"I don't want to embarrass any other catcher by comparing him with Johnny Bench."
-- Sparky Anderson
"In my 30 years in baseball, the closest total package I've seen to (Ivan Rodriguez) is Johnny Bench."
-- Johnny Oates
"The game has never seen a better catcher than Yadier Molina."
-- Tony La Russa
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Ultimately, it's a question that can't be answered, certainly not just by numbers or dusty anecdotes: Who has been baseball's greatest defensive catcher? Certainly, you can't tell those baserunners who tried to steal -- or didn't try to steal -- on Johnny Bench that it would be anyone else. For those who played against Ivan Rodriguez, they'll tell stories of getting picked off base when all they heard -- let alone saw -- was the leathery snap of the ball smacking into the first baseman's glove. If you're Nelson Figueroa, the 38-year-old pitcher who has spent parts of nine seasons in the majors but most of his professional career in the minor leagues, he'd likely say it has to be Yadier Molina.
Figueroa, a journeyman right-hander, helped Puerto Rico eliminate the United States in the World Baseball Classic in March, throwing six shutout innings with an assortment of sub-90-mph fastballs and offspeed pitches. In interviews, Figueroa praised Molina, the St. Louis Cardinals' backstop, for instilling confidence in the Puerto Rican staff. That complete trust in Molina's pitch-calling abilities allowed them to focus on throwing a particular pitch rather than thinking about what pitch to throw.
"I don't throw very hard, but I'll pitch inside," Figueroa said after beating the U.S. "A lot of times they'll sit outside, waiting for that breaking ball, and they won't get it. It was a great exhibition of what can be done without having a plus fastball. Yadier had a great plan. I didn't really have to shake him off, if at all."
The art of calling a game is the most subtle attribute a catcher brings to his job. The leadership required in helping a pitcher's confidence is certainly difficult to identify. A catcher's arm, however, is something we can all see. Molina mowed down Jimmy Rollins trying to steal in that game with a laser-beam throw right to the corner of second base to catch a guy who was 30-for-35 on stolen base attempts last season, and that was easy to admire.
No wonder La Russa sang Molina's praises during the 2011 World Series: "Defensively ... he does things in all phases better or as good as anybody I've ever seen," La Russa said. During that series, it was Molina, not Albert Pujols, who received the largest ovations from the Cardinals' faithful. Molina's growth from a strong-armed catcher who couldn't hit to team leader and star had turned him into the toast of a town that knows its baseball.
But greatest defensive catcher of all time? Can we go there?
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"My idea is to really play the game of baseball. Not many people know what that can mean. You don't give the other team a single extra out or base or at-bat. You don't even give them one extra swing. You have to know the game to understand why a catcher feels so special about his work. You have every part of the game running through your fingers."
-- Carlton Fisk, "Why Time Begins On Opening Day"
The best catchers have to call a game, work with pitchers, know the opposing hitters, know the umpires, frame pitches, block pitches in the dirt, scramble after popups, have the guts to call for a 3-2 slider with a runner on third and a tie game in the ninth, throw out runners, block the plate, and play with various pains, bruises and injuries that would send other position players crying into the trainer's room for mercy.
Bench once went to the hospital to have a sore foot X-rayed, Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote. It wasn't broken, but three previous breaks, now healed -- which Bench had played through -- showed up.
Ever since he won his first Gold Glove Award as a 20-year-old rookie, in 1968, Bench has been the standard-bearer for all-around excellence behind the plate. He was big and strong, but also nimble and athletic (he'd play other positions on his rare days off from catching) and possessed as powerful an arm as many old-timers had ever seen. He also revolutionized how the position was played: He caught the ball one-handed, as opposed to the traditional method at the time of two hands, which helped him cock his arm for a quicker release.
He was so revered that heading into his sophomore season, Sports Illustrated wrote a profile already asking if he could be the greatest ever. In 1972, in the midst of Bench's second MVP season, Anderson, his manager, said:
"Johnny just does things other catchers can't do. We have a boy on our team, Bill Plummer, who can throw as hard, but there is no one who can come up throwing quicker than John. Nobody ever really steals a base on him. ... If we had pitchers who could hold a runner, we'd never have any bases stolen at all. Johnny will grab a ball that is inside and be in a throwing motion all at the same time. He has a way of fielding a bunt in front of the plate so that as he picks it up he is bounding back to throw. And he makes the play at the plate better than anyone. He just takes the plate away from the runner. That's physical strength, of course, but there's a technique involved, too."
Here's my favorite Johnny Bench stat: From 1970 to 1979, the Reds played 45 postseason games. They stole 54 bases and got caught 17 times. Reds opponents stole -- get this -- six bases, and were caught 13 times. Four of those steals came in 1979, by which time Bench's arm had started to go. Six-for-19 in 45 games? As Bench himself reportedly said, "I can throw out any man alive." He was right.
The regular-season stats bear this out as well. The Reds annually allowed the fewest stolen bases in the league during Bench's prime, and he had the best caught stealing percentage three times in his career. In 1972, the Reds allowed just 31 steals in 70 attempts (24 for 55 off Bench), when the league average was 70 steals in 126 attempts.
Of course, caught stealing is only part of the defensive equation, although Bench earned praise in all aspects of his game. We don't have Pitchf/x data beyond just the past few years, so there is no scientific way to measure how effective Bench or Rodriguez -- let alone Gabby Hartnett or Mickey Cochrane or Yogi Berra -- were at framing pitches.
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Bill James' best defensive catchers by decade, from "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract":
1900s: Ossee Schreckengost
1910s: Ray Schalk
1920s: Muddy Ruel
1930s: Gabby Hartnett
1940s: Jim Hegan
1950s: Roy Campanella
1960s: Elston Howard
1970s: Johnny Bench
1980s: Jim Sundberg
1990s: Ivan Rodriguez
It's hard to compare catchers from the early part of the 20th century to Molina, of course, although good defensive catchers were enormously valuable in the dead-ball era because of all the steal attempts and bunts. The stolen base largely disappeared from the 1920s to the early '60s, so while Campanella had a tremendous arm (Baseball-Reference.com has him with a 57 percent career caught stealing rate, the best of all time), he faced very few steal attempts compared to more modern catchers, let alone the speed of players in recent decades. He very well may be the greatest defensive catcher ever, but I think it's bit of a leap to make that judgment.
So in limiting the discussion to players since Bench, I'm comfortable in the list of candidates below. The list includes their career caught stealing percentage, the league average percentage during their careers, number of pickoffs, and Total Zone fielding runs from Baseball-Reference.com.
Bench: 43 percent (35 league), 62 PO, +97 runs
Steve Yeager: 38 percent (33 league), 44 PO, +70 runs
Bob Boone: 40 percent (33 league), 76 PO, +107 runs
Jim Sundberg: 41 percent (35 league), 64 PO, +114 runs
Rodriguez: 46 percent (31 league), 88 PO, +167 runs
Molina: 45 percent (28 league), 46 PO, +95 runs
Gary Carter, Brad Ausmus and Rick Dempsey also would have their supporters.
(And if you want a sleeper best catcher? How about a career backup named Charlie O'Brien? Tim Belcher raved about O'Brien's pitch-framing abilities to Sports Illustrated in 1999: Charlie never moves. Most catchers lunge at a ball, or at least stab at it a little. Charlie? Nothing. No movement, no jerk, no reach. He's the best catcher I've ever seen at making pitches look like strikes. O'Brien was so good behind the plate that he lasted 15 seasons, until age 40, despite hitting .221 with 56 home runs in his career.)
James called Boone one of the top five defensive catchers ever; considering he won Gold Gloves from ages 38 to 41 (throwing out more than 40 percent of base stealers each year), it's certainly a conclusion that's hard to argue with. Boone was known as a consummate game-caller and he played on a lot of good teams with the Phillies, Angels and Royals. Sundberg won six straight Gold Gloves with the Rangers from 1976 to 1981. James wrote that Yeager's arm was as strong as Bench's, and he caught many good pitching staffs with the Dodgers.
As far as the Total Zone fielding stat, Rodriguez is way ahead, at least in terms of career total (in part because he's played more games at catcher than anybody, nearly 700 more than Bench). As you can see, the caught stealing totals for Rodriguez and Molina are much better compared to their contemporaries than the others.
Despite Rodriguez's arm strength (he led his league nine times in caught stealing percentage, including a career-best 60 percent in 2001) and defensive rating on Baseball-Reference, I'm reluctant to declare him better than Bench or Molina. During the first half of his career, there were a lot of grumblings that he didn't prepare before games with pitchers, choosing instead to focus on his hitting rather than going over game plans. Some suggested he called for too many fastballs to help him gun down potential base thiefs. He joined the Marlins in 2003, however, and won a World Series, and later helped the Tigers reach one in 2006, so by accounts he matured in that regard.
But you'll never hear about Molina disregarding some part of his game. His arm strength is on par with Bench's -- his career caught stealing rate of 45 percent is best among active catchers and he's led his league three times in that category (he was at 48 percent last season, second by a hair to Cincinnati's Ryan Hanigan). Like Bench, Molina has caught for two World Series-winning teams. In 2006, he directed a staff that included past-his-peak Jeff Weaver, rookie Anthony Reyes and rookie closer Adam Wainwright to a title. In 2011, the Cardinals won again even though Wainwright, their best pitcher in 2010, missed the entire season. They had another young closer in Jason Motte, who like Wainwright in '06 had only assumed the role in September. You can see why La Russa loved his catcher so much.
Molina also rates very well on pitch framing, according to this study by Mike Fast on Baseball Prospectus. Aside from what the Pitchf/x data says, you only have to listen to Figueroa and members of the Cardinals to know what Molina means to a pitching staff.
Bench was a legendary figure in the early '70s, probably the most popular baseball player in America at the time. He was a better hitter than Molina (although Molina is coming off a terrific season at the plate). But the game does run through Molina's fingers, and by the time his career winds down, I think he'll be remembered as the greatest defensive catcher we've seen.