Historical notes on this year’s NL MVP

WAR and OPS+ Leader

Buster Posey led the NL in WAR (both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs; all further cites are to the B-R version). He’s just the 3rd catcher ever to lead his league in WAR (7.2), joining Johnny Bench (7.1, 1970) and Gary Carter (8.3, 1982). No American League backstop has ever led his league in WAR, and no catcher has ever been the MLB WAR leader.

Posey’s 7.2 WAR tied for the 7th-best ever by a catcher. The #1 figure was 8.5, shared by Bench ’72 and Mike Piazza ’97. Half of all 7-WAR years by catchers came from Bench (3) and Carter (2) combined; Joe MauerDarrell Porter and Carlton Fisk join Piazza and Posey with one apiece.

Posey is also the 3rd catcher ever to lead his league in OPS+, joining Mike Piazza (1995, ’97) and Joe Mauer (2009). Posey’s 172 OPS+ (tops in both leagues) was the 2nd-best by a catcher in modern history, trailing only Piazza’s 185 from 1997 (and tied with Mike’s 172 in ’95).

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ROY & MVP

Both Posey and Bench won Rookie of the Year in their 2nd season and MVP in their 4th. The other catcher to win both awards, Thurman Munson, was ROY in year 2 and MVP in year 8.

The full list of catchers to win ROY, with their rookie WAR and career WAR:

(Did I miss anyone? Is it really true that none of the first 40 ROY awards went to a catcher?)

And here are the catchers who’ve won MVP Awards, with their age and WAR in the MVP year(s):

(The first four catchers to win MVP pre-dated the ROY Award, but it’s highly doubtful that any would have won it if it had existed. Only Cochrane played more than half-time in what we would consider his rookie year, and while he was outstanding, the hypothetical 1925 ROY probably would have gone to Earle Combs.)

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First 4 Years

Among all catchers in MLB history through their first four seasons, Posey ranks 10th with 12.1 career WAR. He’s the 19th catcher with 12+ WAR through age 25, including 19th-century stars Buck Ewing and Fred Carroll. (Ewing lasted a dozen more years and made the Hall of Fame; Carroll was finished at 26.)

Among the 175 catchers with 200+ games played in their first four years, Posey trails only Mike Piazza with an average of 5.9 WAR per 150 games (tied with Carlton Fisk).

With 12.1 career WAR, Posey is already more than halfway to making the all-time top 50 among catchers. (Chris Hoiles currently ranks 50th with 22.1 WAR.)

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Looking Ahead

Although catching will always be a perilous profession (as Posey can attest), since the advent of decent protective gear, elite young catchers have proven surprisingly durable and productive. Among the 22 retired catchers since 1920 who notched 8+ WAR and 1,000+ PAs in their first four years (see table below):

  • They averaged 38.2 career WAR (after 10.9 in their first four years). Their career WAR averaged 3.5 times that of their first four years.
  • 19 of the 22 had career WAR at least double that of their first four years (all but Rick Wilkins, Jody Davis and Clay Dalrymple), and 14 of 22 at least tripled their early returns.
  • 13 of the 22 reached at least 30 career WAR. (Only seven other catchers in this span reached 30 WAR.)
  • 12 of the 22 amassed 20+ WAR after their first four years.
  • They averaged 4.1 WAR per 150 games in their first four years, 3.2 WAR/150 thereafter, and 3.4 for their career.
  • 15 of 22 played at least 1,000 games after their first four years.

It is worth noting that two of the five most productive players from that group spent the majority of their “after” years at another position (Craig Biggio and Joe Torre). Posey has logged 19% of his career innings at 1B, but he caught more this year (post-shattered ankle) than in his first full year, and he was 4th in the NL with 114 games caught.

Retired catchers with 8+ WAR and 1,000+ PA in first 4 years, since 1920:

Rk Player WAR OPS+ PA From To Age G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG Tm
1 Johnny Bench 17.5 125 1963 1967 1970 19-22 486 1787 254 502 101 8 87 326 139 303 .281 .330 .492 CIN
2 Mike Piazza 16.3 151 1592 1992 1995 23-26 389 1455 232 469 62 2 92 304 122 243 .322 .375 .557 LAD
3 Roy Campanella 15.7 135 1883 1948 1951 26-29 482 1657 257 484 85 9 95 324 211 183 .292 .375 .526 BRO
4 Thurman Munson 12.6 114 1708 1969 1972 22-25 423 1501 190 415 57 13 24 150 166 189 .276 .353 .380 NYY
5 Jim Sundberg 12.4 83 2018 1974 1977 23-26 576 1741 184 419 66 8 18 171 203 276 .241 .321 .319 TEX
6 Mickey Cochrane 12.0 115 2004 1925 1928 22-25 511 1690 291 523 75 32 36 239 226 66 .309 .393 .456 PHA
7 Manny Sanguillen 11.9 110 1653 1967 1971 23-27 425 1574 191 493 70 20 19 207 52 137 .313 .336 .419 PIT
8 Butch Wynegar 11.8 93 2356 1976 1979 20-23 577 2024 244 518 85 6 31 250 268 202 .256 .344 .350 MIN
9 Carlton Fisk 11.1 130 1126 1969 1973 21-25 282 1018 146 274 51 10 50 138 90 194 .269 .336 .486 BOS
10 Rick Wilkins 10.9 114 1367 1991 1994 24-27 405 1206 163 317 66 4 51 156 137 294 .263 .342 .451 CHC
11 Rudy York 10.4 140 1357 1934 1939 20-25 344 1173 223 355 61 6 88 298 175 179 .303 .395 .590 DET
12 Gary Carter 9.9 113 1561 1974 1977 20-23 398 1363 180 363 57 5 55 196 161 231 .266 .343 .437 MON
13 Craig Biggio 9.5 104 1870 1988 1991 22-25 483 1667 210 454 74 9 24 153 162 243 .272 .339 .371 HOU
14 Bill Dickey 9.4 118 1410 1928 1931 21-24 379 1305 181 428 73 24 21 210 74 52 .328 .364 .469 NYY
15 Joe Torre 9.3 114 1247 1960 1963 19-22 337 1129 120 323 48 9 29 139 94 164 .286 .344 .422 MLN
16 Tom Haller 8.6 119 1194 1961 1964 24-27 344 1020 133 254 36 5 50 155 149 178 .249 .347 .441 SFG
17 Tony Pena 8.5 108 1347 1980 1983 23-26 363 1270 121 382 60 9 28 151 56 157 .301 .332 .428 PIT
18 Charles Johnson 8.4 97 1303 1994 1997 22-25 345 1128 122 272 55 3 44 143 147 275 .241 .331 .412 FLA
19 Jody Davis 8.2 104 1802 1981 1984 24-27 487 1631 166 427 81 7 59 251 137 312 .262 .317 .429 CHC
20 Clay Dalrymple 8.2 94 1565 1960 1963 23-26 476 1358 114 342 45 9 30 157 160 138 .252 .335 .365 PHI
21 Benito Santiago 8.1 96 1658 1986 1989 21-24 431 1562 173 413 73 7 47 193 68 295 .264 .296 .410 SDP
22 Lance Parrish 8.1 110 1495 1977 1980 21-24 384 1380 191 366 73 12 60 195 96 297 .265 .316 .466 DET
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used /Generated 11/21/2012.

Comments

Historical notes on this year’s NL MVP — 28 Comments

  1. One of the curious things I noticed (I think) about Posey when watching the playoffs this year was that he appeared to close his eyes momentarily if the batter swung at the pitch. If the batter swung through, didn’t seem to affect him making the catch. But, it sure looked odd.

    Anyone else notice that? Is that a trick for teaching catchers not to flinch when the motion of the swing disrupts their concentration on the pitch?

    • Doug, I wish I’d noticed that myself. I can’t find anything deep online, but I did find this tweet around WS time: “Buster Posey blinks EVERY pitch.”

      • I didn’t notice it every pitch. Seemed to me he did it only when the batter swung. And, it was more than a blink – a definite close, pause and then open. Makes me think it was something he was taught (or that he taught himself) to avoid flinching.

  2. I didn’t see Jason Kendall on the last list (he played in AA last year, so I guess he hasn’t officially retired), but I believe he should rank 4th with 14.7 WAR in his first 4 years, just behind Campanella.

    I-Rod’s not there because he had just 7.9 WAR in his first 4 years.

    Interesting to see Rudy York on the list, and with 140 OPS+. I didn’t realize Rudy started out as a catcher. He played only 239 games behind the plate, none after his 4th season. He twice led the league in passed balls, the first time despite catching only 54 games. So, not a surprise to see that bat move to first base.

    • Doug: Kendall did announce his retirement mid-season. Not sure why BR hasn’t included that. Maybe they do one massive update all at once?

    • Doug:

      I just took a glance at York’s minor league record at B-Ref. He never caught in the minors, according to what’s shown there. Most of his his games were at first base.

      Almost certainly his Major League beginnings at catcher came as a result of the career-ending beaning of Mickey Cochran in May of 1937. Birdie Tebbetts, Cochran’s back-up, wasn’t viewed as the solution to the crisis, and York’s big bat—which was all he ever had throughout his career, according to most accounts—was seen as the answer to the problem, the presumption being that he could learn while he earned. But he couldn’t. Eventually Hank Greenberg was pushed to the outfield to keep York in the lineup at the fielding position where he could do the least damage.

      • York did some big things in his rookie year in 1937. In August he set what were then monthly records with 18 HR and 50 RBI. Also with 103 RBI in 375 AB he became the first of three players to complete a season with 100+ RBI with fewer than 400 AB. (Bobby Bonds and the second Frank Thomas are the other two.)

        Hank Greenberg was more than pushed into the OF, he asked for and received a $10,000 bonus from the Tigers for making the switch.

        • I always get them mixed up, it was Barry Bonds, not Bobby. I should also mention that Jeff Bagwell did it with exactly 400 AB.

        • Re: York’s record-setting August ’37 — Interesting that his offensive explosion coincided with his position switch from 3B to C.

          To that point, York was batting .250 and slugging .518 in 46 games. From his first game behind the plate (HR, 2B, 4 RBI), York batted .353 and slugged .758 in 57 games (all 54 of his starts were at C), with 23 HRs.

      • nsb, York’s MLB defensive debut was at catcher, 2 games in 1934, long before Cochrane’s injury. Since we don’t have the defensive assignment for 43 of York’s 100 minor-league games that year, I would guess that he caught a good number of those.

        • According to Baseball Almanac and Wikipedia York played first base in the minors in 1935 and 1936. And while we’re on the subject of York, for the first two months of the 1948 season he was the ML active HR leader.

      • “Part Indian, part first baseman” was the phrase I’ve read to describe York’s fielding prowess (or lack thereof).

  3. Since 1901, there have been 89 seasons of 5+ WAR by catchers, all but 18 of them since 1961. 14 of those 18 seasons were compiled by just 4 catchers – Cochrane, Dickey, Berra and Campanella, with Roy grabbing the top mark of 6.8 WAR in 1953.

  4. I couldn’t help thinking of Matt Nokes during this post. After a cup of coffee with the Giants in ’85 he was dealt to the Tigers in a 6 player deal. He hit well at AAA in ’86 (.285/.337/.432)and had another brief look with the Tigers in Sept ’86 going 8-24 with a homer.
    Nokes played his way into the lineup starting 94 games behind the plate while also seeing time at DH. He launched 32 home runs and although it was widely talked about him taking advantage of Tiger Stadium’s short porch, he hit 18 of his homers on the road. He ended the year with 3.2 WAR and a .289/.345/.536 line. Nokes finished 3rd in AL ROY voting behind McGwire and Seitzer. That year’s bumper crop of rookies also included Devon White and Mike Greenwell. Curiously Seitzer and White each had 5.3 which topped McGwire by 0.5.
    Back to Nokes- His ’88 season was decent (2.4 WAR) but his HR total was sliced in half to 16. Injuries dogged Nokes and he played at replacement level the next two years. He was shipped to the Yankees in 1990 and he gave them a couple of 20 HR seasons.
    Nokes finished his career batting under .200 with Baltimore and Colorado in ’95. By age 31 he was done and ended his career with just 8.7 WAR

    • I was surprised to see that Nokes led the Yankees with 24 HRs in 1991, and led them by far with 46 HRs in ’91-92 combined. However, his throwing had suddenly become a problem by then, and teams ran wild on him.

      • I was not surprised, only because I lived through those years as a fan. There wasn’t much there. The team was in the middle of four straight losing seasons, including the worst record in the game the prior season if I remember correctly. Mattingly’s back was already on life support, and the team included the darkest of souls in Mel Hall, who’d swing at any waste pitch, and in the process wasted his talent and then went on to waste his life. The one bright spot was an unknown named Bernie Williams, who was still trying to figure it all out that season.

        Nokes had a nice swing for the Stadium, but he was as bad as bad can be behind the plate at that point in his career. Guess it didn’t matter much.

        • Those were tough times to be a Yankee fan.

          You grow up thinking the postseason is your
          birthright, and then…

          Doug Drabek
          Wille McGee
          Jay Buhner

          These infamous gaffes combined
          with the suspension of Steinbrenner
          allowed cooler heads (Gene Michaels I
          am talking to you), to prevail.

          The Yankee way under Steinbrenner actually
          changed.

          The manager’s revolving door was slammed shut
          by “Clueless”, Joe Torre.

          The realiance on over priced free agents came
          to an end, at least temporarily.

          The results were astounding, as the Yankees
          led by homegrown greats like Bernie Williams, Derek
          Jeter, Andy Pettite and Mariano Rivera embarked on
          a new dynasty from 1996-07.

          The years from 89-92 were awful, but from misery
          came greatness.

          Sadly, the signings of Mike Mussian and Jason Giambi
          marked a return to the old ways.

          Free agents are not the answer.

          • Looking at the Yanks’ trade of McGee for Bob Sykes, I can’t help wondering (a) why anyone would have wanted to acquire Sykes at any price, and (b) why the Yanks in particular wanted him.

            At the time of the trade, Sykes had a 4.65 career ERA in 457 IP, with no good years. He had started and relieved, showing promise in neither role.

            And he was a lefty. On the ’81 Yanks, southpaws had accounted for 63% of their batters faced — a figure that would reach 69% in ’82 even without Sykes (who never pitched in the bigs after the deal).

            What’s the back story?

          • Two notes on the McGee-Sykes trade:

            1) The Yankees made the trade the same day they beat the Dodgers to go up 2-0 in the ’81 World Series. Is it me or is that bizarre? Who makes trades while they’re playing in the World Series?

            2) The Cardinals invited Sykes to “Willie McGee Day” in 2000. Sykes later declared the being part of the ceremony was his greatest day in baseball. I think that tells you everything you need to know about the less than stellar career of Bob Sykes.

            http://1980toppsbaseball.blogspot.com/2010/01/223-bob-sykes.html

          • The worst trade the Yankees made in that era had to be Fred McGriff, Mike Morgan and Dave Collins (plus cash) for Dale Murray and Tom Dodd.

            Mcgriff went on to compile 48.2 WAR, Morgan 24.6 (post-trade) and Collins 6.1 (post-trade). Meanwhile Murray had -0.9 WAR for the Yankees across 2+ seasons (he pitched in one final game for Texas before retiring) and Dodd’s career consisted on 16 PAs for Baltimore.

        • Could be that with Winfield and Mumphrey they thought they had outfield depth locked up for a long time. Reliable pieces like Oscar Gamble and Lou Piniella were around. And maybe they didnt know they were letting Reggie walk yet (this was after ’81).

          All that, and a taste for getting FA outfielders (Ken Griffey and Dave Collins would be the next wave).

    • I got to see Nokes play for the St. Paul Saints in ’98 or ’99. I was the first time I’d see him play in person since 1989. He was catching for the Saints, looked to be in excellent physical shape, hustled after a pop foul as hard as any catcher I have ever seen and seemed to be calling the shots for whoever was on the mound at the time. He even managed to throw out 1 of the 2 runners who tried to steal on him, although the runner probably got about as bad a starting jump as is possible so that had to help.

      I also remember spending $20 on him for my Rotisserie League team in 1988, much to my eventual chagrin.

      • In 1998 Nokes had a hilarious run-in w/an opposing mascot named Goldie. Nokes chased him around the stadium, pinned him against a wall and might have kicked the crap out of him if not pulled away by teammates. Nokes said at the time that he was extremely dedicated to making it back to the majors and found Goldie’s constant unwanted attention to be a distraction. He did manage to hit well there but never did get back to the majors.

  5. Could I ask everyone to please not bother John while he finishes his final rehearsals of “Hang On Sloopy” adorned in nothing but a tuba, in preparation for tomorrow’s performance. Thanks everyone.

    • Jim — I make no predictions, only this observation: The accidental pairing of Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner at QB has created what I think is the most explosive offense in Michigan history.

      Whether we can get enough stops remains to be seen.

  6. Piazza never won the MVP but he did have two 2nds, a 3rd and a 4th. Ironically, he finished closest in points to the winner when he placed 4th in 1995 (not his RoY season, which was actually 1993).

    Piazza was also an A-S selection 10 straight seasons (all with .900+ OPS/135+ OPS+, and the first 9 batting .300) and 12 times in 13 years. His only miss was 2003 when he was injured from mid-May to mid-August.

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