Not too long ago, Mike Piazza broke the all-time record for career home runs by a catcher, when he hit #352 in May. That homer surpassed Carlton Fisk's mark, which he set a decade or more ago, but which took him about 800 more games to do than Piazza, so clearly Piazza's the superior hitter of the two. For that matter, Piazza is easily the greatest hitting catcher ever, by virtually any measure you can conjure.
Piazza polarizes baseball fans. Lots of purists, old-schoolers especially, think that a catcher must catch, first, and any offense you get out of him is secondary, gravy, as it were. This is why Moe Berg and Bill Bergen had careers. For that matter, this is why Brad Ausmus and Mike Matheny have careers.
Seamheads like me will tell you that you can't possibly do enough with the glove, regardless of your position, to make up for being a terrible hitter, and that likewise an average hitter can't do enough defensively to catch up to the overall value of a great hitter.
Rob Neyer argued that the ten best catchers were, all things considered, in order:
Games Caught OPS+
1. Johnny Bench 2158 1742 127
2. Yogi Berra 2120 1699 126
3. Carlton Fisk 2499 2226 116
4. Bill Dickey 1789 1708 128
5. Gabby Hartnett 1990 1793 126
6. Roy Campanella 1215 1183 123
7. Mike Piazza 1493 1404 156
8. Mickey Cochrane 1482 1451 127
9. Gary Carter 2296 2056 116
10. Ivan Rodriguez 1652 1590 113
You can see fairly easily that one of these guys stands out significantly, and it's Piazza. He's essentially twice as good a hitter as anyone else on the list, as his 56% above the adjusted league average OPS is double Bill Dickey's 28%. No, I'm not saying that Piazza is worth two Bill Dickeys, but I am saying that he's a much better hitter than any of these other guys, and it's not even close.
The question Neyer wrestled with was whether or not Piazza's defensive liabilities take away enough from his hitting to knock him all the way down to #7 on the all-time list.
Rob would have been happy to take Fisk down a peg or two, and Piazza up a peg or two, if he were inclined to investigate the matter more, which he wasn't at the time. Subsequent responses to emails from his readers dealt more with the lack of Josh Gibson on the list (no, I don't know where he belongs either, but would be interested to hear arguments about him one way or the other) and the difficulty of comparing offense across leagues and eras. Nobody, apparently, wrote in to rally for Piazza's ranking to be higher, and evidently lots of people think that I-Rod belongs a lot higher, if not at the very top. I don't happen to be one of those, or at least I wasn't before I did a little research.
I had planned to try to give Mike Piazza a little more support than he seems to have gotten, and to support Neyer's contention that I-Rod is overrated, but now I'm not so sure. Let me tell you what I did and you can tell me if I'm all wet, OK?
I used Baseball Prospectus DT Cards for the ten players on the list (Josh Gibson is omitted from the discussion, of course). I used their WARP3 numbers, which stands for Wins Above Replacement Position, and includes hitting, pitching and fielding contributions, adjusted for all time. I then (roughly, I admit) prorated those ten players' numbers for the games in their careers they actually caught(GAC). This isn't perfect, but it assures us that players like Yogi don't get extra credit for prolonging their careers by playing the outfield.
I then divided the wins into the games as catcher, and prorated this over 162 games, to level the playing field and to get the numbers into a useful range. And do you know what I found? Of course you don't, or you wouldn't still be reading.
Name WARP GAC WARP/162 GAC
10. Ivan Rodriguez 95 1565 9.83
7. Mike Piazza 80 1383 9.37
8. Mickey Cochrane 82 1451 9.16
4. Bill Dickey 96 1708 9.11
1. Johnny Bench 95 1743 8.83
6. Roy Campanella 63 1183 8.63
9. Gary Carter 107 2056 8.43
2. Yogi Berra 88 1699 8.39
5. Gabby Hartnett 87 1793 7.86
3. Carlton Fisk 100 2226 7.28
I found that Gary Carter was the greatest catcher of all time! Well, not really. I found that the Kid did in fact amass the most WARP (107) as a catcher in his career, thanks largely to its length, with Fisk not far behind.
But I also found, much to my dismay, that Ivan Rodriguez may very well be the best catcher ever. I don't even like Ivan Rodriguez. I think he's overrated, both on offense and defense, and arrogant and self-absorbed. But if Baseball Prospectus is right about him, then "pound for pound" as they say on boxing, his 95 WARP as a catcher in "only" 1565 games makes his rate of wins/season higher than anyone else. By a decent margin, too. Almost half a win per full season.
Piazza comes in second, with 80 WARP in fewer than 1400 games, followed by Cochrane, Dickey and then Bench all the way down at #5! Campanella and Carter follow, and then Berra at #8. (As a Yankee fan, I had hoped that Berra would do better, but what can you do?) Hartnett and Fisk round out the top ten.
I don't really know if this means anything or not, but from looking at the DT cards, I can see how Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez gain so much ground. Piazza's offense, which Neyer seemed to sort of glaze over, is SO much better than anyone else's that he can't help but jump way up in the rankings. He's got about 200 fewer equivalent runs (EQR) than Bench, but Bench needed about 2000 more outs to amass those! As a fielder, Bench was as good as Piazza is bad, with +155 fielding runs above average vs. negative 111 for Piazza. This helps Bench, but you just can't make up for such a tremendous difference in offense with your glove, I think.
This is the same reason that Rico Brogna wasn't as good a firstbaseman as Jason Giambi, or that Pokey Reese is not as good a secondbaseman as Alfonso Soriano. Granted, there's a lot more to the defensive requirements at catcher than there is at first base, but if the methods Baseball Prospectus uses to measure defense and offense are at all reliable, then, we've got to take the numbers seriously, and the numbers say that Piazza has thus far been worth approximately 15 fewer wins than Bench for his career, which includes almost 400 fewer games as a catcher. If Piazza can catch another 250-300 games, which is possible but not a foregone conclusion for a 35-year old catcher, and continue to produce at a similar rate, he can catch Bench in career WARP, again, in fewer games. Remember, again, that this is taking into account total contributions, with the glove and the bat.
I-Rod isn't quite as good a hitter as Bench was, but his defense (amazingly, to me) actually rates better! He's +203 fielding runs above average, in almost 200 fewer games than the First Pudge. Rodriguez has had six seasons of at least +20 Fielding RAA, whereas Bench had only two, at exactly 20, and his overall defensive numbers are hurt by the fact that he was a bad firstbaseman, a bad thirdbaseman and a bad outfielder, but even factoring that out probably doesn't give hime more than a win or two over the course of his career.
And don't forget: Pudge and Piazza are still amassing stats this season, and their competition on this list is not. Piazza's currently hitting .340/.412/.610 with eight homers as a catcher this season, basically splitting time between catcher and 1B.
Rodriguez is hitting .357/.386/.527, also with eight homers as a catcher, and presumably still making the highlight reels with his defense occasionally. I don't think he'll necessarily finish the season hitting .361 with 120 RBI, but clearly he's not as close to slowing down as we would have thought by his August-September slump last year or his rash of injuries from 2000-2002. His defense does appear to have dropped off a bit. Even though things like fielding percentage, Zone Rating, Range Factor and the like are all as good as ever, he's not catching base stealers as much as he used to, with only 5 CS in 18 attempts off him, that 28% caught-stealing rate is beneathe the AL average of 32%, probably for the first time in his career. But he set the bar pretty high for himself in that area, and still does enough with the bat to keep padding his record for a while, especially since he's still only 32 years old.
Like I said, I don't even like Rodriguez. I did this hoping to prove that Mike Piazza'a offense makes him the Greatest Catcher Ever, despite his defense, but it didn't happen. I found what I found, and even though I didn't necessarily like the result, I've got to be honest with you about it.
Now please, someone, tell me why I'm wrong.