When I (co-)wrote my first book in 1999, I was indignant.OK, so I’m indignant all the time. Specifically, at that moment, I was indignant about Gary Carter. At that point he’d made two appearances on the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame ballot. The first time, he garnered 42 per cent support; the second time, he fell to 33 per cent.
That’s right, sports fans: There was at least one moment in history when exactly one-third of the electorate believed that Gary Carter belonged in the Hall of Fame.
Seems preposterous now, doesn’t it? Apparently it seemed preposterous to a huge percentage of the 67 per cent who didn’t vote for Carter in 1999, because just four years later he was elected by 78 per cent of the electorate. All’s well that ends well, and usually the BBWAA does eventually get it right. Eventually.
But this isn’t a day for quibbling. While I think most observers now believe that Gary Carter deserves his spot in the Hall of Fame, it’s worth asking where he ranks among the Hall of Fame catchers. And it’s trickier with catchers than with players at other positions, because we’re just now beginning to get a handle on catchers’ defensive contributions, thanks to tracking and technology that didn’t exist when Carter played. We track baserunning more closely now, too, which hurts catchers because they’re slow. But it doesn’t hurt Carter because we just weren’t paying close enough attention.
Looking at Wins Above Replacement, FanGraphs has Carter fourth all-time among catchers with 72.5 WAR, wedged tightly between Ivan Rodriguez and Yogi Berra; Baseball-Reference.com has him fourth with 66.3, firmly between Carlton Fisk and Yogi Berra.
That’s right: Perhaps more than I’ve seen before, the two Win Shares methods agree almost exactly, placing Gary Carter — who, not to beat a dead horse or anything, took six years to get into the Hall of Fame — fourth all-time among MLB catchers.
Was Gary Carter really better than Yogi Berra? Seems a bit far-fetched. In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranked Berra No. 1 and Carter eighth. Berra won three Most Valuable Player Awards; Carter won zero MVPs, and finished in the top five in voting just twice.
Well, everything depends upon weighting. Berra started 1,641 games behind the plate; Carter, despite playing some outfield in his first two seasons in the majors, started 1,954 games as a catcher. His total of 2,056 appearances as a catcher ranks fourth all-time.
But it’s more than that. We know something about the defensive contributions of 20th-century catchers, and Gary Carter scores really well. According to FanGraphs, Ivan Rodriguez has the best numbers in major-league history, thanks to his incredible ability to shut down the running game. But the next three guys are 1970s/80s contemporaries Jim Sundberg, Gary Carter and Bob Boone … and Carter hit better than those other two put together. In his Win Shares book, Bill James gave Carter an A for his defence. He won three Gold Gloves and might have deserved a few more.
Berra, on the other hand, simply didn’t have many chances to showcase his defence, or at least not his ability to control the running game, because teams simply didn’t run during the great majority of Berra’s career. In 1955, when Yogi won his third MVP Award, the White Sox led the American League with 69 steals; meanwhile, the Kansas City Athletics stole 22 bases the whole season.
Most long-time catchers are good fielders. A few long-time catchers are good hitters. Very, very few long-time catchers have been good in both areas. I’m not prepared to argue that Carter was better than Yogi Berra. But Gary Carter was a good hitter and arguably a great fielder, which is what made him one of the 10 greatest catchers who’s ever played the game, if not one of the five or six best.
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