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    Friday, February 21, 2020

    Future Hall of Fame Extra: Breaking Down Hall Standards for Catchers

    As I mentioned two weeks ago while writing about position players on a Hall of Fame pace, catchers are held to a different standard than every other non-pitcher position. There's a pretty good reason for this; catcher quite frankly just is that different from other positions, particularly in how physically punishing it is. Catchers just don't last as long as non-catchers, and that has an effect on counting stats, which are still the biggest factor in building a Hall of Fame case.

    Iván Rodríguez , all-time leaders in Games among catchers and largely seen as freaks of nature for lasting over two decades in the majors, are still just tied for fiftieth and sixtieth all-time among all position players, respectively (coincidentally enough, that ties them with Hall of Fame Class of 2018 first ballot inductees Jim Thome and Chipper Jones, also respectively). Or going by Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement, only Johnny Bench and Gary Carter have passed 70 total, representing less than 3% of all 70-WAR position players.

    So, why not just look at catchers separately from everything else? On the one hand, sure, it's not a huge sample size, with only sixteen catchers elected (going by the JAWS system's count, which is based on the amount of WAR a player has accumulated at different positions; this can of course get fuzzy at the edge cases, though).That makes it especially susceptible to weird fluctuations. But on the other hand, keeping in mind that it's more descriptive than predictive, it's better than nothing. That was the mentality I had last year when I decided to look at relief pitcher Cooperstown standards, and if nothing else, that turned out interesting. And with another catcher, longtime snub Ted Simmons, finally getting his due this year thanks to the Veterans Committee, I figured it was even somewhat timely.

    So let's start from the top: my system is pretty straightforward. I look at the total Wins Above Replacement every Hall of Famer has earned through a given age. Then, I look for the median WAR among that group, and find how many total players in history have matched that WAR total through that age. Finally, I look at what percentage of eligible players to top that WAR total by that age have gone on to be elected in Cooperstown.

    There are some issues, but this method is just to give broad, age-based understandings of which players are "on-pace" for the Hall in a way that just looking at WAR leaderboards doesn't. After all, we all intuitively understand that, say, Alex Bregman or Jose Ramirez have better chances at making the Hall of Fame than Brett Gardner or Ben Zobrist, even if the latter two technically have about twice as much WAR at the moment. Having 20+ WAR in your mid-20s is definitely better for your chances than having 40-50 in your mid-30s, this just gives a rough idea of how much better.

    So first, let's just run down the list: what's the median WAR for future Hall of Fame catchers by age, and how what percentage of players who achieve that mark are eventually elected?

    Age Median WAR YTY WAR Increase Induction Rate
    20 1.5 - 37.50%
    21 2.55 1.05 45.45%
    22 4 1.45 33.33%
    23 4.4 0.4 23.53%
    24 7.8 3.4 36.36%
    25 11.9 4.1 47.06%
    26 17.1 5.2 50.00%
    27 21.65 4.55 61.54%
    28 25.5 3.85 66.67%
    29 30.35 4.85 72.73%
    30 36.5 6.15 80.00%
    31 39.25 2.75 80.00%
    32 44 4.75 80.00%
    33 46.3 2.3 88.89%
    34 47.1 0.8 88.89%
    35 49.25 2.15 88.89%
    36 51.1 1.85 88.89%
    37 52.75 1.65 88.89%
    38 51.65 -1.1 88.89%
    39 52.3 0.65 88.89%
    40 54.35 2.05 88.89%

    Let's just focus on the tail-end first; that 88.89% represents 8 of the 9 catchers above the median WAR eventually getting in. The lone holdout? Joe Torre, who was an interesting case in that 1) he was only a catcher in just over 40% of his games (still a plurality, but lower than any other Hall catcher, below even Buck Ewing's 47%); 2) he eventually made the Hall of Fame anyway as a manager anyway. So technically, the only catcher to top the Hall median for the position at any point in their 30s and not eventually get inducted in Thurman Munson, who tragically passed away during his age 32 season (Munson also appeared on the most recent Veterans Committee ballot).

    The next thing to note is that this is still a really aggressive track to keep to for a catcher. It’s technically lower than the overall bar for position players, but catchers also usually debut a little later than most other positions; for instance, in the 2010s, only eighteen catchers even played a game before the age of 23, and only two of those played in half a season’s worth. In total, though, 213 position players debuted that young, with 75 of them hitting the 81-game mark by that age. Or, of the 141 position players in the 2010s to reach 100 games played by the end of their age 23 season, only eight (5.5%) were catchers.

    That’s a pretty big hole to climb out of immediately, a factor which is compounded by the constraints of the position. Since WAR is a counting stat, sitting out regularly (as catchers need to do) hurts their totals. For example, only three catchers in baseball history have had an 8.0-WAR season (Mike Piazza 1997, Gary Carter 1982, and Johnny Bench 1972). In contrast, four non-catcher position players posted an 8.0-WAR season in 2019 alone. There are less than 130 seasons by catchers of over 5.0 WAR, dating back to the 1800s, making up less than 0.25% of all such seasons by position players in history,

    With that understanding, then, it’s not too shocking that we’re talking about a pace that not even ten players in history have matched. And while no active players are there, the recently-retired Joe Mauer is. It seems difficult to argue that Mauer wasn’t better than half or more of the catchers already in the Hall, but I’m not sure if that’ll translate into an easy, first-ballot election when he comes up. After all, only two catchers ever have gone in on their first try (Bench and Rodríguez), so it feels like the odds might be against him.

    Among active catchers, Buster Posey is in the lead at 42.1, putting just below the 44.0-Win bar for catchers through their age 32 season. It if he can get back into form, you can see him actually making up some of that ground, but it’ll depend a lot on his health. His 2019 was rough following season-ending hip issues in 2018, but maybe an offseason of rest has him feeling ready to go again.

    Yadier Molina is the only other active 40-WAR catcher, entering his age 37 seasons. Russell Martin is the same age and just behind him, at 37.9. We’ll return to them in a minute, though. For your under-30 leaders, Salvador Pérez is still in first despite missing all of 2019 for Tommy John surgery. Still, with 22.3 Wins, he’s about 10 WAR behind where he needs to be to match pace. J.T. Realmuto, meanwhile, is only at 17.6 and is just a year younger than him. Still, nothing’s to say they couldn’t still make it; after all, half of the players in Cooperstown are, by definition, worse than the median. They’ll probably just need to make up for it by staying pretty good well into their 30s.

    There is, of course, one other area to address, the one that ties back to Molina and Martin (as well as Brian McCann, who retired after 2019 with 31.8 WAR): pitch framing. Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR does not factor that into catcher value, while both Fangraphs’ WAR and Baseball Prospectus’ WARP do.

    Of course, the problem is that it's not a constant feature of either, which makes it a problem when looking at historical trends like Hall of Fame voting. Baseball Prospectus' version counts it starting in the late 1980s, meaning that only Rodríguez and Piazza have it covering their entire careers (Simmons, Fisk, and Carter have a few seasons at the end as well). Fangraphs' version doesn't even have that, as it only dates to the 2000s.

    But it's still worth taking into consideration. And by that metric, Martin, McCann, and Molina all come out looking really strong; both versions have all three of them landing somewhere in the low teens or back half of the top ten among catchers all-time (in fact, all three of them land a bit ahead of Joe Mauer, who was fine but not amazing). Granted, we also don't know how much the top ten would change if every catcher in history had it added, and what happens might not line up with our preconceptions (for instance, Pudge only moves up slightly despite all of his Gold Gloves, while Piazza, a player with a much worse defensive reputation, was apparently pretty good at it!).

    Posey also looks pretty strong, as both versions already have him just a step below the Mauer/Molina/Martin/McCann grouping. The other notable big step forward belongs to Yasmani Grandal, who moves from the mid-teens to the low-30s in WAR. Grandal just completed his age 30 season, so he has a ways to go still, but it has potential rather than looking like a total lost cause.

    Ultimately, I'm not sure how much we should weigh it, since it feels a lot less established than some of the other components of WAR. But I definitely wouldn't rule it out entirely, and I think the big beneficiaries of that are all worth considering. Thankfully, we have a full five years to sit on that question before deciding how to vote for real (or I do, at least, since I'd vote for Mauer regardless of his framing numbers; McCann will be the real test case for the 2025 ballot).

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