After yesterday’s announcement, Buster Posey became the 9th catcher to win the Rookie of the Year Award since 1947, when the BBWAA started the award. In chronological order, the previous 8 catchers are: Johnny Bench (1968), Thurman Munson (1970), Earl Williams (1971), Carlton Fisk (1972), Benito Santiago (1987), Sandy Alomar Jr. (1990), Mike Piazza (1993), and Geovany Soto (2008) .
I thought it would be interesting to rank Posey’s freshman season to the other ROY winners by using Wins Above Replacement (the BR.com method) to see how our favorite catcher stacks up against some of the former greats.
9. Earl Williams (Atlanta Braves, 1971, WAR: 2.7)
Earl Williams starts our list for his 1971 rookie year with the Atlanta Braves. In ’71, Williams hit .260/.324/.491 while primarily playing catcher (626 innings at C, 327.1 at 3B, and 186.1 at 1B). That works out to +11 batting runs on offense. An interesting note about Williams is that he never caught as a minor-leaguer. Coming up with the Braves, Williams played 1B, 3B, and some OF, but he never caught in the minors. Heading into the ’71 season, the Braves were going to use Williams as a backup at 1B — behind Orlando Cepeda — and 3B. However, finding production from the catcher position was a problem for the Braves and Williams was thrust into the role of catcher.
From Williams’ SABR biography:
Productivity at catcher was a huge problem for the 1971 Braves. Both Bob Didier and Hal King were exceptionally weak hitters, and on June 20, Manager Lum Harris came to Williams and stunningly announced, “You’re my catcher.” Earl had no preparation for becoming a full time catcher in the Major Leagues, his May 23 appearance being his lone time behind the plate. His attitude toward catching would be a subject of controversy over his career. At the time of the move, Williams was ambivalent: “It’s okay… but I play where they put me.”
Williams lack of preparation might explain his poor defensive rating at catcher. His ’71 season rates at -6 runs below average at catcher. He also allowed 15 passed balls. In ’72, he led the league in passed balls with 28. His -17 runs on defense in ’72 indicated that catcher might not be the best position for Williams. In ’73 he dropped to 769 defensive innings at catcher. In ’74 he dropped further to 617 innings and it marked the last time that Williams would catch 600 innings in a season. By age 29, Williams was out of baseball.
8. Sandy Alomar Jr. (Cleveland Indians, 1990, WAR: 2.8)
Next up is Sandy Alomar Jr. and his 2.8 win season in 1990. Alomar was essentially a better than average hitter (+8 runs above average in ’90) with average defense. For a catcher, when you consider the position, it’s a valuable skill-set to posses. Alomar posted a slash-line of .290/.326/.418 in his rookie year and he also won a gold glove. Unlike Williams, Alomar was a true catcher — playing all 129 games at the catcher position. Alomar’s 2.8 win rookie season turned out to be the 2nd best season he would ever have. Only his 3.2 win season in ’97 was better.
7. Benito Santiago (San Diego Padres, 1987, WAR: 2.9)
There’s a bit of linkage between the #8 and #7 spots on our list: Benito Santiago is the main reason that the Padres traded Sandy Alomar Jr. to the Cleveland Indians. Santiago’s Rookie of the Year campaign in 1987 ensured that Alomar Jr. — the Baseball America Minor League Player of the year in 1988 and 1989 — would be blocked, and for the Padres, good trade bait. In his 1987 season, Santiago batted .300/.324/ .467 with 33 doubles and 18 home runs. That’s good for +4 batting runs or a 111 OPS+. Santiago’s calling card was his ability to throw runners out from his knees. He led the National League in passed balls in 1987 (22), 1989 (14), and 1993 (23). However, despite the passed balls, Total Zone suggest that his defensive profile was above average (+21 runs on defense career at catcher).
6. Buster Posey (San Francisco Giants, 2010, WAR: 3.0)
Posey, the first Giants catcher to win the ROY, lands at #6 on our list. Posey’s first year — excluding his brief September bench riding experience of 2009 — in San Francisco was a massive success. The 23-year-old hit .305/.357/.505 for the World Series Champion (boy, it still feels good to write that) Giants. As a prospect, most scouted Posey as a moderate power-type, but he smashed 18 home runs and his ISO of .200 shows that maybe we’ve underrated Posey’s power potential. Posey’s bat was worth +16 batting runs in 443 plate appearances. It’s a great start to Posey’s career.
5. Geovany Soto (Chicago Cubs, 2008, WAR: 4.1)
Soto’s batting line (.285/.364/.504, +18 batting runs) in 2008 is nearly identical to Buster Posey’s in 2010, but Soto played for an extra ~120 PAs. That means that Soto gets the extra credit for extra playing time. Soto’s ’08 has been a bit of a high point for him — he struggled in 2009 (0.4 wins) — but he did experience a bounce-back season this year (3.2 wins). Injuries have hampered Soto, he missed time in ’09 with an oblique injury and he had to shut down his ’10 season in September because of shoulder issues. Still, when he’s healthy, the Cubs have one of the better backstops in the current game.
4. Johnny Bench (Cincinnati Reds, 1968, WAR: 4.7)
Bench, perhaps the greatest catcher of all time, didn’t waste any time in his first full season in 1968. He batted .275/.311/.433 which translated to +10 batting runs above average. He also accrued a ton of playing time, playing in 154 games. Bench was 3rd in the NL in doubles (40), 9th in runs batted in (82), and 7th in extra-base hits (57). Bench’s career 71.3 wins above replacement rank #1 all-time among all catchers. Bench wasn’t just a slugger, either. Total Zone has him at an astounding +97 runs above average for his career on defense at catcher.
3. Thurman Munson (New York Yankees, 1970, WAR: 5.9)
Munson’s first full season in New York places him #3 on our list. The Yankees cleared room for Munson on the 1970 team by trading Frank Fernandez in the offseason of ’69. Munson rose to occasion by hitting .302/.386/.415 in a league where the average hitter — average hitter mind you, not just for the catcher position — hit .250/.322/.379. Munson’s bat was worth +21 runs above average and he chipped in an additional +9 runs on defense. He threw out 52% of would-be base-stealers and led the American League in games caught.
2. Mike Piazza (Los Angeles Dodgers, 1993, WAR: 7.0)
I just want to say this: Mike Piazza’s 1993 season is nuts. Even if you ignore the fact that he was a rookie it was still nuts. Since 1901, there have been 16 seasons in which a catcher posted +7 wins or greater — Piazza owns 2 of those seasons and one was his rookie year. His slash-line of .318/.370/.561 is amazing. His 151 OPS+ is amazing. His +37 runs above average on offense is ridiculous. Only Barry Bonds (10.6 wins) had a better year in the NL than Piazza. Piazza was 7th in batting average, 4th in slugging percentage, and 6th in home runs (35). Piazza should be a lock for the Hall of Fame in 2013.
1. Carlton Fisk (Boston Red Sox, 1972, WAR: 7.1)
Fisk ranks #1 on our list for best season from a ROY catcher. He edges Piazza out by .1 wins to take the top spot. Fisk hit .293/.370/.538 with 28 doubles and 22 home runs. Oh, and he led the AL in triples with 9. A catcher leading the league in triples? It just shouldn’t happen. When measured by batting runs, Fisk’s amazing season was worth +33 runs above your league average hitter. Fisk also earned a gold glove and made his first All-Star appearance in ’72. He would go on to make an additional 10 All-Star appearances in his 24 year career. His 67.3 career wins above replacement rank him #3 all-time among catchers.
The Rookie of the Year Award can often seem like a damning prize. But I don’t buy into any of the superstition that goes with the award. It’s a great honor for Posey. He becomes the first Giant since John Montefusco (1975) to win the award. He’ll join Giant greats: Willie Mays (1951), Orlando Cepeda (1958), Willie McCovey (1959), and Gary Matthews (1973) to lay claim to the prestigious award.