clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Bill Freehan and the modern Hall of Fame catcher

New, 8 comments

What determines a case for Cooperstown?

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

At present, there are only 19 catchers whose portraits hang in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. In terms of underrepresented positions, only third basemen have fewer inductees at 17 (this is not including designated hitters). Of course, when players are elected to the Hall of Fame, it is the entire story of their career that determines admission, and not necessarily their position.

One of many questions that get asked is: just how valuable and irreplaceable was that player in his particular position? How valuable were they to their team and the game in general?

The caliber of the players who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame as catchers is truly incredible. These players are the best of the best at what they did, and even some of them took multiple ballots or a Veteran’s Committee selection to achieve induction. Tigers fans can recognize the glaring omission of Bill Freehan (something I have written about previously). What Freehan’s absence from the Hall of Fame tells us, though, is just how difficult it truly is to be admitted to Cooperstown, and how much a catcher needs to prove over their career in order to gain serious consideration.

There are cases to be made for a handful of current or recently-retired catchers as to their Hall of Fame worthiness, but are any of them really on the same level as those who entered before them? Does our generation even have a Hall of Fame catcher?

Since I’ve made the case for Freehan previously, instead we’ll look at three active catchers, those most likely to get some buzz for Hall of Fame consideration after they retire, and one whose first Hall of Fame ballot will come in 2024. We’ll compare them to the most recent Hall of Fame inductees at the catcher position: Mike Piazza, former Tiger Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, and Ted Simmons (via the Veteran’s Committee).

Just this summer, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina signed a one-year contract extension worth $10 million, and upon signing the deal, announced that the 2022 season would be his last. This has naturally stirred up the oft-debated discussion surrounding Molina’s Hall of Fame merits. He’s a 10-time All-Star, has two World Series rings with the Cardinals, nine Gold Gloves, four Platinum Gloves, and a Silver Slugger. His productivity at the plate hasn’t been what it once was, and in the 2021 season (as of September 13), he’s hitting .257/.301/.385 with only an 88 wRC+, but in terms of his career totals, he’s a .280/.331/.403 hitter who had a 99 wRC+.

Considering catchers are rarely relied upon for their offensive prowess, Molina has done a remarkable job at keeping himself consistently useful to his club, and it's something the team and its fans love him for. Is he a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, though? Arguably not. In terms of overall catcher JAWS, Molina ranks 22nd with a JAWS of 35.3. There are players who rank above him who have been passed over by both the voters of their day, as well as the Veteran’s Committee, such as Thurman Munson and the aforementioned Bill Freehan.

Molina’s admission to the Hall of Fame is probable, though a first-ballot decision is a long-shot. He has strong accolades in his favor and over the soon-to-be 19 years of his career has been the starting catcher for the Cardinals with such remarkable constancy that 2020 was the first time in over 15 years he did not play in more than 100 games for the team. But as mentioned above there are stronger catchers who have continued to be overlooked. Molina’s beloved status but Cardinals fans, and some recent feats like collecting his 2000th hit, and playing in his 2000th game at the catcher position add to the sense of immediacy of his accomplishments, but in the cooling period after his retirement, it remains to be seen how the voting press will remember his achievements.

That same sentiment is certainly also true for Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez, whose beloved status among the local fandom has also made him a longstanding point of discussion for Hall of Fame contention. Like Molina, he has no shortage of awards and accolades over his 10 season career. He’s a seven-time All-Star (as recently as just this season), a five-time Gold Glove winner, three-time Silver Slugger winner, and not only does he have a World Series ring, he was also selected World Series MVP. At present in 2021 he’s still performing well at the plate, hitting .274/.315/.538 with a 125 wRC+, and putting up the highest home run mark of his career, with 44 to date. For his career, the totals look pretty close to Perez’s current season performance, with a .270/.302/.461 and a 103 wRC+.

By the numbers, both Perez and Molina have been right on average when it comes to their offensive prowess. When we look to Perez’s JAWS numbers, though, he’s considerably lower on the list than anyone else we’ll discuss here today. In all-time catcher JAWS, Perez ranks 44th. If Perez continues on with the Royals through 2025, as he is contracted to, and remains healthy, he may achieve more milestones than he has at present, but he’s unlikely to climb much higher in terms of JAWS, especially as he ages and continues to deal with the wear and tear of the position.

While Perez’s offensive production is currently better than Molina’s, it seems unlikely that he will garner enough voter support for induction. And at present, his career WAR is a mere 14.5. This, of course, could change completely as he continues to play, but as of right now, Perez seems a long-shot for Cooperstown.

Someone whose chances are likely higher than both Perez and Molina, is San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey. Posey, currently in his 12th season, fits the bill of a Hall of Famer much more evidently than either of his colleagues, in terms of both awards and career numbers. In addition to seven All-Star appearances, a Gold Glove award, four Silver Slugger awards, and a batting title, Posey as three World Series rings, was the 2012 NL MVP, and 2010 Rookie of the Year. His 2021 season average thus far is .300/.391/.503 with a 143 wRC+, and in career terms, he has .302/.371/.460 with a 129 wRC+. If we look at Posey’s JAWS compared to other catchers, he ranks 14th of all-time, at 40.4, which is the highest of all currently active players.

If we consider Molina to be a probable inductee, Posey is likely as well, though a first-ballot admission is uncertain.

This leads us to an interesting player to consider, and the first among these men to get his shot at admission to the Hall. Former Minnesota Twin Joe Mauer, who retired in 2018, will be eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2024. At that time, voters will look to his achievements, like his 2009 AL MVP award, his six All-Star appearances, three Gold Gloves, five Silver Sluggers, and three batting titles over a 15-year career. Mauer surpassed 2000 hits during his time with the Twins, and at the time of his retirement had a career line of .306/.388/.439 with a 123 wRC+. Mauer is a career 52.5 WAR player, and more remarkably still, his catcher JAWS is seventh of all-time at 47.1. Joe Mauer should be in the Hall of Fame, at least in the catcher Hall of Fame, but his admission is by no means a sure thing.

For one thing, he didn’t remain a catcher for all 15 years of his career. By 2014 he had pivoted primarily to first base, the position he would stay at for the remainder of his time with the Twins. Mauer remained consistent in terms of both games played and level of offensive production, and it wasn’t a move he particularly relished, but it does highlight one of the more difficult aspects of the catcher position. Mauer moved to first base not out of a lack of desire to catch, but because the number of concussions he suffered simply made remaining behind home plate untenable for him. The final straw came at the end of the 2013 season where a concussion ended the year for him in August. Mauer continued to play well at first, but he was never quite as good as he’d been during his career heydays.

The risk to his health was the determining factor in his retirement at the age of 35, as he said, “The decision came down to my health and my family. The risk of concussion is always there, and I was reminded of that this season after missing over 30 games as a result of diving for a foul ball.” Putting his long-term health first and ending his career at a relatively young age might be one of the biggest things that keeps him from Cooperstown. Had Mauer continued to put up the numbers he had been a few seasons longer, regardless of position, it’s likely his candidacy wouldn’t be as uncertain. But as it is he was a major league catcher for 10 years, and as good as he was during that time, it becomes difficult to stack those years against other players who remained longer.

If admission to the Hall of Fame was only about how well a player did during his time at a certain position, Mauer’s years behind the dish in Minnesota should get him elected, but his case is a much more complicated one, and because of that, he is not guaranteed to get in, which is a real shame.

Let’s compare Mauer, and the other active catchers above, to the three most recent catchers to be inducted into the Hall. Mike Piazza, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, and Ted Simmons are the only catchers to have been inducted into the Hall of Fame since 2016. Piazza ranked fifth of all-time in catcher JAWS, had a career wRC+ of 140, and a career WAR of 63.7 over his 16 major league seasons. Pudge Rodriguez ranks third all-time in catcher JAWS, with a career wRC+ of 104, and a career WAR of 69.2 over his 21 seasons in the majors. While Rodriguez was a first-ballot inductee, it took Piazza four years to be elected. When you consider Piazza’s remarkable career numbers compared to those of our active catchers above, it becomes a lot easier to understand why admission to the Hall of Fame is far from a certainty for any of them.

This becomes clearer still when we look at Ted Simmons, who only gained admittance to the Hall of Fame in 2020, via votes from the Veteran’s Committee. Simmons, admittedly, had an uncertain case for admission. He was an eight-time All-Star with one Silver Slugger, and a career average of .285/.348/.437 with a 116 wRC+ and a career WAR of 54.2. In terms of JAWS, Simmons ranked 11th all-time. Those are the career statistics of a player who was not elected via the traditional ballot. The case for the current crop of catchers becomes more difficult still with that in mind.

Hall of Fame Catchers and Contenders

Player JAWS Career WAR wRC+
Player JAWS Career WAR wRC+
Ivan Rodriguez 54.3 69.2 104
Mike Piazza 51.3 63.7 140
Joe Mauer 47.1 52.5 123
Ted Simmons 42.6 54.2 116
Buster Posey 40.4 56.5 129
Yadier Molina 35.2 55.2 98
Salvador Perez 25.8 14.5 103

Catchers have it hard in terms of Hall of Fame consideration. The position does considerable physical damage on the players who don the mask, meaning it’s not uncommon for them to have shortened careers as a result, or move on from the position mid-career as we saw with Joe Mauer. While it’s one of the most important defensive positions on a baseball diamond, and the communication between catchers and pitchers can make or break a game, the mental aspects of the game are a difficult thing to quantify and judge when it comes time to make selections for the Hall of Fame.

There are few men currently in the catcher position today who are likely to be admitted to the Hall of Fame, which shouldn’t be surprising. Gaining admittance to Cooperstown is such a difficult thing to accomplish that only one or two men a year are chosen for the honor. And when we acknowledge the rigors of the catcher role, it should not be surprising at all how few catchers are among the ranks of inductees. But at least some of the men above merit a good long look from voters, while others may need to wait many years more, if ever, to be given the reward by the Veteran’s Committee.

May we respectfully also suggest they continue to consider Bill Freehan, while they’re at it?