The IPI Power Poll: Best Indians' catcher of all-time?
By Jim Pete
November 12, 2012
There’s nothing quite like a list. It doesn’t matter whether or not you are talking about a best-of, or a worst-of, or a top-of-the-decade list, or a team ranking, or even a list of most important hits, lists are fun to look at.
If the lists are ranked, there’s always going to be a discussion about how they are ranked, and the truth of the matter is that the discussion is almost always right. Why? There’s always different perspective, and while the stat-geeks that throw around sabermetrics as the end-all and be-all of decisive-ness, the vast majority know that baseball is always more than just the numbers.
We all have our favorites for a variety of reasons, and while numbers often play a big part in that, so does the time that player played or event occurred, what that player may have overcome, or the simple lore of an event or a season or a player.
Of course, the stats always matter, and always provide the backbone.
With that said, my plan is to start rolling out the IPI lists fairly regularly, although they’ll have a variety of different formats and looks. Sometimes there will be rankings, and sometimes there will be a simple list of players, occurrences and potential happenings. Sometimes, we might even rank the old lists.
With that said, I’ve got catchers on my mind, and thought that it would be fun to kick this all of with a look at the top catchers of all-time with regards to the Indians.
Sandy Alomar, C (1990-2000)
Sandy had the benefit of playing baseball for the Indians when it was all good. As a matter of fact, you could really make a case that the deal that brought Alomar to the Indians in 1989 was the start of a brand-new mentality in Cleveland. Remember, the Indians traded their one major commodity in Joe Carter for Alomar, Carlos Baerga andChris James. Alomar and Baerga would become cornerstones in the Indians resurgence, with Alomar becoming one of the most popular players in Indians’ history.
In his 11 seasons with the Indians, he had a slash-line of .277/.315/.419/.734, with 92 homers and 453 RBI and 416 runs scored. He was the 1990 rookie of the year with the Tribe, and his shining moment may just have been his performance during the 1997 All-Star Game at Jacobs field, when he hit the game-winning home run, and was named the MVP. He played in six All-Star games overall, and all were with the Indians.
His best season was unquestionably that 2007 season, when he had a .324/.354/.545/.900 slash-line, and led the Indians to their second World Series in three seasons. It was that tantalizing talent, along with Alomar’s affable demeanor on the field that really settled Alomar as one of the team’s great players during their best stretch of franchise baseball.
His overall WAR during his tenure in Cleveland was 11.6, with his best season coming in at 3.6 during his 1997 season. It was his only season above 2.
In reality, Alomar’s career was mired in unreached potential because of injuries that plagued him after his first season with the Tribe. He played in 132 games in his rookie year of 1990, which would be the most he would EVER play in a season…for any team. As a matter of fact, Alomar wouldn’t play in another 100-game season until 1996, and in between 1990 and 1996, would never play in more than 89 games.
While Sandy struggled in the playoffs overall, he saved his best for the World Series. He only hit .214 overall in the playoffs, but in his 12 games in the World Series, he would come in with a .311/.340/.511/.852 slash line, with three doubles, two homers, 11 RBI and five runs.
While there was good and bad with Alomar (and an unbelievingly amount of injury-prone bad), Alomar will always be remembered as the catcher of those great 1990’s teams.
Joe Azcue, C (1963-69)
The Cuban-born Azcue came to the Indians as part of a trade in 1963, and he would provide immediate offense for the Indians that season. In only 94 games with the Tribe, he would hit 14 homers, and drive in 46 runs, while scoring 26. His slash line with the Tribe that year was .284/.314/.466/.779.
Azcue was named to the All-Star team in 1968, and would hit .280 that season, and he led the AL catchers in fielding percentage in both 1967 and 1968. He certainly wasn’t much of an offensive threat, but was one of the better fielding catchers in baseball during his tenure, and was largely underrated.
His career WAR with the Tribe was 9.5 with the Indians, with his best season coming in 1968, with his only season at 2 or above. His WAR that year was 2.0.
Ray Fosse, C (1967-72, 1976-77)
Ray Fosse will always be a big what-if in Cleveland.
Fosse would begin his first full season in Cleveland in style, hitting .313, with 16 homers and 45 RBI. All indications were that Fosse was going to be a game-changing offensive catcher, who could play some defense as well. He even managed to hit in 23-straight games during that first half, and his all-star game appearance was what appeared to be the first of many.
The All-Star game in Cincinnati was a tough contest, and went into the 12th inning. Pete Rose and Billy Grabarkewitz singled with two outs in the inning, and with Rose on second, Jim Hickman would single to center. There was never a doubt that Rose was going to try and score the winning run. He was at home, had a chance to win a game (albeit a meaningless exhibition game), and had that tenacious streak everyone knows. He would bowl over Fosse, separating his shoulder, which played at least a small part in making what could have been a superstar career into a wayfaring journey from Cleveland to Oakland, back to Cleveland, to Seattle, and finally, two Milwaukee.
Whatever you think about the play (and Fosse has a lot to think about it, and most of it not good), it certainly changed what could have been. So, what we’re left with is what actually was, which was still pretty good.
Fosse’s career slash line with the Tribe was .269/.323/.385/.708, with 50 homers, 230 RBI and 219 runs in 600 total games played. His career WAR with the Tribe was 9.7 during his eight seasons, with his best being an impressive 5.0 during that 1970 season. He played in two all-star games (he would make it back in 1971, albeit with far worst stats), had two gold gloves (1970 & 1971), and continues to be one of the real What-If’s in Indians lore (and I apologize for the what if reference).
Jim Hegan, C (1941-57)
Jim Hegan will always be one of my favorite Indians’ catchers, even though I never saw him play a game, except in old video replays. Hegan was heading towards the full-time Tribe catcher’s job when something got in his way: World War 2. He would miss the 1943-1945 seasons, before returning to the Tribe in 1946. He would remain with the Tribe as their primary catcher through the 1957 seasons.
So, why was he one of my all-time favorites (and it’s not because he’s Mike’s dad, either)? He was the last Cleveland Indians’ World Series WINNING catcher. Hegan also led a Cleveland Indians pitching staff that may have been the best all-time. When Bob Feller calls you “one of the best defensive catchers in baseball history.” You tend to listen.
Sure, when your starting pitchers are Bob Lemon and Bob Feller and Early Wynn and Mike Garcia and Herb Score, you likely get a bounce in ability. Of course, you do have to believe that Hegan’s defensive prowess and ability to call a game had something to do with the Indians’ starters being one of the best.
Hegan was never an offensive catcher. Overall, with the Indians, his slash line was .230/.299/.349/.648, with 90 homers, 499 RBI and 526 runs in 1,526 games as an Indians’ catcher. Still, when your starting staff was leading the league in ERA from 1948-1951 and 1954, and had two seasons in which THREE PITCHERS won 20 games, you can overlook the offensive piece. The rest of the league noticed as well, as Hegan would play in five all-star games in six seasons from 1947 through 1952. He didn’t make the all-star game in the World Series year, but was good enough to place 19th in MVP voting. He would place 22nd in MVP voting in 1954, the year the Indians lost in a four-game sweep to the New York Giants (darn you, Willie Mays).
This is where WAR really fires me up, as his career WAR is only 3.1 with the Tribe. Here’s where WAR really doesn’t work (and really, I don’t care what the saber-metrics folks say), because it’s clear that the Tribe staff depended on Hegan as much or more than any other staff did at the time, and for good reason. He was just…plain…good.
Steve O'Neill, C (1911-23)
There are many similarities between Steve O’Neill and Jim Hegan in that he was considered one of the best fielding catchers of his day, but he did have a bit more offense than Hegan during his tenure with the Tribe. O’Neill is also the only catcher on this list to spend a part of his career with the Naps, before they were the Indians. So yes, he played alongside Shoeless Joe Jackson and the great Nap Lajoie himself.
It’s also worth noting that O’Neill had five brothers, and all played professional baseball…three in the majors.
He also is one of only two Tribe catchers that can say they were World Series champion backstops in Cleveland (along with Hegan). O’Neill was behind the plate for the Tribe in 1920, when the Indians won their first world title.
Overall, O’Neill had a stat line of .265/.348/.341/.689, with 11 homers, 458 RBI and 394 runs scored in his 1,365 games as the Indians catcher. His best seasons came from 1920-1922, when he hit .321, .322 and .311 respectively. If you add in 1919, he had a four-year stretch in which his OPS was above .800. In the final year of that run, O’Neill would finish sixth in MVP voting.
O’Neill grew up in the era of stolen bases, and in his Tribe career, had an incredible 1,890 stolen base attempts. Even more incredible was the fact that he threw out 45% of his baserunners. Remember though, the league average at the time were generally in the 40%’s, so while impressive to today’s standards, they were standard back then. Of course, over the course of 13 seasons is a different story altogether.
His WAR with the Indians during his 13-year Tribe career was an impressive 20.7, with his best season coming in the 1920 World Series year, when it was 4.5.
O’Neill would return to the Indians as their manager in 1935, and in three seasons, would go 199-168 before being fired. He would later with the World Series as manager of the Detroit Tigers in 1945.
Johnny Romano, C (1960-64)
Welcome to the first real power-hitting catcher of the bunch.
Romano came to the Indians with Norm Cash in a big trade in 1959, and he didn’t disappoint. He blasted 16 homers in his first year with the Tribe, and would follow it u with 21 and 25 homers. He would only hit 10 in the 1963 season, but would rebound with 19 homers in 1964, his final year with the Tribe. His 91 homers over that five year span were the most by an Indians catcher until Sandy Alomar would break his record (Alomar beat him by one…92-91, and VMart has since passed them both).
His best season was in 1961, when he hit .299, with 21 homers and 80 RBI, while scoring 71 times in 135 games. He would play in his first of two All-Star games that year (he actually played in four all-star games, as there were two each in 1961 and 1962), and would finish 24th in MVP voting in ’61 as well.
After he broke his pinky in 1963, he would never really reclaim the job full-time. He would platoon with Joe Azcue in 1964, before he was traded to the White Sox.
His career WAR with the Tribe in his five seasons was 13.9, with his best season coming in 1961, with a 4.4.
Luke Sewell, C (1921-32)
The Indians were the beneficiaries of two Sewell brothers during the roaring 20’s in Luke Sewell, and his more prominent brother, Joe Sewell. Joe was a rookie in the 1920 World Series season, and would go on to be elected into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1977. While Luke will never get entrance into the hall, he was equally important to the Indians of the 20’s.
Sewell’s career began as a back-up to Steve O’Neill, and he wouldn’t become the regular catcher until the 1926 season because of his defensive skills. Overall, Sewell will play 13 years with the Indians, and would come in with a slash line of .259/.320/.342/.662, with eight homers, 386 RBI and 381 runs in 978 ballgames.
His best season was in 1927, when he would hit .294, with 53 RBI and 52 runs scored in 128 games. He would finish 9th in the league in MVP voting, and would follow that up by finishing 12th in the league in MVP voting in 1928.
How good was he defensively? He caught 69 baserunners in 1927, and 61 in 1928. In both seasons, he threw out an incredible 53% of his runners. Overall for his career with the Tribe, his worst Caught Stealing percentage was 40%, and he threw out 47% of the 859 idiotic baserunners that tried to steal a base against him. Of course, it was a different era, and really, the tail end of the era in which stolen bases were expected, not a surprise.
Sewell’s WAR during that stretch was the worst of any Tribe catcher, coming in at -0.5, but to say he had a negative value would be moronic. The game was different back then, and defensive catchers were the norm. Still, you do have to take notice of that.
Victor Martinez, C (2002-2009)
Victor Martinez played the first eight of his ten-year-and-counting career with the Cleveland Indians. During his tenure with the Tribe, he had a .297/.369/.463/.832 slash line, and was clearly the captain of the team during that stretch. He hit 103 home runs, drove in 518, and scored 413 runs in 821 total games. He did spend some time at first base, but to say that he’s anything but a catcher would be flat out wrong.
He played in three all-star games with the Tribe, and had several fantastic seasons to choose from. His two best are the 2007 season, when he hit .301, with 25 homers and 114 RBI, and 2004, when he hit .283, with 23 homers and 108 RBI.
His only season in the playoffs was that 2007 season, and he was the one offensive player that was electric throughout. In the four-game series with the Yankees, Martinez shredded the Evil Empires pitching with a .353/.421/.588/1.009 slashline, with a homer, four RBI and two runs in his four games. He wasn’t as good in the seven-game series against Boston, but still managed to hit .296, with a homer, three RBI and four runs.
For the WAR geeks out there, his total WAR in Cleveland was 17.4 during his eight-year tenure, with his best season coming in at 4.8 in 2005.
He was the quintessential Cleveland Indians’ player while he was here in Cleveland, and it would have been interesting to see what would have happened had the Indians not dealt him to Boston. He may have been the one guy that would have re-signed here…but that’s for another list, and another day. While Sandy Alomar was a figure-head atop the Indians banner for much of his career, VMart was a durable, in-the-trenches, offensive factor. He WAS Cleveland Indians baseball during his eight seasons.
So, how would I rank these catchers?
It’s actually one of the toughest positions to rank, in my opinion, because you have so many similar players who were so good in their respective eras. Looking at today’s stats, there are guys like Hegan, O’Neill and Sewell who likely wouldn’t have made it past a couple of seasons thanks to their relative lack of offense. Hitting catchers were not a commodity until the Yogi Berra and Roy Campenella era. Sure, you had Mickey Cochrane, but they were few and far between.
You also have to take into account the players WAR #s in overall perspective, because Johnny Bench, generally considered the greatest catcher of all-time, had a career WAR of 72.3. Considering the Indians players here are far less than that really puts the position in perspective.
Sandy Alomar was dealt for to be an impact player, and he really only hit that level once in his career. Victor Martinez was the focus of the offense as well, but his career WAR is so far beneath the greats, that you really need to realize what we are talking about. Charles Johnson, a contemporary of both Alomar and VMart had a career WAR of 21, and a guy like Terry Steinbach was at 25. Chris Hoiles, the Orioles catcher during the exact same stretch of Alomar had a career WAR of 22.1, and I think most rudimentary Indians fans would have VMart and Alomar ahead of Hoiles. In many circles, those fans would be wrong.
Fortunately, this is my list, so I can rank them however I want to, so just realize that I’m trying to take into account everything, from personal feeling, to WAR, to having seen them, to having heard stories, to the general belief that Steve O’Neill is the best overall catcher of the bunch in the grand scheme of catchers. I also have to take into account World Championships into this, which immediately bump up O’Neill and Hegan, although Hegan does have to fight through the fact that his starting rotation was easily the most talented in Indians history. Without further ado, here’s my top Tribe Catchers of all-time:
#8. Ray Fosse—I grew up in Cleveland in the 70’s, and the Fosse story was big back then, and for a long time. Part of it was lore, and part of it was the fact that it was an Ohio story with Pete Rose at the center. Fosse represented what Indians fans felt back then…that nothing went there way. I know…I know…back then…HA! With that said, while Fosse was a big story and put together some nice seasons, there just wasn’t the quantity of quality to put him in the top five. What could have been…the story of Indians’ fans lives.
#7. Luke Sewell—Sewell started off #5 for me, but the more that I looked at the numbers, the more that I felt he had to go #7 all-time. He didn’t have any World Titles, and while he certainly played in a ton of games, and while he certainly was a respected catcher, his low WAR and the fact that defensively, Azcue was better than he was defensively in an era when defensive catchers weren’t common place led me to move Sewell down. Honestly, that says a lot about the catchers on this list. While they aren’t going to be listed among the greats all time, they certainly were among the best in the league while they were playing. Sewell was clearly one of the most respected during his day.
#6. Joe Azcue—Azcue had a great season, and was a good player for the Tribe, but while better defensively, he wasn’t as good as the guy that he replaced in Johnny Romano. Azcue did have a blend of solid defense and offense that was intriguing to say the least. In 1966, Azcue led the league by catching 62% of potential basestealers. His percentage with the Tribe was never below 40% in an era when the league average was below 40% every year. You combine that with a fielding percentage over .995 during that stretch, and you have an extremely underrated player.
#5. Johnny Romano—I went back and forth with Romano and Azcue, but ultimately put Romano ahead for the simple reason that he played in only five seasons with the Tribe, and walked away as the first Indians catcher to ever put offense first. As a matter of fact, you could make a case that he was the greatest Indians power hitter as a catcher…all time. While that certainly isn’t saying much, any time you can lay claim to something all-time on any major league team, you have to get props. Had he have played longer for the Tribe, I likely would have included him even higher on this list. Azcue and Romano were solid backstops, and on the right teams during their prime, may even be better remembered historically.
#4. Sandy Alomar Jr.—When I started this idea a couple of months ago, I actually believed that Alomar would be my #1 pick. It is funny how over the years, I had forgotten how much time that he actually missed. Even so, Alomar was generally considered a top defensive catcher, who’s caught stealing percentages were generally higher than the leagues, and who’s fielding percentages were almost always near 1.000. He was so gifted offensively, and if he could have maintained health, would be considered right now in the top ten all-time. He was that good. Unfortunately, injuries derailed a career that could have been incredible. I can’t help but hear my Dad saying, “Opening day? What’s the countdown to Alomar getting injured.” I’d argue with him every day, but he’d always prove right. Such is life. I had to bump him down.
#3. Steve O’Neill—So, I was going to shock the world, and put O’Neill at #1. You see, there’s a small part of me that really believes HE IS the best catcher to ever play for the Naps and the Indians. I never saw him play, and I really had only heard rudimentary comments about him over the years, but everything that I’ve read about O’Neill says just how good he really was, even during the era. Still, he wasn’t as good as Hegan was defensively (few were), but was a ton better offensively. While I should likely have them tied for second, I’m going to give a slight nod to Hegan. O’Neill was good, but I like Hegan better.
#2. Jim Hegan—So, I’m just going to start with the 1948 World Series victory, and while I could likely leave it at that, I’m not. Hegan is one of only two backstops that can claim to be World Series catchers (main backstops, that is) in Cleveland, and Hegan was perhaps the most heralded of the two…in Cleveland at least. Some of that has to do with Mike Hegan being around for so long in the announce booth, and part of that is simply the fact that Hegan was catcher during the Indians arguably best era. He also caught the best pitching staff in Indians history, which both works for and against him. Hegan was a beast defensively. He led the league three times with regards to catching base stealers (68% in 1946, 53% in 1949, and a crazy 69% in 1950), and in an era in which the league average was over 40%, Hegan was always better. His career percentage is at an insane 50%, which is 4% better than the league. His fielding percentage was also .990. This guy was just…plain…good.
#1. Victor Martinez—Maybe this is controversial, and maybe it isn’t. While I would consider Sandy Alomar the catcher most closely associated with my “era” of watching, VMart certainly wouldn’t be far behind. I was blessed enough to watch him through his minor league days, and saw him develop into an offensive juggernaut. While that is certainly hyperbole, you could really make a case that VMart was everything that Sandy Alomar Jr. could have been, and more. Martinez was the captain of this team for sure, during his tenure, and he was the one constant on this team. There is NO DOUBT IN MY MIND that Sandy Alomar had more potential, and really could have been something special (think a .320 hitter, with 20 homers and 100 RBI every year sorta special, with plus defense) if he was healthy, but VMart was something different. He was your blue collar, play-ever-day catcher that made himself into a fantastic player. While VMart was never a plus defender, you could make a case that he improved more than anyone on this list to the point where he didn’t hurt you. While he was likely the worst throwing catcher of all the players, he had moments where he was better than average. Let’s face facts though. Victor Martinez was the face of this team for his entire tenure, related well to his pitchers, caught fairly well, and in my opinion, was the greatest catcher to ever lace them up for the Tribe.
Make sure that you vote with regards to this week’s poll, and leave a comment below with regards to what you’d like me to cover with regards to the next IPI Power Poll. LEAVE YOUR COMMENTS BELOW! There’s nothing like a debate on the best all time!
Jim is currently the co-site editor, the ATF/Carolina Mudcats/Indians/General Site Columnist, and the co-host of IPI's weekly online radio show, Smoke Signals. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IPI, or contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He was the exact opposite of those guys...but think of the guys Hegan caught...chripes, he even caught satchel Paige...
Shoot me emails with lists u want guys...I'm going to do positions...and eras...and roster...everything is on the table...
And let's be honest...this could change by the second...
As of right now, catching defense is basically unknown. It turns out it is difficult to measure the impact of a player who touches the ball on practically every pitch.
This becomes even more difficult when we don't have PITCH F/X or even video of every game Hegan played.
So without reliable defense, Hegan's WAR is going to be mostly based on his offense. As he never had an OPS+ greater than 94, he ends up being hurt by the statistics.
WAR isn't an end-all (as we can see in this case), but it is useful. Finding that balance is the tricky part.
But on a bright note, Hegan's fWAR is 13.1. Much better.
Can't wait for SP. There might not be any "jacobs field era" SP's.
He then said, "But Hegan was better...He wasn't an offensive, by made the offense better with his defense..."
He hated Alomar...
You have to look at the career...I mean, half a season doesn't make a career...so really hard to put him #1...but keep it comin!
Sandy Alomar would be my number two selection from my tenure as a Tribe fan. Injuries obviousely robbed Sandy of a more prouctive career.
I really loved Bo Diaz too. He had one cannon of an arm. I was really pissed when they kept The poor defensive Ron Hassey over Diaz who went on to a fine career after leaving Cleveland.
Actually 1 name that should be in the rankings is Ron Hassey.