Catching talent is a bit like looking for lumber in a stack of sale-price boards. There might be a few good ones in there but the rest of them are a bit warped and full of knots. Nothing brought this home any closer than news that the Tampa Bay Rays have traded one mediocre catcher (John Jaso) and signed another (Jose Molina). The dearth of good catchers is why Joe Mauer was given his current contract and also why that contract would be worth considerably less to the Twins if Mauer were to change positions. Everyone can list off Hall of Fame catchers. There's Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Mickey Cochran, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Mike Piazza and yes, Ivan Rodriguez and Joe Mauer. Sites in the past have tried to list which of these catchers was the best ever. But what about greatest seasons ever? This post will attempt to bring you the best sixteen seasons ever by a major league catcher.
Why sixteen? Well...that arbitrary number was because Yogi had the sixteenth best season ever and if this post didn't go that far, he would have not made the list. We couldn't have that. So it's sixteen. How do you determine the best seasons ever? That's a bit arbitrary too. This post will use WAR. But which WAR? And that's a great question. Take 2009 for instance. Both baseball-reference.com AND Fangraphs gave Joe Mauer a 7.9 WAR that season. But the year before (2008), B-R gave the same Mauer a 8.7 WAR while Fangraphs gave him a 6.2. Wuh? So what this writer did was to seek out the best seasons adding up both the rWAR and the fWAR and dividing by two. If you think there is a better way to judge, feel free to comment or come up with your own list. The Fan would love to see it.
Some of these great seasons will surprise you. Sure, it is sprinkled with Hall of Fame catchers. But there were some one-hit wonders in there too. Some were outstanding for the offense the catcher generated that season. Others were a combination of great offense and great defense. WAR adds all that stuff up and gives us a number we can use. So here goes. Here are the best sixteen seasons by a catcher ever. Oh, wait. One more thing, a catcher had to catch at least 50 percent of his games played that season to qualify. Here we go.
- Johnny Bench (1972) - 9.65 average WAR. Bench was spectacular in 1972. He slugged .541 that season with 40 homers and 125 runs batted in. Baseball-reference.com gives a 1.4 of defensive WAR (or dWAR) to Bench that season. He threw out 40 of the 70 base runners that attempted to steal (57 percent!). And he walked a hundred times that season too. He was the (like duh!) MVP that season.
- Mike Piazza (1997) - 9.35 average WAR. Mike Piazza has arguably the best offensive season of any catcher ever in 1997. Indeed, his 1.070 OPS that season is the all time high. He batted .362, second only to Joe Mauer's .365 as the highest batting average for a catcher. Piazza had over 200 hits that season including 32 doubles and 40 homers. He scored 104 runs and drove in 124. The 9.7 oWAR baseball-reference gave him that season has to be the highest ever and had to make up his obvious defensive shortcomings which both sites always landed him in negative territory.
- Darrell Porter (1979) - 8.2 average WAR. Surprise! Bet you didn't expect to see this name on this list never mind third all time!. But his 1979 season was that spectacular. Porter walked 121 times that season and only eight of them were intentional. Porter scored 101 runs and drove in 112. He hit 22 doubles, ten triples (!) and 20 homers. On top of those kinds of numbers, he threw out 57 base runners in 121 stolen base attempts. It was by far his best season in an overlooked career.
- Johnny Bench (1974) - The Big Red Machine revolved around Johnny Bench. His 1970 through 1975 campaigns just might be the best catching run in history. On top of another great offensive season, Bench threw out 49 percent of base steal attempts and only allowed three passed balls in 121 games behind the plate. How Steve Garvey won the MVP in 1974 is beyond logic.
- Gary Carter (1982) - It's funny how when you don't like a player, you kind of block out how good he was. Gary Carter was terrific. He was just all goody goody about it which made you want to dump water on him. 1982 was Carter's best season but he had five great ones. His OPS of .890 was good for a 146 OPS+ and just added to terrific fielding behind the plate. He was the complete package.
- Joe Mauer (2009) - The memory of Mauer's season in 2009 is fading, but it shouldn't be. It was one of the most remarkable offensive seasons of all time from a catcher and probably rates second behind Piazza's season. His .365 batting average was easily good enough for the batting title and the highest batting average for a full time catcher in the modern era. He hit with power that season too for some reason and finished with a 1.030 OPS. Unbelievable. And the MVP.
- Roy Campanella (1953). Campanella started his career in 1948, just after the color line was broken in baseball. His career was cut short after ten years due to an accident that left him paralyzed. It's a shame too because he was as good or better than Yogi Berra during those seasons. 1953 was his best. Campanella played 140 games behind the plate and threw out 53 percent of all base steal attempts and only allowed three passed balls all season. He was dynamic on offense as well, hitting 41 homers and led the league in RBIs with a staggering 142. It was the second of his three MVP seasons.
- Roy Campanella (1951). His first MVP season wasn't quite as good offensively as 1953 but it was close. And he threw out 63 percent of base steal attempts. Can you imagine!?
- Bill Freehan (1968). 1968 was the year of the pitcher, remember? Only one batter in the AL that season batted over .300 that season. With such little production everywhere, Freehan's .819 OPS was more impressive than it sounds. Plus 1968 was the third of four straight Gold Glove Awards for Freehan behind the plate. And the Tigers won the World Series that season. Freehan started every game behind the plate in that post season. Freehan is another often overlooked catcher. And if it wasn't for Yaz in 1968, Freehan might have won himself an MVP that season.
- Joe Mauer (2008). If you remember from the intro to this post, this was the season where B-R thought he was superfantastic and Fangraphs thought he was just fantastic. Mauer did win the batting title that season, but the difference in the WAR that season was how each site viewed his fielding. B-R--obviously--thought it was better than Fangraphs did.
- Darren Daulton (1992). Another surprise entry on our list. But Daulton was unbelievable in 1992. That season was another down year for offense and Daulton's .908 OPS for the Phillies was good for a 154 OPS+. He also led the league that season in RBIs. His season in 1993 was nearly as good and that was the year that Joe Carter's home run won the World Series for the Blue Jays to defeat the Phillies. Daulton was never that great before those two seasons and would never be close to that good after they were over.
- Mike Piazza (1993). 1993 was the season Piazza burst on the scene for the Dodgers and won the Rookie of the Year. It was also one of the few defensive seasons where he rated in the positive numbers. Add that to his .932 OPS that season and that spells one of the best seasons ever for a catcher.
- Chris Hoiles (1993). Chris Hoiles!? We mostly forget about Hoiles because he only played ten seasons and retired at the age of 33 (and he was still an effective catcher at that point too). But 1993 was his best season. Hoiles hit 29 homers that season and in 503 plate appearances, put together this fantastic slash line: .310/.416/.585. Wow! He also threw out 41 percent of base steal attempts that season and only allowed two passed balls the entire season. Chris Hoiles. Who knew? Oriole fans probably did.
- Carlton Fisk (1977). Fisk was the iron man of all catchers. He played 24 seasons and is obviously in the Hall of Fame. What set apart 1977 for Fisk was that it was his best defensive season (he was always a very good offensive player). He threw out 50 of 110 base steal attempts and only allowed four passed balls (and only 12 wild pitches!). Fisk caught an incredible 151 ballgames that season.
- Gary Carter (1983). Fangraphs and B-R disagree on Carter's value that season, but it was another great one. Carter had better offensive years for Montreal and later the Mets, but 1983 was arguably Carter's best defensive season.
- Yogi Berra (1956). In 1956, Berra came to the plate 597 times and only struck out 29 times. And that was high for him. Berra slugged .534 that season with 30 homers and drove in 105. Berra also threw out 47 percent of base steal attempts that season. Berra had won the MVP Award in 1954 and 1955, but 1956 was his best season overall. He only came in second in the MVP voting that season because of some guy named Mickey Mantle (who hit for a Triple Crown).
There! That's the Fan's list of the sixteen greatest catching seasons ever. What do you think? Comments are always welcome. Below is the calculations used for this post with the added bonus to see who comes below these sixteen.