berra, Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, DALE MURPHY, RON SANTO.

Verdict: In. Easy in. That doesn't even include defense.

Joe Torre:
Vern Stephens, Bobby Doerr, Gabby Hartnett, RYNE SANDBERG...BARRY LARKIN

Verdict: In. If you are anything like a HoF second baseman or shortstop, you're good enough.

Ted Simmons:

Verdict: In. Ted was a little below average at defense, but not enough to drop him out of consideration as one of the greats.

Jorge Posada:
Mike Lowell, Rich Aurilia, Aramis Ramirez, Joe Gordon

Verdict: Out. These guys are not Hall of Fame guys, especially not yet, and no matter how you slice it up. Gordon was pretty darn good, but the comparability is kinda thin: Gordon OPSed .822 when that was a 120 OPS+; Posada OPSed .858 when that was a 124 OPS+. Any comparison to Gordon shouldn't flatter a modern hitter.

Thurman Munson:
Carlos Baerga, Red Kress, Michael Young, Gil McDougald

Verdict: No freaking way. Munson was pretty good but flies well below the cutoff. That's true any way you slice it, too.

Lance Parrish:
Bret Boone, Ron Cey, Vinny Castilla, Travis Fryman, Robin Ventura

Verdict: Nope. These guys (sometime 3Bs all!) would never make the Hall as pure batsmen. Ventura's argument (which might be legit) would be heavy on the glove angle. Big Wheel was a good defensive catcher but not good enough to make it in with this kind of hitting.

Gene Tenace:
Jose Hernandez, Rico Petrocelli, a bunch of catchers

Tenace was a 3TO sort, which has been common from the catcher position. This is the point where we stop getting catchers who have valid arguments. He's just not there career-wise unless he was the best defensive catcher of all time. He was average.

Mike Piazza:

Verdict: Duh. Even with the bad defense. Chipper has bad defense too.

Ivan Rodriguez:

Verdict: Superduh. Pudge is the greatest defensive catcher ever -- or in the top 2 -- and his hitting would make him Hall-caliber anyway.

Everyone knows Piazza and Pudge Rodriguez are out-and-out shooins. Ted Simmons and Joe Torre should be in. The cutoff is closer to where they are than where Johnny Bench is, and it's definitely not any of these Hall of Famers:

Roger Bresnahan
Lyn Lary, Jerry Priddy, Kid Elberfeld, Tom Herr, Bill Doran

Verdict: I will grant that Bresnahan played in the dead-ball era, but even his closer contemporaries like Bucky Harris and Woody English were definitely not close to Hall material.

Ray Schalk:
Leo Durocher, Everett Scott, Luke Sewell, Ted Sizemore

Verdict: Schalk probably got in on the basis of his very good defense. But like Bresnahan, the hitting (career 83 OPS+) is not there at all.

Ernie Lombardi:
Rich Aurilia, Carlos Baerga, catchers

Verdict: Lombardi is in the Hall because of a career .300 average and good hitting. He was a really good hitter (career EqA .295!). He also played during the war and got some stat inflation, played in a fairly hitter-heavy era, and was Piazza-bad on defense. A bat a lot like Munson's and terrible defense are not the ingredients.

Rick Ferrell:
Jim Gantner, Tony Cuccinello, Dick Groat

Verdict: Ferrell is totally inexplicable. Playing as a near-contemporary of Lombardi, he put up dead-ball hitting numbers. No power at all. If he'd had some, maybe we could have talked. But as it is he is by far the worst Hall catcher of the modern era. If you make him anything like the cutoff, Jim Sundberg, Jason Kendall, Chris Hoiles, and Mickey Tettleton are Hall material. They are not.

Similarity scores are fun, and because catchers tend to have fairly distinct hitting patterns, they make this kind of work rather easy. My cutoff: Ted Simmons. If you are better you are in. If you're a little worse, we'll talk. Jorge Posada would get there with 2 more quite good seasons, I think.

Other active catchers on their way?

Joe Mauer. Russell Martin. Brian McCann. There really aren't any players around the 30-year-old mark that make a dent here. Assuming things go well for these three, they'll get there. We would have said the same about Jason Kendall 7 years ago, though.

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