When we think of great catchers in Major League Baseball history, Bill Dickey and Johnny Bench come to mind. More recent players such as Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza could join their ranks in the Hall of Fame. But who are the backstops behind them who don’t get as much recognition? Who are the undervalued catchers in the annals of baseball history?
Originally drafted as a third baseman in the first round in 1972, Parrish was converted to a catcher as a minor leaguer in the Detroit Tigers’ organization. Parrish reached the major leagues in 1977 and became the Tigers’ starting catcher by 1979. He spent the first 10 years of his 19-year career in Detroit and won a World Seriew with the Tigers in 1984. After leaving for Philadelphia for the 1987 season, Parrish jumped around a bit, spending time with California, Seattle, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Toronto.
Why he’s undervalued: Parrish was considered one of the best catchers of the ‘80s, but his legacy doesn’t seem to have lasted much beyond that decade. Parrish gained eight All-Star nods, captured six Silver Slugger awards and even won three Gold Gloves. By the end of his career, he ranked sixth all-time in home runs by a catcher (299).
The Pittsburgh Pirates signed Tony Pena as an undrafted free agent in 1975. During his stint in the minors, Pena first started catching, developing a famously unorthodox squat behind the plate. He made his major league debut in 1981 and bounced around six teams, getting five All-Star nods and four Gold Gloves over the course of his 18-year playing career. Pena now serves as the New York Yankees’ bench coach and is a former manager of the Kansas City Royals.
Why he’s undervalued: Pena had remarkable longevity as a catcher, ranking sixth all-time in games played behind the plate. Though his career .673 OPS suggests an average (at best) hitter, the fact that he was picked to five All-Star games suggests just how valuable his defense was as a backstop. Despite his shortcomings as a hitter, however, he had a memorable postseason with the lumber in 1987, leading the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series.
Sundberg was drafted in the first round of the secondary draft by the Texas Rangers in 1973 out of Iowa. He jumped from Single-A to the majors during the 1974 season and made the All-Star team as a rookie. From 1976 to 1981, Sundberg won six consecutive Gold Gloves behind the plate, establishing himself as one of the best defensive catchers in the business. He still ranks fifth all-time for games played behind the plate.
Why he’s undervalued: Sundberg combined a great glove (more specifically, a great arm throwing out runners) behind the plate with competence holding a bat on offense. While his .674 OPS may not be a great figure, he was consistently good during his prime and had a mark well over .700, providing defensive value at a key position without hurting his team at the dish. Beyond the obvious ways of appreciating his defense, Sundberg caught 130 shutouts, indicating that pitchers enjoyed throwing to him and he called a game well. Additionally, his .327 on-base percentage would probably be much more appreciated by modern baseball metrics.
Kendall is the son of former major league catcher Fred Kendall, so it’s no wonder that Jason developed a strong defensive reputation throughout his career. Coming up with the Pirates, Kendall won Rookie of the Year during the 1996 season, hitting an even .300 on the year. Though Kendall established himself in Pittsburgh, he ended up bouncing around throughout his career, also stopping in Oakland, Chicago, Milwaukee and Kansas City. During the latter part of his career, Kendall earned a reputation for a soft bat, but his .744 career OPS is a very respectable figure.
Why he’s undervalued: Kendall was known as one of the most hard-nosed players in baseball during his career. His chief value was in his receiving abilities behind the plate and was known as one of the best catchers to throw to around the majors. Kendall was routinely given credit by pitching staffs for the work he did behind the plate. In addition, Kendall displayed unusual speed as a catcher in his early days, stealing over 20 bases three times. Although he had a reputation as a weak hitter, he was one of the toughest to strike out throughout his career.
So who’s the most undervalued catcher in the history of Major League Baseball?
Catchers: Jan. 7
First Basemen: Jan. 14
Second Basemen: Jan. 21
Third Basemen: Jan. 28
Shortstops: Feb. 4
Left Fielders: Feb. 11
Center Fielders: Feb. 18
Right Fielders: Feb. 25
Pitchers: March 4