MLB Historical Positional Title Belt – Catcher

Have you ever wondered who the best baseball player alive was in any given year? No? Well, I have. Check out the first article in this series for an explanation of the rules. Next up, the position closest to my heart, Catcher. To the list!

Pre-Deadball 1871-1900

At the beginning of time or around 1871, baseball, more or less as we know it, became a professional sport. The first 29 years are known as “Pre-Deadball” because they preceded the next era, “Deadball” and came before the first World Series. It’s like Baseball’s B.C. Catching has been a glove-first position for most of Baseball’s history and early on there were very few who stood out from the crowd enough to qualify for a belt (from a metric standpoint, I’m requiring that the player reach at least a wcWAR+ of 30.0 to qualify). 

Charlie Bennett 1878-

The first Catcher to reach at least 30.0 wcWAR+ actually doubled that mark across a 15-year career in the early days of the game. Charlie Bennett played for the Milwaukee Grays, the Worcester Ruby Legs, the Detroit Wolverines, and the Boston Beaneaters. A brutal position physically even in the modern game, being a catcher in the early days did not encourage longevity but despite this, Bennett was a valuable offensive player for a solid 8-year peak and finished with a respectable 116 wRC+. 

Buck Ewing 1880-

Bennett’s hold on the crown was short-lived as another steady performer rose up and took it. William “Buck” Ewing is in the HOF and toiled behind the plate for 18 seasons. A remarkably fast catcher; Ewing led the league in triples one season, stole at least 354 bases in his career which is second among catchers (though the stat wasn’t tracked before 1886), and is the all-time leader in triples for catchers with 178. He and Bennett were the only catchers of the Pre-Deadball era to standout and both spelled their knees with time in the outfield.

Deadball 1901-1919

The Deadball era was known for speed, bat-to-ball skills, terrible fields, horrible defense, and dominant pitching. Catching remained in the dark ages with limited protection and grueling long games. Few catchers had the staying power to reach the 30.0 wcWAR+ level. So few, the era was dominated by a two players.

Roger Bresnahan 1898-

Known as The Duke of Tralee, Roger Bresnahan played for 17 seasons and wore six different uniforms. He was a very valuable offensive producer, putting up a wRC+ of 130 or better 9x with a career of 128 which is 15th all-time among catchers. In 1903 he logged his finest offensive season with a .350/.443/.493 slash, 30 doubles, and a 159 wRC+. He held the crown for the first half of the Deadball era before turning it over to a 4x World Series Champ.

Wally Schang 1913-

Walter Schang was a key cog for 4 different title runs across three different decades. He received MVP votes in his first two seasons with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s dynasty. Then he was traded to Boston and hit .444 in the 1918 World Series. Another trade sent him to the Yankees for whom he played in 19 World Series games and received a 3rd ring in 1923. By the time the 1930 A’s gave him a 4th ring, he was 40 and served as Connie’s assistant manager as much as a player. Never great but always of positive value, Schang was the class of the position into the Liveball era.

Liveball 1920-1941

Ruth symbolized the transition from Deadball to Liveball as he began hitting baseballs over fences in great numbers. The twenty-one years that followed saw the sport grow in popularity before reaching a critical point in American history and pushing into the next era, Integration. Schang held the crown until the first truly great catcher burst onto the scene as the Liveball era began.

Gabby Hartnett 1922-

Charles Leo Hartnett, nicknamed Gabby initially for his quiet demeanor in front of the press and later cemented by his chatterbox nature behind the plate, was the first truly impactful catcher in league history. Hartnett’s presence is felt all through Baseball’s Liveball history, as he was there when Ruth called his shot, when Hubbell downed murderer’s row, and he hit the “Homer in the Gloamin’” to steal the ‘38 pennant from the Pirates. Hartnett hit 37 HRs in 1930 and is still top-20 among catchers in big flies. He’s the first catcher to exceed 100 wcWAR+ and held the crown until the first of several immortal Yankee backstops.

Bill Dickey 1928-

The Man Nobody Knows, Bill Dickey was the unspoken catalyst for one of the most dominant stretches in MLB history. The 1930s were completely and utterly controlled by the Yankees and he consistently provided top-tier production at his position. On a roster with a rotating cast of HOFers, Dickey was the one nobody knew but his 11 all-star appearances, 8 top-15 MVP finishes, and 8 World Series rings show he deserved his HOF plaque as much as the rest of them. He’s top-10 all-time among catchers in wcWAR+ with 111.3 and held the crown till his final season, several years into Integration, before passing the torch to the next Yankee great.

Integration 1942-1960

Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige and so many more burst into the major leagues as the color barrier fell. Their brilliance and impact were immense in their own right and furthered the disappointment that so many greats toiled in obscurity behind the veil, such as Josh Gibson, Bullet Rogan, and Oscar Charleston.

Yogi Berra 1946-

For one season, Dickey and his successor shared the field. One wonders if Yankees fans realized they were about halfway through a 38-year stretch with the best catcher in baseball. Lawrence Peter Berra’s impact surpassed merely baseball and he is remembered in American society at large as a icon of wit and excellence. The most decorated baseball player in history, Yogi won 3 MVP awards, went to 18 all-star games, and won 10 World Series rings as a player. Yogi was consistent, logging over 2000 games and a record 75 World Series games, had power with the 4th most HRs among catchers ever (358), was valuable on both sides of the ball, and served, like Dickey, as the unifying catalyst through the dominant 40s & 50s Yankees dynasties. He held the crown into the Expansion era before an intermediary transitioned to the greatest catcher ever.

Expansion 1961-1976

In 1961, the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators (Texas Rangers) joined the league. Then in ‘62 the New York Mets and Colt .45’s (Houston Astros) joined. Again in 1969 four more teams were added, the Kansas City Royals, Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres, and Seattle Pilots (Milwaukee Brewers). There have been three other expansion years but the sudden influx of major league roster spots in the 60s and 70s had competing effects of diluting the talent pool and giving more players opportunities to shine. After Yogi hung it up, a highly underrated player who’s known more for his managing stood atop the heap for a single season. Then the greatest debuted.

Joe Torre 1966-

Joe Torre won 6 pennants, 2 Manager of the Year awards, and 4 World Series as the skipper for the late-90s early 00s Yankees. Before that, he was an extremely good 3B/C for the Braves, Cardinals, and Mets securing the 1971 MVP and batting title. His career was sandwiched between two all-timers so his reign was short-lived.

Johnny Bench 1967-

The Little General revolutionized the position on his way to the greatest career for a backstop in league history. Also the catalyst for a dynasty, Bench won a pair of MVPs as he anchored the mighty Big Red Machine. He hit 40 HRs twice and in ‘70 put up 45 HRs, 148 RBIs and a .293/.345/.587 slash, worth a 144 wRC+. Not only did he have an impact bat, but he led the league in caught-stealing percentage 3x and is remembered for his cannon arm and control of the run game. His career wcWAR+ of 157.3 bridged to the next era’s super-backstop and overshadowed HOFers Ted Simmons (101.9) and Carlton Fisk (136.5) along the way.

Free Agency 1977-1993

As the Mariners and Blue Jays were added signaling the end of the expansion era in ‘77, the reserve clause fell in ‘75, and a new Basic Agreement went into effect in ‘76, Players were now free to move around the league. Consistency and defense were the hallmarks of the catcher who dominated the Free Agency era.

Gary Carter 1984-

The Kid, Gary Edmund Carter, mirrored the great careers of Yogi, Dickey, and the overshadowed Fisk with a long career of consistent excellence. Top-10 defensive metrics and a few offensive peaks backed up Carter’s HOF resume, along with 6 top-15 MVP finishes, 5 silver sluggers, 3 gold gloves, and 11 all-star selections. In 1982, Carter set his career high with a 150 wRC+, a .293/.381/.510 slash, and a league-leading 106 RBIs. His career stretched into the 90s when he was overtaken by the 2nd man to earn the moniker “Pudge.”

Wild Card 1994-2011

After the disaster, which I blame on Bud Selig personally, of the ‘94 stoppage, the players and owners agreed to add more playoff teams, restructure the league, and it took the shape of the “modern” game. This era could also be called the Steroid Era but I went with Wild Card. Its catcher set the new and enduring standard for defensive excellence and had the greatest throwing arm I have ever seen.

Ivan Rodriguez 1991-

Never a dominant offensive player, Ivan Rodriguez still made his presence felt in each and every inning he played. His 318.0 career Def is 2nd only to Yadier Molina (which is a little misleading, since the metric has added framing statistics in recent years). His bat wasn’t bad either, with his 311 HRs standing as 7th all-time among catchers. The combination of elite defense and productive offense accumulated a whopping 150.4 wcWAR+, good for second all-time. Hidden under I-Rod’s dominant run was Mike Piazza who deserves mention as the greatest offensive catcher the game has ever seen.

Expanded Playoffs 2012-Now

Coming up with a name for the current era was difficult. It hasn’t quite been long enough to truly evaluate the years since they added another playoff team. Rules have changed, teams have changed names and divisions, and the game has rapidly transformed into an extremely efficient display of athleticism and power. After Pudge retired, another franchise anchor held the crown until a somewhat premature retirement which has left the position in limbo in recent years.

Buster Posey 2012-

Gerald Dempsey Posey started his career running securing the 2010 Rookie of the Year and the 2012 MVP. He was the face and driving force behind the ‘10, ‘12, and ‘14 Giants’ title runs, secured the ‘12 batting title, and seemed poised for another 18-year all-time great catching career. Unfortunately, early in his career, he suffered a brutal collision at the plate resulting in the complete destruction of his leg. He returned from the injury and achieved greatness but walked away at only 34 after a 4.9 fWAR season, seemingly still a potent force on both sides of the ball. In his 2012 season, the only 10 fWAR season for a catcher, he slashed .336/.408/.549, with 24 HRs, a 164 wRC+, 36.5 Def, and the MVP. Truly magnificent. His 117.5 wcWAR+ edged out Twins’ great Joe Mauer (113.4) and nearly covered over the next franchise icon as well. 

Yadier Molina 2022-

Overshadowed by Pudge and Posey, Yadier Molina established himself as a cornerstone of the St. Louis Cardinals during his 19-year career. Known mostly for his defense, his 393.3 is the all-time mark for Def among all players, and his 48.3 in 2010 is the single-season mark for catchers. He held on for one last season after Posey retired and held the crown before retiring himself.

JT Realmuto 2023-

The best active catcher is Phillies star JT Realmuto. A combination of steady offensive production, all-star-level defense, and extended consistency has him a notch above other active greats Yasmani Grandal, and Salvador Perez. A new crop, led by the Dodgers’ Will Smith and the Braves’ Sean Murphy may have something to say about who will wear the crown in the near future.

So there you have it, the catcher title belt holders:

Charlie Bennett 1878-1879
Buck Ewing 1881-1897
Roger Bresnahan 1898-1912
Wally Schang 1913-1921
Gabby Hartnett 1922-1927
Bill Dickey 1928-1945
Yogi Berra 1946-1965
Joe Torre 1966-1966
Johnny Bench 1967-1983
Gary Carter 1984-1990
Ivan Rodriguez 1991-2011
Buster Posey 2012-2021
Yadier Molina 2022-2022
JR Realmuto 2023-2023


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