’70’s ERA Catchers – How Did They Really Compare?

13 Dec

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When you think about the great catchers from the 1970’s, two names usually come to mind right away – Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk. If you actually lived through the era you likely recall Thurman Munson and Ted Simmons. You remember Ray Fosse getting parlayed by Pete Rose in the All-Star game. You remember Gene Tenace on those big Oakland powerhouse teams, and possibly you recall guys like Darrell Porter and Jim Sundberg. It’s easy to say Bench and Fisk made the HOF so they are the hands down best from that era, but you’d be wrong. Without doubt Bench is the catcher of the era, but beyond that is a field of gray. After objectively looking at the analysis, you’ll notice one player is a glaring omission from the HOF, while another has a strong case to be re-considered by the veterans committee.

Comparing players fairly is never easy. Some players stuck around long enough to compile stats like Fisk – and there is nothing wrong with that. You have to be doing something right to play for 24 seasons. Others burned bright and hot and disappeared quickly like Fosse. Munson was a tragedy, but he was incredible while he was alive. Some players were more or less defensive specialists like Sundberg. How do you fairly compare them with so many factors that cannot be quantified in the mix?

We can’t ignore career numbers, but we can find another means to help compare players. It has long been said, but obviously not followed by all voting writers, that a decade of dominance at a position is usually a strong factor of HOF worthiness. If we look at these catchers who were at the top of their game in the ’70’s we can see them in a slightly different light by looking at their 162 game average totals. All this does is take a players career numbers and divide them by 162 games to manufacture a full season of stats. With that, we have as fair a comparison as we can get to try to establish who the most dominant catchers were in the 1970’s and possibly who should be in the HOF.

Granted, the 162 game average comparison method is imperfect, but since there is little alternative aside from getting deep into WAR comparisons, this will have to do for this installment.

Munson averaged the most AB’s, the only player to surpass 600 with a 608 average. Bench and Simmons are the nearest competition at 575 and 573 respectively, while Fisk sneaks in at 568. Everyone else is near 500 or under that mark. What that basically tells us is that this comparison is going to work the best for rating those 4 players against each other regarding offensive statistics. Here is how they compare on the 162 average:

Runs –  Fisk (83), Bench (82), Munson (79), Simmons (71)
Hits – Munson (177), Simmons (163), Bench (154), Fisk (153)
Runs – Fisk (83), Bench (82), Munson (79), Simmons (71) *Porter (70)
2B – Simons (32), Bench (29), Fisk (27, Munson (26)
3B – Munson (4), Fisk/Simmons (3), Bench (2)
HR- Bench (29), Fisk (24), Simmons (16), Munson (13)
RBI – Bench (103), Simmons (92), Fisk (86), Munson (80) *Porter (75)
SB – Fisk (8), Bench/Munson (5), Simmons (1)
BA – Munson (.292), Simmons (.285), Fisk (.269), Bench (.267)
OPS – Bench (.817), Fisk (.797), Simmons (.785), Munson (.756)

The nest thing to look at is awards. Who won what? Who was nominated for what, and how many times? Who made it to the World Series and won? These are not perfect measurements by any means, gold gloves are sketchy at best, but they do go to show who was impressing the voters and who was winning. Winning does matter – ask a Pirates fan.

Munson – ROY, 7 time All-Star, 7 MVP ballots (‘76 MVP), 3 GG, 3 WS appearances – 2 Wins
Bench – ROY, 13 time All-Star, 10 MVP ballots  (‘72 MVP), 10 GG, 4 WS appearances – 2 wins
Fisk – ROY, 11 Time All-Star, 7 MVP ballots, 1 GG, 1 WS appearance (loss)
Tenace – 1 time All-Star, 1 MVP ballot, 4 WS – 4 wins
Simmons – 8 time All-Star, 7 MVP ballots, 1 WS (loss)
Fosse – 3 time All-Star, 1 MVP ballot, 3 GG
Porter- ROY, 4 time All-Star, 2 MVP ballots, 3 WS (1 Win)
Sundberg -ROY 3 time All-Star, 2 MVP ballots, 6 GG

Of these 8 catchers, 5 won ROY which is pretty impressive and lends itself to how important the position is. This is where the number of years a player put in needs to be heavily considered – and incidentally an area where Munson shines brightly.

Bench had the most All-Star game appearances (13) followed by Fisk (11).  Simmons had 8, and Munson 7. Here’s the thing – Munson made it 7 times in 11 years. Bench did that over 17, Simmons 21, and Fisk 24 seasons! Similarly, Bench appeared on the most MVP ballots with 11, while Fisk, Munson and Simmons appeared on 7 3ach. Only bench and Munson managed to win it and that does count for something. Bench, Munson, Tenace and Porter were WS frequent fliers, Bench and Munson won a pair while Tenace won 4! Now – Tenace was not a full-time catcher.  he wasn’t even a starter on all those teams. That number is impressive, but does require a grain of salt.

What does it all mean? It means that Bench was hands down the best. Fisk made the HOF, but not really for anything other than power numbers and longevity. He hung on with the Chisox like a case of the clap trying to push his way to breaking whatever catching records he could, often to the detriment of his team. Chicago stunk then though so no one really cared. It was something to cheer for. Simmons clearly has the numbers to stand alongside either, and actually ahead of Fisk. Munson is borderline. he never had the power the big catchers did, but he hit for a high average and drove in runs well. Three consecutive seasons hitting .300+ and driving in 100+ is a pretty cool thing – even Yogi Berra never did that.

Bench and Munson were big winners. Bench was hands down defensively the best – Sundberg was second. Munson was probably the third best defender – recall his season with only 1 error. Still a record. Pudge Rodriguez can only dream of that. Will Munson ever get in? I’d say no. Maybe the veterans committee will give him a Santo, but it’s doubtful. Simmons not making it is simply inexcusable.

That’s just my take – what’s yours?

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