A few nights ago at the Ballpark in Arlington, ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, covering the retirement ceremony for Pudge Rodriguez, tweeted “His stats warrant first ballot Hall of Famer, ninth best C ever for me.”
No problem with the first statement, but what exactly is the second based on? I think most baseball historians would pretty much agree that the two greatest catchers ever were Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench. I would rate Berra ahead of Bench, Many others would not, but that’s an argument for another time. Roy Campanella presents a problem in that he did not get from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues until he was 26 years old, a couple years past his physical prime. I don’t think there’s much argument that at his best Campy was one of the best catchers ever.
Some combination of those guys are likely to fill out your first
three selections. Then, you’ve got Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey and
Gabby Hartnett among the old-timers, and Mike Piazza, Carlton Fisk and
Gary Carter among the moderns. Those really are the only catchers who
have to be considered, right? So apparently Kurkjian is dumping one of
those guys to make Pudge his ninth.
Regarding Cochrane, Dickey and Hartnett, I don’t think they were as
good a hitters in their time as Pudge was in his, and at any rate, they
didn’t have anything like his endurance behind the plate or his throwing
ability. I think common sense says that if they were playing in the
same era, most analysts would rate Pudge higher.
Piazza is ranked by nearly everyone as the best hitting catcher of
all time; unfortunately he is also ranked as a poor defensive catcher.
Maybe Pudge is not be the best defensive catcher in baseball history,
but then again, he might be. He’s certainly one of the best. I guess
since fielding, throwing and handling of pitchers is so essential in
rating a backstop, I’d say it’s pretty much a toss-up as to whether
you’d go with I-Rod or Piazza. I’d go with I-Rod.
Carter and Fisk? Rodriguez caught more games than either, and though
he hit fewer home runs – 311 to Carter’s 324 and Fisk’s 376 – he had a
considerably higher batting average than either – .296 to .262 for
Carter and .269 for Fisk – and a slightly higher slugging average. Based
on that, I think you’d have to make the argument that Fisk and Carter
were better defensive catchers than Rodriguez to rate them higher, and I
don’t see how you could do that.
Let’s stop and review. That leaves Berra and Bench on top, Campanella
if you limit the argument to peak seasons, and Piazza only ahead of
Pudge if you rate hitting over fielding – which I don’t. I’ll take Yogi,
Johnny and Campy as my top three, but I’ll argue vociferously that
among major league greats, Ivan Rodriguez was at least the fourth best
This puts me at sharp odds with Kurkjian. But I’ll throw one more
player into the mix who I think deserves to be mentioned – Josh Gibson,
regarded by nearly everyone who saw him as the greatest catcher in Negro
League history and the greatest hitter they ever saw. I mean, if we’re
going to cut some slack for the argument for Satchel Paige as best
pitcher ever – as so many do – I think you have to make the same
allowance for Gibson.
That makes Pudge Rodriguez, to my mind, the fifth best catcher in baseball history.