About a month ago, Doug gave us an accounting of the best players at each position who never played in a World Series. The list included a Hall of Famer or Hall of Fame-worthy player at every position except catcher, where Jason Kendall and his 38.3 WAR took the honor. Doug noted in the comments that Joe Torre never won a Series as a player, and was far better than Kendall, but Torre played more than half his career at positions other than catcher.
It probably doesn’t mean much beyond coincidence that no superstar catcher has ever gone a whole career without winning a World Series, but it leads one to suspect that a team with a great catcher might be better equipped to win a title than a team with a superstar at another position. I certainly wouldn’t be the first to posit this, as many writers before me have trumpeted the importance of a catcher as an on-field leader, manager of pitchers, influencer of umpires, and a stifler of baserunners who gets to bat every couple of innings too. Both keepers of WAR admit that catcher defense is an area of weakness, and that there may be things catchers do on the field that show up in neither the box score nor the advanced metrics.
The simplest test of the importance of a great catcher would be to count the World Series played in and won by teams employing the game’s greatest individual catchers. By rWAR, these are the five most valuable catchers in baseball history:
Johnny Bench (played in 4 WS, won 2)
Gary Carter (played in 1 WS, won 1)
Carlton Fisk (played in 1 WS, won 0)
Ivan Rodriguez (played in 2 WS, won 1)
Yogi Berra (played in 14 WS, won 10)
You might be thinking that the best players of all time at any position probably won more than their fair share of World Series. Let’s try third base and center field, just to test this:
Five Most Valuable Third Basemen
Mike Schmidt (played in 2 WS, won 1)
Eddie Mathews (played in 3 WS, won 2)
Wade Boggs (played in 2 WS, won 1)
George Brett (played in 2 WS, won 1)
Chipper Jones (played in 3 WS, won 1)
Five Most Valuable Center Fielders
Willie Mays (played in 4 WS, won 1)
Ty Cobb (played in 3 WS, won 0)
Tris Speaker (played in 3 WS, won 3)
Mickey Mantle (played in 12 WS, won 7)
Ken Griffey, Jr. (never played in a WS)
Our miniscule sample reveals little beyond the fact that playing for the Yankees in the 1950s was a good way to fill up a jewelry box. Sure, Berra won more than Mantle in a career that started and ended earlier, but that may speak more to the teams surrounding them than their respective individual contributions. It should also be noted that Berra never played as many of half his team’s games at catcher after 1959, and the team made every World Series from 1960 through 1963, winning two.
It’s also somewhat misleading to compare World Series appearances and victories across eras, since winning a pennant prior to 1969 essentially required being the best team in a league, while winning a pennant in 2012 means being among the three best teams in the leauge or winning a weak division and then winning two short series and possibly a play-in game, all of which are essentially coin flips. It’s possible that a great catcher will have a greater effect on winning a postseason series than a regular season series, since teams typically get enough days off in the postseason to play their best catcher every game, but given the changes in the playoff schedule over time, it’s impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions about the importance of a catcher relative to other positions in winning championships.
Instead, let’s focus on the regular season. We’ve posited that catchers may help their teams win more games than WAR gives them credit for. It’m not sure it’s possible to test this to any reasonable degree of accuracy, but if it’s true, wouldn’t teams with great catchers out-win their team WAR totals somewhat regularly? Any sample used to test this would admittedly have a lot of noise in it, as teams routinely over- and underperform their team WAR due to things like bullpen management, players accumulating multiple WAR in single-game blowouts, and any number of lucky bounces. Still, if we look at the right players, we might be able to find something, right?
I’m going to manipulate my sample a little bit this time to include catchers who accumulated the most defensive WAR. WAR is consistent in its measurement of offense from position to position, so the contributions of a Mike Piazza type are probably captured well with the existing metrics. My control group will consist of the players on either side of the dWAR list from each catcher. Most of them will be shortstops, with some slick second basemen and swift center fielders mixed in.
By choosing the players with the most dWAR, I’m assuming that the players whose defensive contributions are measurably significant are the same players who are doing the little things that don’t get picked up by WAR. I honestly can’t tell you whether this is a reasonable assumption, since we’re trying to measure immeasurable activities, and it’s hard to find a list of players who were best at those. I’ll limit my study to 12 catchers and 24 other guys, since this work is very manual and time-consuming. If anyone wants to take this on in greater detail, let me know in the comments and I’ll share my work, but to me, these seem like the right players to study.
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All data courtesy of baseball-reference.com
For each player, I looked at his best consecutive eight-year stretch in terms of individual WAR. Adjusted Wins – WAR represents the average number of games his team won over those eight seasons minus the total WAR accumulated by all players on the team. I then made an adjustment to scale every season to 162 games, using the average Wins-WAR difference of .256 (which suggests that a team full of replacement players would win 41.5 games in a 162-game season).
What can we conclude from this? Not much. The average catcher’s team won 41.0 more games than their total WAR, which is a half-game lower than average. Everyone else averaged 41.7. Shortstops are listed first and last, and averaged 41.4. Players from various eras are distributed normally, which suggests that the data aren’t skewed by the games played adjustment or by changes in talent distribution over time. The second, third, and fourth players are three of the six most valuable players in the sample, but there’s no strong correlation between individual WAR and team Wins-WAR.
If there’s one interesting finding, it’s that at least two of the three catchers at the top of this list had very strong reputations as game-changing catchers. Bench is perhaps the best all-around catcher ever, an offensive force who could do everything on defense. He was surrounded by talent- Morgan, Rose, Perez…- but even with all the WAR those players earned, his teams won an average of four more games than WAR suggests they should have every year. If the data didn’t say the same about Art Fletcher and Andruw Jones, I’d suggest there’s something there.
I don’t remember Rick Dempsey’s reputation (I was born during his best 8-year stretch), but Wikipedia tells me he was reputed as one of the best defensive catchers of his era, and both dWAR and these numbers support that.
Yadier Molina is the player about whom I most often read that WAR sells him short. His reputation is as a superlative athlete (speed notwithstanding), a fine manager of pitchers, and the most feared arm in the game by would-be basestealers. His teams have won a game and a half more per season than WAR tells us they should. Should we attach that win and a half directly to Molina’s WAR? Of course not. But this may go a small way toward validating the claim that Yadi is more valuable than his WAR.
From the commenters, I’d like to know whether any of the catchers near the bottom of the list had reputations that fit the narrative. Did they do things that WAR captures excpetionally well, but not get along with pitchers? Did they throw a lot of baserunners out, but let a lot steal successfully too, while guys at the top of the list were too feared to be run on at all? Did they play for bad managers or teams with bad bullpens, which would hide any positive impact they might have had on Wins – WAR?
Furthermore, I recognize some of the shortcomings of using this method to try to isolate a catcher’s contributions without controlling for other factors that likely have greater effects on the results. Is there a better way to study this? Should we start with guys like Molina who seem to exhibit traits that help teams without boosting WAR and compare their teams’ Wins – WAR to the sample?
Or should we just crown Art Fletcher The Greatest Intangible Player of All Time and go back to arguing about Jack Morris?