Catchers Who Shut Down the Running Game
For whatever reason I was thinking today about Yadier Molina. As I’m sure you know, Molina is widely regarded as the best active catcher when it comes to throwing out base-runners, and in recent years he has become an offensive force, batting .305, .315 and .319 the last three seasons and dramatically increasing his power hitting. As such, he’s established himself as a legitimate MVP candidate for each of the last three seasons.
Thinking about Molina got me thinking about the best catchers in baseball history in terms of stopping the running game. Not surprisingly, the deadball era prior to 1920 was the era when strong-armed catchers, always a valuable commodity, had their greatest value. Offenses in those days ran, ran and ran some more, and teams on defense needed catchers who could keep the base-stealers in check.
As such, in terms of runners thrown out in a single season, all of the all-time leading seasons happened between 1890 (the point at which season schedules began to approach the modern length) and 1920 (the year when clean white baseballs were constantly in play). In fact, since 1923 (it took a few years for strategies to change once home run and offense totals jumped), the only player to throw out enough base-runners to finish in the top 350 best single seasons was Jody Davis in 1986 when he threw out 89 would-be base-stealers, good for a tie for 166th most all-time.
For the record, Deacon McGuire holds both the single-season record for base-runners thrown out trying to steal (189 in 1895) and the career record with 1,459. Chief Zimmer has the second and third best all-time seasons (183 in 1890 and 170 in 1891) and has the second highest career total at 1,208. Yet neither McGuire nor Zimmer is in the Hall of Fame.
Both McGuire and Zimmer were fairly good hitters as catchers go (McGuire’s career OPS was .713 and Zimmer’s .708) and both had extremely long careers (McGuire played in 26 major league seasons, while Zimmer played in 19). However, neither was a great hitter, and they played at a time when starting catchers simply didn’t play as many games as modern catchers because the equipment of their era didn’t prevent enough injuries. This made it hard for catchers to accumulate the offensive stats necessary for Hall of Fame election, even by the Veteran’s Committee in later years.
In terms of caught-stealing rates, most of the best single-seasons happened during the era between 1925 and 1955, when base stealing was at its lowest rate in history, or were otherwise accomplished facing relatively few base-stealing attempts. In fact, the most impressive season I could find was Ray Schalk‘s 1925, when he threw out 62 of 91 attempted base stealers, a 68.13% success rate, which qualifies as only the 11th highest single-season success rate ever.
The career leaders in caught stealing percentage are Roy Campanella at 57.4% and Gabby Hartnett at 55.7%. Both played in eras when there wasn’t a whole of base-stealing, particularly Campanella, who never threw out more than 35 base runners in a season and had only three seasons in which he threw out more than 25. Hartnett had more opportunities early in his career when there was relatively more base-running: he threw out 54 would-be base-stealers in 1925 and topped 35 caught-stealings seven times in his career.
The fact that Campanella and Hartnett were the all-time career leaders in caught stealing percentage surprised me a bit. In an era when base-stealing was rare, I kind of thought that base runners would have higher success rates, since they would presumably only run when they could get a particularly good jump.
Most likely, when stealing bases fell out of fashion, teams put more emphasis on position players who could hit for power, and players as a group were simply slower, at least until a large number of black and latin players had entered the game by the late 1950’s, bringing back the stolen base as an offensive strategy and introducing a more modern view of players who could be expected both to run fast and hit for power.
Among active players, Yadier Molina’s career 44.53% success rate is far and away the highest, but still only good enough for 107th best all-time. Among catchers whose major league careers began after 1960, Ivan Rodriguez‘s 45.68% success rate is the best, but only 76th best all-time.
As a final note, a majority of the many people who saw both of them play (their careers overlapped) thought that Josh Gibson was a better all-around player than Roy Campanella. Gibson died in January 1947 at the age of only 35 as a result of serious health problems exacerbated by drinking and drug use, just before major league baseball integrated. Campanella, who was a decade younger than Gibson, hit between .312 and .325 three seasons in the majors and topped 30 home runs four times, peaking at 41 dingers in 1953, before an automobile accident ended his major league career at age 35. Campanella’s success gives you an idea just how good Josh Gibson must have been.