Can't Wait 'Til Next Year to Comment on This One
Not only do I like to research and write articles about baseball, but I also enjoy reading a number of other baseball blogs on a regular basis. One of the bloggers that has differentiated himself from the masses is Bryan Smith, the proprietor of Wait 'Til Next Year, a site focused on the future of baseball, today.
In Bryan's most recent post, he takes an interesting look at Javier Lopez' gaudy numbers in 2003 and forecasts how he will fare for the Baltimore Orioles in 2004. Bryan points out rather astutely that Lopez will face the triple challenge of hitting in a more difficult home ballpark, playing in a division loaded with baseball's best pitchers, and facing an age that has not been all that kind to catchers in the past.
I would beg to differ with Bryan on two matters though. He states Lopez has been "far and away the 3rd best catcher in the last 20 years, and probably top 20 all-time". I would rank Lopez as no better than the fifth most productive catcher during the past two decades, and I would not place him in the top 20 all time--at least not as this point in his career.
Although Bryan didn't actually list his top two catchers, I believe it is safe to say that he rates Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez numbero uno and dos. I don't think he would find much debate there. However, I contend that there are two other active catchers who deserve to rate higher than Lopez and a few more retired backstops who I could argue on behalf of, too.
Piazza and Rodriguez clearly stand out as the two best catchers over the past 20 years or since the Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, and Ted Simmons era of the late 1960s through the early-to-mid 1980s.
Piazza is unquestionably the best hitting catcher not only of this era but all time. He ranks among the top ten across the board in career totals and in the top two in every important rate-based stat. Piazza also sits atop the leader boards for catchers when it comes to BA, SLG, OPS, and Total Average vs. the league average. I believe Piazza's superior production at the plate more than makes up for his defensive deficiencies. In fact, the latter have been so well chronicled over the years that his overall value has been unfairly tainted in my opinion.
Rodriguez shows up on many of these top ten lists, plus he is one of the best defensive catchers of all time (as attested by several fielding metrics as well as his 10 Gold Gloves).
Beyond Piazza and Rodriguez, there may not be any more Hall of Famers in our midst. However, there have been two catchers--both of whom are still in their primes--who have produced at a higher level than Lopez over the course of their careers.
Although Lopez (.502) has a higher career slugging average than Jorge Posada (.474) and Jason Kendall (.422), he has a much lower on base percentage (.337) than both (.375 and .385, respectively). Lopez simply makes too many outs compared to Piazza, Posada, and Kendall, and he doesn't rank anywhere near I-Rod when it comes to defense.
These on base and slugging averages are important as they relate to creating runs, which is what it is all about, right? The following table probably summarizes it best.
RUNS CREATED ABOVE POSITION, 1984-2003
1 Mike Piazza 528
2 Ivan Rodriguez 244
3 Jorge Posada 181
4 Jason Kendall 178
5 Mickey Tettleton 177
6 Chris Hoiles 167
7 Darren Daulton 159
8 Mike Stanley 137
9 Javier Lopez 127
10 Gary Carter 108
As shown, Piazza has created more than twice the number of runs as Rodriguez. I-Rod, in turn, has generated one third more runs than Posada and Kendall and nearly twice as many as Lopez. Posada's advantage over Lopez is eye-opening given that he has played in nearly 200 fewer games with over 1,000 fewer at bats.
Does this all mean that Baltimore made a mistake? Well, not really. The Orioles signed Lopez to a three-year deal for $22.5 million, or $7.5 million per year. How does that compare to the other active catchers on the above list?
Posada $ 8.0m
Kendall $ 8.7m
Lopez $ 7.5m
Lopez' contract was about in line with what one would expect given his production. Mike Lieberthal
is the next highest paid catcher in baseball at $7.25 million. Slotting Lopez in between Posada/Kendall and Lieberthal seems right on the money.
Will Lopez be worthy of his contract? Now that is a totally separate question. As Bryan details, the going is gonna get a lot tougher for Javy in 2004 than it was in 2003. I hope Oriole fans are prepared.
THE REST IS HISTORY
As far as all time goes, let's not get ahead of ourselves here by annointing Lopez as one of the 20 best catchers ever. Using Runs Created Above Position once again as our metric of choice, let's see just where Javy ranks among catchers:
1 Mike Piazza 528
2 Bill Dickey 473
3 Yogi Berra 430
4 Mickey Cochrane 425
5 Gabby Hartnett 364
6 Carlton Fisk 360
7 Johnny Bench 347
8 Ted Simmons 321
9 Gary Carter 251
10 Wally Schang 249
11 Ivan Rodriguez 244
12 Ernie Lombardi 241
13 Joe Torre 222
14 Roger Bresnahan 214
15 Roy Campanella 206
16 Smoky Burgess 194
17 Darrell Porter 193
18 Jorge Posada 181
19 Jason Kendall 178
T20 Gene Tenace 177
T20 Mickey Tettleton 177
32 Javier Lopez 127
Half of Javy's RCAP were generated in 2003, an indication of a high peak value but also a more mediocre career otherwise. His only other double-digit years were from 1997-1999 when he averaged 18 per season. If Lopez can string together three similar campaigns for the Orioles, then--and only then--might one be able to make a case for him being included in a discussion about the top 20 catchers of all time.
Excluding Piazza and Rodriguez, both of whom will surely be enshrined in Cooperstown upon retirement, it is interesting to note that all but three of the top 15 catchers have a plaque in the Hall of Fame. Catchers are the second most underrepresented position in the HOF (behind third basemen only), an oversight that needs to be corrected by adding a few deserving candidates. Ted Simmons may have hurt his standing among voters by prolonging his career as a designated hitter and first baseman, but his numbers as a catcher appear much more worthy than the one-year and out look he received from voters. Wally Schang, a switch-hitting catcher from 1913-1931, played on seven pennant-winning and five World Series championship teams, yet never received more than 11 votes for the HOF. Joe Torre's totals above only tell part of the story as he created an additional 92 runs above the league average at his position as a first baseman and third baseman. His overall total of 314 is good for 87th on the all-time list of modern-day players.
Rich's Weekend Baseball BEAT