Year Inducted: 1989 (BBWAA, ballot #1, 431/447)
There are two positions in baseball that have seen rapid evolution of what player is considered the best at that respective position. The best players at first base, second base, shortstop and right field have been established since at latest the 1920’s. While left field and center field were more recently than the others listed, there was very little turnover between the periods. However, there has been a lot of turnover at third base and catcher, with the latter seeing the most change. Beginning with the 1930’s, the title of best catcher of all-time was passed down by several players, from Mickey Cochrane to Bill Dickey to Yogi Berra, and there was very little time between those players’ careers. Likewise, Berra didn’t hold the mantle very long, as that title was soon passed to its current holder, Johnny Bench.
To say that Johnny Bench was the best catcher ever, while a completely factual statement, doesn’t quite give him enough credit. Bench played 17 seasons, all for the Reds, and not only did he become synonymous with the catcher’s position, but also the best player the Reds ever had. Bench was the leader of the Big Red Machine of the 1970’s, winning 2 MVP’s and leading them to 4 NL Pennants and 2 World Series Titles. Along the way, Bench collected 389 homers, 381 doubles and 24 triples with a slash line of .267/.342/.476 and a wRC+ of 125.
Bench led the way for the Reds in terms of both run creation (1091 runs scored and 1376 RBI) and run prevention. For most players, the Gold Glove can sometimes be inaccurate as a measure of defensive excellence, but not in this case. Johnny Bench redefined how catchers play the position, from the way he would throw runners out (and he threw out 469 would be base stealers), how he would block the plate from players trying to score and how he would block pitches in the dirt. The only reason why his defensive runs aren’t the best all-time for catchers is because they include his time played at third base, which he moved to towards the end of his career and his knees were shot so he wasn’t that great. Bench, at his peak, was the best catcher defensively in the game.
Most of the Hall of Fame catchers (the high ranking ones at least) are above 60 fWAR. The only catcher to break 70 fWAR was Bench. Likewise, Bench to this day is the only catcher to make it into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot, and the only one to crack 95% of the ballot. While more recent players like Yadier Molina and Pudge Rodriguez may have tried to take the title from Bench, it’s likely he will remain the best catcher of all-time for a long time.
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