Sunday, December 23, 2018

Top Ten Tigers Catchers

Mickey Cochrane dives to tag out Phillies base runner Pinky Whitney in iconic baseball photo.  
(Photo Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Today, I am presenting the list of top ten catchers in Tigers history.  Other installments in this series can be found in the following links.

Second Basemen
Third Basemen

In the previous articles, I discussed the criteria for my rankings in detail.  Let's review the ground rules here:
  • A player must have played at least half their games with the Tigers as a catcher.
  • A player must have played at least two full seasons as a catcher with the Tigers.
  • Only games played with the Tigers are considered.  If a player played other positions with the Tigers, his hitting performance in those games does count.  
The Wins Above Replacement (WAR) leaders for the Tigers are listed below.

Bill Freehan 45
Lance Parrish 30
Johnny Bassler 20
Mickey Tettleton 15
Pudge Rodriguez 14
Alex Avila 13
Mickey Cochrane 11
Brad Ausmus 8
Matt Nokes 6
Mike Heath 6
Oscar Stanage 6

Based on this, Freehan and Parrish seem to be the top two catchers, but it gets more interesting after that.  First, the great Mickey Cochrane is only seventh on this list, but we need to consider that most of his WAR came in 1934 and 1935, two of the greatest seasons in franchise history.  Not only that, but he was also the manager of those teams.  Thus, he deserves to move up higher in the final ranking.  

Then there are players like Mickey Tettleton and Matt Nokes, who would be ranked almost entirely on their offense.  Similarly,  Ausmus would be ranked mostly based on his defense.  A look at OPS+ tells us more about offensive contribution:

Mickey Tettleton 135
Mickey Cochrane 126
Matt Nokes 115
Lance Parrish 114
Bill Freehan 112
Johnny Bassler 106
Alex Avila 105
Pudge Rodriguez 103
Aaron Robinson 100
Mike Heath 97

Not surprisingly Tettleton, Cochrane and Nokes rank much higher on this list, while Bassler and Rodriguez are lower.

So, here is my final list (Note that OWAR=Offensive WAR):

Bill Freehan (1961-1976  44.8 WAR  43.3 OWAR  112 OPS+)
Freehan was a poweful and durable catcher who was excellent both offensively and defensively.  He was the top catcher in the game during the 1960s peaking with two fantastic seasons in 1967 and 1968.  He posted a 144 OPS+ and 6.1 WAR and finished third in the MVP batting in 1967.  He followed up with a 145 OPS+ and 7.0 WAR and was runner-up to teammate Denny McLain in MVP voting in the 1968 championship season.  He is 15th among MLB catchers in career WAR and some argue that he should be in the Hall of Fame.  Bill James ranked him the #12 catcher in the Bill James Historical Abstract.   

Lance Parrish (1977-1986  30.1 WAR  26.1 OWAR  114 OPS+)
Parrish was another durable slugger as well as a body building fanatic.  Manager Sparky Anderson initially frowned upon Parrish's weight lifting, but changed his mind when the big guy started averaging 30 home runs per year.  The Big Wheel also averaged 3.6 WAR from 1979 to 1986.  His best season was 1982 when he hit 32 home runs and posted a 135 OPS+ with 5.0 WAR.  He was also an important piece of the 1984 championship team.   

Mickey Cochrane (1934-1937  11.4 WAR  11.5 OWAR  126 OPS+)
Cochrane was one of the top five catchers in the history of the game batting .320/.419/.478 lifetime.  He only played 315 games as a Tiger, but made quite an impact catching and managing two pennant winners and a world champion.  in 1934, Black Mike (So named for his competitiveness and distaste for losing) batted .320/.428/.412 with 4 WAR in 1934.  He did even better in 1935 batting .319/.452/.450 with 5 WAR.  

Johnny Bassler (1921-1927  19.5 WAR  18.5 OWAR  106 OPS+)
Bassler was strong both offensively and defensively and was ranked by Bill James as the 47th best catcher all time.  He had 7 seasons of 2 WAR or better including 1924 when he hit .346/.441/.422.  He had an on-base percentage of .400 or better in each of his seven seasons with the Tigers.   

Mickey Tettleton (1991-1994  14.8 WAR  17.5 OWAR  135 OPS+)
Tettleton was not a great defensive catcher, but he was an outstanding hitter posting OPS+ of 140, 137, 132, 128 in his four seasons as a Tiger.  Big first baseman Cecil Fielder got more attention, but Tettleton was the better hitter as measured by OPS+ in all four seasons.  Fruit Loops was one of my all-time favorite players for everything from his funky batting stance to his slugging.  He finished in the top five in the league walks each of his four years and finished in the top ten in home runs three times.    

Pudge Rodriguez (2004-2008  14.2 WAR  13.0 OWAR  103 OPS+)
Pudge Rodriguez was the first big Tigers signing of the Dave Dombrowski era and got off to a tremendous start batting .334/.383/.510 in 2004.  He never came close to those numbers again and rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way with his moody temperament and disrespect for manager Alan Trammell.  He was, however, a strong defender and contact hitter and an important piece of the 2006 pennant winner.  He could arguably have been ranked ahead of Tettleton, but I am going to play favorites here.   

Alex Avila (2009-2017  12.9 WAR  13.7 OWAR  105 OPS+)
Avila had an excellent season in 2011 batting .295/.389/.506.  What may have been a really fine career with multiple all-star appearances was derailed by a number of concussions.  He did manage four years of 2+ WAR.

Oscar Stanage (1909-1925 6.0 WAR  6.9 OWAR  69 OPS+)
Stanage makes this list mostly for longevity playing 1,095 games over 12 seasons.  He wasn't much of a hitter at all batting .234/.284/.295 lifetime.  The most interesting thing I could find about him was Bill James listing him as a drinking man of the 1910s in the Bill James Historical Abstract.      Stanage's best season was 1909 when he had a 98 OPS+ in 77 games for a pennant winner. 

Brad Ausmus (1996-2000  7.6 WAR  5.2  OWAR  90 OPS+)
Ausmus, who was traded back and forth every couple of years during the Randy Smith era, played three seasons in two stints with the Tigers.  He was known mostly for his defense including a very strong ranking for pitch framing by Baseball Prospectus. Offensively, his best season was 1999 when he hit .275/.365/.415.   

Matt Nokes (1986-1990  6.4 WAR  6.8 OWAR  115 OPS+)  
Nokes was acquired from the Giants in 1985 in a six-player deal which also brought pitchers Eric King and Dave LaPoint to the Tigers.  At the time, LaPoint seemed like the important player in the deal but it was Nokes that provided the best return.  Nokes hit 32 homers as rookie and was one of the key players on the division winner.  Nokes never replicated that season and was also not a strong defender.

Note: Most of the data for this post were abstracted from

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