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And A Catcher Shall Lead Them

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In 2012, Buster Posey was the Giants' best player on offense. He was also a catcher. And he clearly is both, again, as we speed toward Opening Day. It's not quite Barry Bonds and the Seven Dwarves, as team planning goes, but as I fret frequently, it seems precarious to put the burden of a team's offense on the back of a guy who squats in the dirt all day.

It's one thing for a team through the warp and woof and wonder of a long season to end up with a catcher at the top of the batting stat sheet; it's another to plan it that way, with the catcher the marquee name surrounded by a hive of worker bees.

But instead of being worried, I'll be curious: How rare is this? And how often does that plan work out?

First, recent history: Buster Posey was the Giants' best hitter in 2012, and it wasn't close. Buster's Baseball Reference oWAR (offensive WAR) rating of 7.1 was 54% higher than runner-up Melky Cabrera.

(Please note: B-Ref's oWAR is a measure of all offensive skills, including base running, but I'll use the phrase "best hitter" as shorthand. Also, If you know enough about WAR to disagree with my use of B-Ref's version, I'm eager to hear why. If you don't know what I'm talking about, read this. But please come back.)

I can't figure out how to search the B-Ref database for teams whose best hitters were catchers, so I'll come at this in a couple other ways.

First, how many times did a team reach the World Series in the DH era with a starting catcher as its best hitter? Two, and in neither case was the catcher his team's best hitter by light years, as Posey was in 2012. 

2003 Florida Marlins: Pudge Rodriguez beat Derrek Lee by a percentage point.

1976 New York Yankees: Thurman Munson beat Mickey Rivers by a few percentage points for top oWAR on the Yankees, and he beat everyone else in the American League for the MVP award -- the last catcher before Posey to win MVP and the World Series.

Also note: Just before the dawn of the DH, Johnny Bench won the NL MVP in 1970 and 1972, and the Reds lost those World Series to the Orioles and A's, respectively. But for the purposes of our discussion, Bench wasn't even his team's best hitter in either year: he was out-oWAR'ed by Tony Perez in '70 and Joe Morgan in '72.

My second exercise is to find the top 50 offensive seasons by a catcher. How good was Buster last year? Yep, that's how good. Third on the list. And just to be clear, this doesn't include a player's defense, which vaulted Buster ever higher. (No one will ever confuse Mike Piazza, greatest hitting catcher of all time, with the greatest all-around catcher of all time.)

Many of the catchers listed were part of great, even championship teams. But how many of them were, Posey-like, head and shoulders above their teammates in oWAR? I'll set the threshold at a minimum of 40% better. Going through the Top 50, I find....

Piazza in 1997 (50% better than Raul Mondesi), in 1996 (46%/Mondesi), in 1995 (59%/Jose Offerman - ! -),  and Piazza the Met in 2001 (57%/Desi Relaford - !! -). For what it's worth, the one time Piazza went to the World Series, in 2000 with the Mets, Edgardo Alfonzo topped him in oWAR.

Joe Mauer in 2009 (51% better than Denard Span).

Chris Hoiles in 1993 (58% better than Brady Anderson).

Joe Torre in 1970 (43% better than Dick Allen).

Ernie Lombardi in 1930 (48% better than Ival Goodman).

Ted Simmons in 1975 (55% better than Reggie Smith).

And how many of those were on playoff teams? Two. Piazza's 1995 Dodgers won the NL West. Mauer's '09 Twins won the AL Central.

Does this mean teams that rely inordinately on their catcher for run production don't generally go far? Maybe. Does it mean that teams that lean disproportionately on any one position player generally aren't very good, like the Giants' teams of the mid-oughts? I'm guessing yes. But I would have to quit my day job and abandon my family to pursue this line to my own satisfaction.

I guess there could also be teams out there that were really really good, and whose best hitter by leaps and bounds was a catcher who nonetheless didn't make the Top 50 All-Time list that I generated. Something akin to the 1959 "Go-Go" Chicago White Sox, all glove no bat, led at the plate by a backstop with a decent stick. If you find 'em, let me know.

So I haven't proven much of anything, but I've found a ton of really cool catcher stats and showed that catchers don't often carry their teams to World Series victories. At the very least, I hope I've convinced you of one thing: Any writer who voted for someone other than Buster Posey for MVP last year clearly spent 2012 sniffing glue.

If you're wondering about the other Giant on that list: Dick Dietz had a spectacular year in 1970: 22 homers, 109 walks, a .300 / .426 / .515 slash line good for a 153 OPS+... but Willie McCovey was the best hitter on that team, which had five players with OPS+ of 130 or more and could only finish third in the NL West. Five. Could it have been the biggest coulda-been shoulda-been Giant team ever? I'd put it up there with the 2011 Giants, who might well have kept their trade-deadline division lead and stormed into the playoffs if they hadn't lost their best hitter in late May. Who was that again?


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