Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Catchers and MVPs

I've just been doing a little research on historically great catchers, and I've got to tell you, I'm a little blown away by what I'm finding. We sort of generally refer to Joe Mauer as having a chance to be one of the best catchers ever. And he could be, but there are sure some remarkable catchers in baseball history.

Take MVP awards for instance, which is an area where Mauer should already compare favorably. After all, he's only 26 and has already won once and finished in the top six in voting three times. But look at the top seven guys that Bill James identifies as the best major league catchers in his Historical Baseball Abstract:
  • Bill Dickey, who played for the Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig Yankees (and batted in the middle of that lineup) never won an MVP but finished in the top ten five times. And he finished in the top 20 ten times.
  • Carleton Fisk (Red Sox in 70s, White Sox in 80s) also never won but finished in the top 4 four times.
  • Mike Piazza never won, but finished in the top ten seven times. And finished 13th and 14th two other times.
Those guys are good, but now we get to the heavy hitters:
  • Mickey Cochrane, who led the Athletics to two World Series titles and then led Detroit to their first championship ever (as a player/manager in 1935) won two MVPs. He also finished 4th, 7th, 9th, 10th, 14th and 18th in other years.
  • The Brooklyn Dodgers Roy Campanella only played for ten years due to the color barrier and an auto accident that left him paralyzed. But during those ten years he won three MVPs and got votes three other times.
  • Johnny Bench of the 70s Big Red Machine won two MVP awards before he was 25 years old. In all he received votes during ten seasons.
  • And not only did Yogi Berra win three MVP awards, but for eight straight years he never finished lower than fourth. He received votes in fifteen consecutive years. His Yankees teams of the late 40s and 50s also appeared in 14 World Series, and he won ten of them.
So keep at it Joe. There's still plenty of mountains to climb.


TwinsTarget said...

I'll certainly agree with you that Mauer has a few more dominant years to go before we can place the "Best Catcher Ever" title around his neck.

But is MVP voting the best way to compare across decades? MVP voting (entirely subjective, of course, but let's assume that the best player wins every time) is a function of the annual crop of talent.

One MVP winner obviously does not equal another MVP winner in another year.

Anonymous said...

So, by my count, he needs three more MVPs, six more top tens, 15 World Series, and 11 rings :-)

John said...

Mauer is going to have to post some pretty crazy numbers to surpass Bench. Yogi was no slouch but Bench's peak was just insane ('72, '74-75) and he had a bunch of excellent seasons on top of it.

John said...

Andrew, I think MVP voting should absolutely be a criteria, and I just wanted to highlight that criteria for this quick post. But I'll say this - I think it's a more imprtant criteria in my mind for catchers. We understand that a catcher's impact is significant beyond their batting stats, moreso than other players. But we also know we can't measure that. So why not rely on the impressions of the people that watched them and their votes at the time?

TT said...

I think it is important to remember that there were 16 teams and about half as many players in the major leagues when those pre-1960 votes were taken.

But the basic point is correct. Mauer is not, at 26, the best catcher ever and he has a ways to go to surpass Bench and the others. Mauer will likely never match Bench's power numbers, but Bench didn't win any batting championships.

Roy Campanella may have been the best major league catcher ever if his career hadn't been shortened. Josh Gibson was supposed to be even better than Campanella in the Negro leagues. Its likely he really was the best catcher ever. We will never know.

Anonymous said...

"So why not rely on the impressions of the people that watched them and their votes at the time?"

Because that's how you end up with Jim Rice making the HOF and Bert Blyleven on the outside looking in.

Jack Ungerleider said...

Of course if you want to take Baseball Reference's opinion into account they show that through age 26 Mauer is most similar to:

1) Bill Dickey
2) Yogi Berra
3) Jason Kendall
4) Mickey Cochrane

That puts him in some pretty good company.

TwinsTarget said...

I agree with what Anonymous said. Even if you pretend that the best player wins every MVP award, different years/decades (dead-ball, etc) have a different level of performance. It could be much easier to place in the Top 10 in MVP voting in 1935, for example, than 2010.

And, like TT said, there were fewer players in the league in some of the decades you mentioned.

I agree, it is very difficult to evaluate catchers. But relying on MVP voter's subjective opinion is one of the last things that should be done.

tborg said...

It seems to me that for a long period (1980-2005?) MVP voters really got smitten by the RBI, which pretty much removed catchers and middle infielders from the equation. Earlier than that it seems like there was more appreciation for fielding in the MVP votes. Since Bench, has any catcher other than Ivan Rodriguez won an MVP? And Pudge won his in a year where he had an insane number of RBI. It seems like the voters are getting back to appreciating fielding again. All of which is a long way of saying that I don't think it's fair to measure Mike Piazza's career in light of not winning any MVP awards.

TT said...

"Because that's how you end up with Jim Rice making the HOF and Bert Blyleven on the outside looking in."

That assumption there is that those are both wrong. I am not sure that is true. Both are borderline HOF.

In order to be completely convinced that Blyleven belongs, you need to believe he was "unlucky" in the run support he received over the course of his career compared to his teammates. If you accept that, then you have to accept the possibility he was "lucky" to get his own results.

The more likely explanation is that Blyleven's curve widened the strike zone for both pitchers, resulting in fewer hits/runs being scored on both sides in games where he pitched.

That doesn't mean Blyleven isn't a HOF. It just means his case is a lot more marginal than some Twins fans, and statheads, want to admit.

The problem with rejecting contemporary opinion is that it is really just an act of faith. The collective opinion of a couple dozen sports writers may well be more accurate than data that is hopelessly muddied for any one individual by the variations in playing conditions in baseball.

Bo Mitchell said...

Mauer will never hit as many home runs as Bench or Gibson nor will he win as many World Series as Berra. However, when all is said in done (assuming he stays healthy) his combination of batting average and defense will define him as one of the five best to ever play the position.


Anonymous said...

Not to get all churlish, but, ahem, this guy is easily the greatest catcher of all time. At least for now...


Ted said...

It's interesting to look at some of the MVP seasons by a catcher and see how much of a boost it is to be the guy behind the plate, especially when you look back. In all of Campanella's and Berra's MVP seasons, the two of them led the league in a combined total of one category. Of course, they didn't get as many games in as someone playing in the OF during those seasons, so it would be harder to lead anything.

Still, thing have changed. Imagine that these two lines from 1951 were matched up today by the sportswriters:

Yogi Berra: .294 BA, .842 OPS, 27 HR, 88 RBI
Ted Williams: .318 BA, 1.019 OPS, 30 HR, 126 RBI

If Joe Mauer and, say, Miguel Cabrera put up those numbers in 2010, would anyone vote for the catcher over the position player? No way. Ted Williams finished 13th in the voting in 1951. I'd love to see an analysis of how BIG a boost it is to a candidate's MVP shot if they catch on a daily basis.

Arne said...

I'm coming to this late, but there are about double the teams in the A.L. compared to the years before the '60s, so that alone makes it harder to place high in the MVP voting. There are more players to win votes, and of course more teams in the playoffs, so the pool of players deemed worthy of an MVP-for stats, being on winning teams, whatever-is bigger than when Berra and catchers before him played.