Table of Contents

Friday, August 07, 2009

Reds WAR Review: Catchers

Picture of Eugene Franklin "Bubbles"...Bubbles Hargrave is probably the 4th-best catcher in Reds history. I hadn't heard of him. Yes, I'm lame. Image via Wikipedia

At BtB, I've started a series of recaps looking at the most valuable players at each position of all time, as measured by Rally's WAR database. Since I'm a Reds fan, I'm going to do a mirrored series here looking at past Reds greats. It will be a great way to help me learn some Reds history, and has the added bonus of keeping my mind off the current Reds team's woes.

Keep in mind a few caveats: the WAR values you see here are only for those seasons (or partial-seasons) players spent with the Reds. Second, WAR is not a perfect measure of value (I think it is the best available stat of its kind). And third, even if WAR was perfect in measuring what it tries to, career WAR value is necessarily the best way to evaluate who is the "best" player (i.e. peak seasons matter just as much as total career value when deciding things like that).

We'll begin the series with a Top-10 list of Reds catchers!

10. Ivey Wingo.
Debut Seasons PA Offense wOBA FldRns Fld/700PA PosAdj WAR WAR/700PA
1915 13 3302 -63 0.313 -5 -1 48 7.3 1.5
This is the kind of lousy Reds fan I am: Wingo played in the second-most seasons by any Reds catcher, and ranks third in PA's among any Reds catcher. And I had never heard of the guy. Wingo wasn't a particularly great player (tied for lowest WAR/yr rate of anyone in the top-18 Reds catchers), but he played a long time, and at his retirement held the NL record for most games caught. His best year with the Reds was in 1917, when he hit 0.266/0.311/0.376 in 432 PA's in a league that averaged 0.249/0.305/0.328. That was good for a half-win above average, which translates to 2.3 wins above replacement that year. His tenure with the club included an appearance in the Reds' 1919 World Championship team, which (in)famously defeated the "Black Sox" that year. He also served as manager of the Reds for two whole games during the 1916 season, nestled between the managerial careers of Buck Herzog and Christy Mathewson. Wingo ended his career with the Reds.

9. Smoky Burgess. Reds Hall of Fame.
Debut Seasons PA Offense wOBA FldRns Fld/700PA PosAdj WAR WAR/700PA
1955 4 1227 22 0.356 0 0 13 8 4.6
The fun thing about team lists like this, and part of the reason I'm only doing a top-10 list, is that you get players making your top-10 who only played for the Reds for a few years, sometimes as a reserve--but were really good players during their time. Burgess is our first example of this. He was a very good player over a long career, and ranks 27th among MLB catchers in WAR overall. He played four of those seasons with the Reds, and put up outstanding numbers despite serving as the reserve/platoon partner for C Ed Bailey during three of those four years. As a hitter, he hit for good power, fine average, and walking at twice the rate he struck out. His 0.356 wOBA (which is park- and era-adjusted) ranks 4th-best among Reds catchers with more than 50 PA's.

He is also one of just four catchers to be elected into the Reds Hall of Fame (curiously, Bailey is not one of them). How that happened is somewhat inexplicable to me. Chris Eckes of the Reds passed on a bit of info via Greg in Atlanta on this: Burgess was elected in 1975, his 4th year on the ballot, edging out deadball era one year wonder Cy Seymour by just 800 votes. Apparently, it was just a weak year!

8. Johnny Edwards.
Debut Seasons PA Offense wOBA FldRns Fld/700PA PosAdj WAR WAR/700PA
1961 7 2624 -53 0.312 4 1 44 8.2 2.2
Edwards broke in with the Reds and played as their starting catcher for six seasons before losing his job to a rookie. I'm sure that stung, but at least he can take heart knowing now that the rookie would go on to become the best catcher in MLB history. For his part, though, Edwards was an average-fielding backstop who put up four decent seasons of performance from 1962-1965 before falling off a cliff in 1966. 1963 and 1965 were 3-WAR seasons, but he fell apart and posted -0.5 WAR seasons in '66 and '67. Hard to keep your job doing that. In his best year, Edwards hit 0.267/0.353/0.474, showing nice power in slugging 17 home runs. He was traded for Pat Corrales in 1968.

7. Ray Mueller.
Debut Seasons PA Offense wOBA FldRns Fld/700PA PosAdj WAR WAR/700PA
1943 6 1864 2 0.336 9 3 16 9.2 3.5
Mueller is #7 on our list due to a pair of three-WAR seasons and one other decent season. He came to the Reds after missing the '41 & '42 seasons following his time with the Pirates (possibly military service? Anyone know?). He is best known for catching 233 consecutive games during the '43, '44, and '46 seasons for the Reds (he did miss 1945 while serving in the Army). Mueller had a little bit of power, but his best offensive asset was his ability to get on base. During his years with the Reds, Mueller walked as much as he struck out, which helped him post back to back seasons with ~a 0.350 OBP. Being incredibly durable, at least for a few seasons, didn't hurt either.

6. Tommy Clarke.
Debut Seasons PA Offense wOBA FldRns Fld/700PA PosAdj WAR WAR/700PA
1909 9 1935 7 0.339 5 2 37 10.6 3.8
Clarke overlapped with Ivey Wingo during the second half of his tenure with the Reds, but Clarke spent almost his entire career with the Reds and posted above-average offensive performance over that time. As a late-dead ball era hitter, I have a hard time evaluating his individual strengths and weaknesses. But while Clarke didn't seem to have much if any power, he seems similar to Mueller in that he excelled at getting on base, posting a 0.351 career OBP. Also, if his BR Wiki page is any indication, he sounds like he was a pretty fiesty individual.

5. Heinie Peitz.
Debut Seasons PA Offense wOBA FldRns Fld/700PA PosAdj WAR WAR/700PA
1896 9 2949 -11 0.331 18 4 42 14.2 3.4
Heinie is our only 1800's player in the top-10, and ranks as the 5th-most valuable catcher in Reds' history. He joined the Reds in a trade prior to the 1896 season, and went on to be their starting catcher until he was traded to the Pirates in 1905. Just shy of an average hitter and an apparently competant fielder, he played a lot during his career with the Reds, which is a big part of how he got to this spot on our list. He also played all over the diamond: most of his starts were at catcher, but he played first, second, third, and even pitched on a few occasions

4. Bubbles Hargrave. Reds Hall of Fame
Debut Seasons PA Offense wOBA FldRns Fld/700PA PosAdj WAR WAR/700PA
1921 8 2605 75 0.368 2 1 23 18 4.8
The Reds have had some great names playing the two position: Ivey, Heinie, Smokey, Admiral...but no one can top Bubbles (though it was apparently a rather cruel nickname that referenced his stutter). But he was more than a name--he was an excellent ballplayer. Aside from Burgess, Hargrave is the first clearly above-average hitter on the list. He started behind the plate for 8 seasons following his arrival in 1921. Hargrave won a batting title in 1926, a season in which he posted a .406 OBP. But his best season was in 1923, when he hit 0.333/0.419/0.521, good for 4.6 wins above replacement. He received MVP consideration in three consecutive seasons from 1925-1927, and ended with a career line of 0.314/0.377/0.461 with the Reds.

3. Ed Bailey.
Debut Seasons PA Offense wOBA FldRns Fld/700PA PosAdj WAR WAR/700PA
1953 9 2576 24 0.346 38 10 38 19.4 5.3
Bailey might not have been the hitter that Hargrave was, Bailey was an excellent fielder. In fact, on a per-PA (or inning played, if you like) basis, Bailey has better fielding numbers than any catcher in the top-25 Reds catcher list. Yes, that includes Johnny Bench. Bailey was also a fine hitter in his own right, with good power (28 HR in 1956) and strong on base skills, posting a career line (or close to it) of 0.261/0.359/0.438 with the Reds. Bailey was a 5-time All Star (4 with the Reds), so he clearly was recognized at the time as among the game' elite. Why isn't he in the Hall of Fame, despite his backup/platoon partner Smokey Burgess's membership? My guess is that it's bias against low-batting average players. More on Bailey below.

2. Ernie Lombardi. Reds Hall of Fame.
Debut Seasons PA Offense wOBA FldRns Fld/700PA PosAdj WAR WAR/700PA
1932 10 4277 114 0.366 -16 -3 35 27.1 4.4
When Bubbles Hargrave left the team after the 1928 season, the Reds didn't have to wait long for their next great catcher. Lombardi arrived in 1932 and was heralded as one of the better hitters of his time. He was a two-time batting champion, including the 1938 season in which he was voted league MVP. He also played in seven all-star games and in two world series--the Reds won one of them (over DET in 1940). Lombardi had good power, routinely posting between 10 and 20 home runs each season. And he walked his share, while hitting for excellent average. But while he was an excellent hitter, both Hargrave and Bailey posted better WAR rates. What made Lombardi special is that on top of all of his other accomplishments, he played a ton during his 10 seasons with the Reds, at least by catcher standards. He played at least 107 games every year with the Reds (average=120), and averaged 420 PA's per year during that time. He ended up with almost 1000 more PA's than Ivey Wingo, who received the third-most PA's of a Reds catcher. Lombardi ranks 20th on the all-time list of MLB catchers.

1. Johnny Bench. Baseball Hall of Fame.
Debut Seasons PA Offense wOBA FldRns Fld/700PA PosAdj WAR WAR/700PA
1967 17 8568 253 0.369 71 6 98 71.3 5.8
Surprise! Bench rates as the best catcher in MLB history, at least based on WAR. Here's what I wrote about him at BtB:
As a Reds fan I'm biased, but I think if you were to ask a large number of fans the name of the best catcher ever, Johnny Bench's name would be at the top of the poll. It's not a slam dunk, but Bench comes out four wins above Fisk--and Bench had 1200 fewer PA's and a much higher peak. Bench was a brilliant defender, but probably not the best defensive catcher of all time. And he was a superb hitter, but is probably not the best hitting catcher of all time. What sets him apart is that he was extremely good at both offense and defense: with game-changing defense and prodigious power, he redefined his position. No other catcher has ever hit 45 home runs in a season, and only one other Mike Piazza) has topped the 40-mark twice. He was Rookie of the Year, a two-time MVP (second only to Berra), a 14-time All Star (13 consecutive), and the winner of 10 consecutive gold gloves. He was the best of the best, and I'm proud that he played for my's nice to be proud of something these days.

Reds Catcher Timeline

Below is a graph of total WAR from Reds catchers (primary position only) since 1890. The line is a 10-year moving average.
Striking that since Bench retired, the Reds haven't had a long-term, quality catcher. Best year was 2005 with the LaRue/Valentin combo. Catcher is clearly a position at which the Reds have historically been strong, at least going back to Hargrave. Who will be the next great Reds catcher?

WAR Career Trajectory Graph

Here are the four Reds Hall of Fame catchers, plus Ed Bailey.
Bench was obviously the best, but the most interesting thing to me about this graph is the Bailey/Lombardi comparison. Lombardi was much more productive over his full career. But during their best five seasons, Bailey was probably Lombardi's equal. Bailey should be in the Reds Hall of Fame, at least by my judgment.

Top-25 Reds Catchers, by WAR

Table is sortable--click on the header by which you wish to sort!

Rank Name Debut Seasons PA Offense wOBA FldRns Fld/700PA PosAdj WAR WAR/700PA
1 Bench, Johnny 1967 17 8568 253 0.369 71 6 98 71.3 5.8
2 Lombardi, Ernie 1932 10 4277 114 0.366 -16 -3 35 27.1 4.4
3 Bailey, Ed 1953 9 2576 24 0.346 38 10 38 19.4 5.3
4 Hargrave, Bubbles 1921 8 2605 75 0.368 2 1 23 18 4.8
5 Peitz, Heinie 1896 9 2949 -11 0.331 18 4 42 14.2 3.4
6 Clarke, Tommy 1909 9 1935 7 0.339 5 2 37 10.6 3.8
7 Mueller, Ray 1943 6 1864 2 0.336 9 3 16 9.2 3.5
8 Edwards, Johnny 1961 7 2624 -53 0.312 4 1 44 8.2 2.2
9 Burgess, Smoky 1955 4 1227 22 0.356 0 0 13 8 4.6
10 Wingo, Ivey 1915 13 3302 -63 0.313 -5 -1 48 7.3 1.5
11 Vaughn, Farmer 1892 8 2585 -52 0.312 9 2 22 6.7 1.8
12 LaRue, Jason 1999 8 2516 -59 0.308 7 2 42 6.2 1.7
13 McLean, Larry 1906 7 2251 -47 0.311 8 2 36 6 1.9
14 Seminick, Andy 1952 4 1122 -4 0.331 5 3 10 5 3.1
15 Taubensee, Eddie 1994 7 2291 7 0.339 -57 -17 31 4.8 1.5
16 Pavletich, Don 1957 9 1206 13 0.347 -18 -10 6 4.4 2.6
17 Schlei, Admiral 1904 5 1675 -33 0.312 2 1 27 4.2 1.8
18 Diaz, Bo 1985 5 1672 -53 0.299 21 9 26 4.1 1.7
19 Oliver, Joe 1989 8 2598 -87 0.296 10 3 43 3.5 0.9
20 Ross, Dave 2006 3 795 -14 0.315 10 9 14 3.3 2.9
21 Lamanno, Ray 1941 5 1536 -40 0.305 1 0 13 2.6 1.2
22 Wood, Bob 1898 3 492 7 0.351 -3 -4 7 2.6 3.7
23 Campbell, Gilly 1935 3 585 2 0.339 -1 -1 5 2.4 2.9
24 Picinich, Val 1926 3 810 -8 0.324 0 0 8 2.4 2.1
25 Hershberger, Willard 1938 3 427 2 0.34 0 0 4 2 3.3

Next up: First Basemen!

Update (9/15/09): I regret that I mistakenly neglected to include Reds teams prior to 1890 in the above analysis. As a result, some players were mistakenly omitted, though it did not affect rankings among the top-10. Players in the top-25 should have also included Pop Snyder (5 seasons, 6.8 WAR), Deacon White (3 seasons, but 6.2 WAR), and Jim Keenan (7 seasons, 5.7 WAR)