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January 27, 2000, 9:36:11 AM

Pudge vs. Pudge

Earlier this month, Carlton Fisk became the 12th catcher to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame; the only position with less HOFers is third base (which makes me wonder, why isn't Ron Santo in?).  Which catchers playing today match up to Fisk's standard?

There is of course, the new Pudge, Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez, and perhaps the greatest offensive catcher of all-time, Mike Piazza.  If we have Rodriguez, Javy Lopez must be included and I'm adding one of my favorite players, Pirates catcher Jason Kendall.  With apologies to Mike Lieberthal and Jason Varitek (one season doesn't make a career), here's the good ol' chart:

           Yrs  OPS LOPS  Pct RC/27 LRC/27  Pct  
Piazza       7  966  735 +31%  7.68  4.65  +65% 
Kendall      4  850  746 +14%  6.51  4.69  +39% 
Rodriguez    9  802  755  +6%  5.14  4.96   +4% 
Lopez        6  841  735 +14%  5.44  4.66  +17% 
Fisk        24  798  715 +12%  5.40  4.38  +23% 

             R   HR  RBI  SB
Piazza      611 240  768  13
Kendall     281  31  207  71
Rodriguez   649 144  621  60
Lopez       283 119  378   7
Fisk       1276 376 1330 128

(OPS= OBP+SLG, LOPS=League Average OPS, RC/27=Runs Created/27 outs LRC/27=League Average RC/27)

Rodriguez look worse than you expected?  He's been very close to league average during his career, good for a catcher, sure, but there's a simple explanation for this.  Rodriguez doesn't walk. He never has and I doubt very much he ever will.  His career high is 38, well below average, his career total of 237 is a year and a half for Mark McGwire, and last year he actually grounded into more double plays (an astounding 31) than he took walks (24).  Despite his gaudy numbers in fan-favorites such as batting average and RBI, Rodriguez has a low career on-base percentage and even last year his figure of .356 was barely above the league average of .344.  Offensively, Rodriguez is one of the most overrated players, and though this is a subject that's been touched upon many times, did not deserve the MVP.  Offensively, he is clearly the worst of the four players being compared.

Piazza's numbers are simply awesome.  If he keeps it up, and doesn't switch to first base in the next few years, he will end his career as the greatest offensive catcher of all-time, and perhaps even the greatest catcher of all-time.  He is eons beyond Fisk, and really has no comparison offensively.  His OPS is the highest of all-time, his RC/27 versus league is by far the highest of all-time (Mickey Cochrane and Roger Breshanan are at +50%) and his counting numbers will be simply awesome.  Once Piazza reaches the mandatory 10-year limit, he's a Hall-of-Famer, no matter what his defense says (and he isn't horrible).

Kendall, just 25, hasn't played enough to warrant the same amount of praise, but he looks an awful like a fast Mickey Cochrane.  If he can recover completely from his horrific ankle injury, Kendall should continue on his pace.  He hits for average, posts an OBP over .400 due to good patience and a lot of hit by pitches, has 15-20 homer potential, and doubles enough to bring his slugging in the high .400s.  Not only that, but if he has his speed back, he is an awesome basestealer (71 for 87), and one of the fastest catchers of all-time.  Although his power numbers won't match up to Fisk's, Kendall is a better player offensively.  This next year is crucial for Kendall; if he shows that he is healthy, I see no reason why he won't be a Hall of Fame catcher.

Lopez's OPS is very close to Kendall's, yet his RC/27 is significantly lower because OBP is slightly more valuable than SLG, and because Lopez is a horrible base stealer.  Like Rodriguez, he never walks, but Lopez plays in a
league with less offense and a very tough hitter's park.  His rates compare with Fisk's, but Lopez has the unfortunate distinction of being just the 3rd best catcher in the NL, and he has never gotten 500 ABs in a season.  His low counting numbers combined with borderline rates leaves Lopez a bit short offensively.

Since Rangers fans will no doubt point out Pudge's defensive contributions, here's a defensive comparison:

(1997-99)   SB   CS Pct  DP   F%
Rodriguez  104  137 .432  40  .993
Lopez      171   75 .695  18  .994
Piazza     342  121 .739  33  .988
Kendall    217  118 .648  42  .990

The supposed break-even point (the percentage where the positive of the stolen bases equals the negative of the caught stealings) for stolen bases is 66.7%, not 50% as one may expect.  This is because when you steal a base successfully, your chances of scoring go up, but you still had a chance of scoring on first.  When you get caught stealing your percentage goes from whatever it is on first to no chance to score at all.  So, let's see how many bases each player saved or cost his team purely from stolen base attempts.  To figure this out, we take the attempts and find what 66.7% of that is to find the break-even stolen base mark.  For example, Pudge faced 241 attempts, and 66.7% of that is 161, so Pudge saved 57 bases the last 3 years.  Kendall saved 6 bases, Piazza cost his team 33 bases, and Lopez 7 bases.

Pudge's defensive prowess is well-documented, and is awesome to say the least, and he is clearly the best in the majors.  However, the runs he saves on defense compared to Piazza (90 base difference over 3 years) does not come close to how much better Piazza is offensively than Pudge, the difference is well more than 30 bases a year.  Kendall is well more than 17 bases a year better than Pudge offensively, and Lopez more than 20 bases, given what league and park he plays in.  If I had to rank the four, it would go Piazza, Kendall, Rodriguez, and Lopez.  Rodriguez gets the nod over Lopez simply because of his durability, but if Lopez played full seasons, he would be a superior player.  As far as Hall of Fame credentials go, Piazza will surely get in, if Kendall keeps it up, he will too, but his low power numbers may deter Hall voters.  Rodriguez is borderline in my mind, but he will make it, and Lopez doesn't make the cut simply because he hasn't really played a full season.

On a final note, here's how Fisk stacks up against Gary Carter, who garnered just under 50% of the vote in uesday's Hall of Fame balloting:

       Yrs OPS LOPS  Pct  HR  RBI RC/27 LRC/27  Pct
Fisk    24 798  715 +12% 376 1330  5.40  4.38  +23%
Carter  19 774  695 +11% 324 1225  4.91  4.11  +20%

        GG  FR  FPct  PB/162  AS   TPR
Fisk     1 -44  .988   9.39   11 24.0
Carter   3  54  .991   6.62   11  29.6

(GG=Gold Gloves, FR=Fielding Runs, PB/162= Passed balls committed per 162 games played, AS= All-Star Game appearances, TPR=Total Player Rating)

The two look quite close offensively, with Fisk gaining the slight edge in counting numbers due to playing longer (5 years is deceptive, Fisk only had around 800 more at-bats).  Fisk also stole 128 bases to Carter's 39, but that is taken care of in TPR.  Because they're so close offensively, we have to go to other areas to see who has the edge, and Carter's edge in Total Player Rating is due entirely to his superiority as a fielder.

However, fielding runs for a catcher is a formula that can still use some work (Johnny Bench, -80 fielding runs.  Give me a break.  Bench did not cost his team 80 runs in the field.), so I'm willing to go to more conventional ways of measuring fielding.  Carter won more Gold Gloves, and had a slight edge in fielding percentage and committed less passed balls, so I'll give the fielding edge to Carter.

That's not enough to sway me one way or another.  Fisk is remembered for his 1975 Game Six home run, but Carter got a crucial hit in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, and his team actually won.  Neither won an MVP, but both placed in the top five twice.   It's a hard decision, but if pressed I'd probably pick Carter, but I can see a good argument for Fisk.  Either way, it's hard to see how Carlton Fisk is a Hall-of-Famer and Gary Carter isn't, and it would be a shame if Carter didn't join Fisk in Cooperstown next year.