Since the beginning of baseball time, only 13 catchers have made it to the Hall of Fame. So on average, there’s approximately one that comes along every decade.
In my day alone, we had Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk — names that people will always remember — and guys like Steve Yeager, Randy Hundley, Jerry Grote and Manny Sanguillén, who were great catchers in their own right. And because all of us played in that same era, I think we have a tendency to look at the game today and think:
Where have all the great catchers gone?
But the fact is, catchers today are as good as they’ve ever been. The question is, how long will they stay behind the plate, and which of them will truly be remembered as catchers?
You hear about Buster Posey. He’s a guy who doesn’t come along very often. He’s already hit over 100 home runs and driven in almost 450 in his young career, and he’s calling great games in the World Series. Only two of those 13 Hall of Fame catchers have as many rings as Buster’s three (Mickey Cochrane also has three and the late Yogi Berra has a ridiculous 10 — good luck topping that).
You hear about a guy like Salvador Perez, whom I love to watch. He hits for power and has that strong arm that guys are afraid to run on. He’s also a great young leader and a two-time Gold Glover.
You hear about the defense of Yadier Molina, a perennial Gold Glove-winner. And even though he’s not bringing the same kind of offense to the table as a guy like Buster, he embodies the soul of the catcher. He’s the kind of guy who has a real focus on calling a great game, and like Posey, he’s done it in the World Series, with two rings to show for it.
In this age of sabermetrics and over-analysis, there aren’t any stats for calling a good game. Other than errors and passed balls, it’s hard to quantify defense unless you’re throwing guys out at a high rate. When it comes to catchers, good defense is just one of those things you know when you see it.
People talk about five-tool players. As a catcher, you need the whole toolbox. You have to hit for power, hit for average, have a good arm and play great defense, which means being fearless, having great feet and turning a quick transfer from glove to throwing position. And on top of all those skills, you have to be able to handle a pitching staff and call a great game — every day, every pitch. There are really only a few guys who can do all these things at a high level, and do it for a long time.
Yadier is timeless. He just keeps calling great games. But at this point, you see a little wear and tear. That comes with age, especially when you’re squatting 450,000 times in your career. Eventually, you’ve got to slow down a little bit, and a lot of teams are trying to get ahead of that slowdown. You see teams platooning at catcher to give guys a few days off. Buster is playing 30 games a year at first base, just so he can catch a break from being behind the plate. And that’s likely to increase as he gets older.
The talent at catcher is there in today’s game. The longevity is what’s missing.
You have guys like Joe Mauer. They called him “the next Johnny Bench” before he started having leg and knee problems. Now he’s a first baseman. He’s only had six seasons where he played more than half the season as a catcher. So even though he took the league by storm as a catcher, if he plays for 10+ years and puts up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers, he won’t be going in at that position. He’ll be remembered as that great first baseman who used to catch.
I look at our kid in Cincinnati, Devin Mesoraco. He plays great defense and can bat fourth in the lineup. I think he has a chance to be special, but now he’s come down with the hip problems — something I’m all too familiar with, as I’ve had both of mine replaced. And those came long after I was required to squat behind the plate 100-plus times a night. So, it’s all dependent upon how he comes back from his injury. When he does come back for the 2016 season, we’ll see how many games he can play behind the plate and what the team’s plan is for him. Persistent hip issues — like knee issues — can be devastating to a catcher.
I’m not an analyst like some of the other Hall of Famers you see on ESPN. I’m not watching every game and I don’t have my eye on every catcher in the league. These days, I get to sit back and be a fan just like everybody else. I see guys like Mike Zunino up in Seattle, who’s a fabulous athlete. I love watching A.J. Ellis out in L.A. call a game. I watch guys like Chris Iannetta, Kurt Suzuki and Matt Wieters — their setups, their transitions. But more than anything, I love watching the guys who’ve mastered their craft behind the plate. The footwork. The arm strength. And then I love to watch them come to the plate and drive in runs. When you see someone who has the whole package — one of those once-a-decade, Buster Posey kind of guys — it’s a beautiful thing to watch.
So when one of them gets moved to first base, we’re all missing out. Sure, you still get to see him bat, and it’s usually the best move for them as a player and for the team as a whole, because it’ll keep him healthy and on the field. But for me, it’s hard to see other positions steal some of the best in the world from behind the plate.
Maybe Buster will stay there long enough to be remembered as one of the greats. Maybe people will remember Yadier’s unique game-calling ability and defense — the things they won’t be able to quantify just by looking back at his stat line. But for now, there’s only 13 of us in the Hall of Fame. It’s a pretty exclusive club, and I’m excited to see which of these young guys coming up through the ranks has what it takes — from the physical ability, to the game-calling, to the longevity — to join us.
Johnny Bench played 17 seasons in Major League Baseball with the Cincinnati Reds, earning 14 All-Star appearances and two World Series titles. He’s a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the MLB All-Time Team and is also a spokesperson for Stryker Orthopedics.