Before March of last year, Fangraphs added catcher framing to its WAR calculations. The difference was massive. Yadier Molina, Brian McCann, and Russell Martin went from clear non-Hall of Famers (at least statistically) to “they should probably make the Hall of Fame now right?” Molina went from having a career 34.8 fWAR to 52.8 fWAR literally overnight. He’s now at 54 career WAR and it’s basically the same story for McCann and Martin as well. If you want one, you kind of have to have the other two.
This made me wonder. How many catchers are theoretically Hall of Fame caliber who otherwise weren’t? If framing makes as much of a difference in modern day, it stands to reason that it makes a difference in every era. Of course, the flip side is also true. It’s possible that a borderline Hall of Famer would be a nonstarter if their bad framing was taken into account. Look no further than the player most harshly impacted by the inclusion of framing, Ryan Doumit. Doumit was previously a 5.4 career fWAR player, as he was an average hitter with bad defense before framing. After framing is taken into account, he’s a -8.6 career fWAR player. You are in fact reading that right.
While Fangraphs framing numbers only go back to 2008, Baseball Prospectus has them beat by 20 years, with their framing numbers dating back to 1988. Of course, that leaves over 100 years of baseball history with no framing numbers. So we’re not reaching any definitive conclusions here. Pure speculation. My goal is to find a player who nobody ever thought of as a Hall of Famer, but with very little imagination, suddenly you think “If they played now, would they be a legit candidate?”
Let’s be reasonable here though. I want to have a ceiling and a floor on how much framing impacted classic players. Brian McCann most benefited from framing, gaining an additional 19 WAR from framing alone. If someone needs all 19 of the WAR in the past, we’re venturing too far into hard to imagine territory. So I’ll just put the ceiling at 15 WAR, although it is worth pointing out that as soon as framing numbers became available, umpires immediately punished players with great reputations for framing. Well that’s the theory anyway. This would not have been a thing in 1952, so in theory, their potential is even greater than 20 WAR. But we have zero way of knowing who the Brian McCann of 1950 is, so we’re gonna stick to people semi-close. Also, on the opposite side of the spectrum, Doumit seems like the low point of framing with -14 wins.
There are 19 catchers in the Hall of Fame, thanks to the inclusion of Ted Simmons. Of those 19, three of them are in for the contributions in the Negro Leagues. To get a good gauge on the standard that a catcher needs to make the Hall, we need to exclude three other catchers. The first is Roy Campenella, who didn’t debut until he was 26 because he was black in the 1940s and thus his late start in the big leagues was completely out of his control.
The other two have absurdly low WAR totals, so there’s no reason to even pretend they are Hall of Fame quality. Rick Ferrell has just 27.2 career fWAR and Ray Schalk has just 22.4 career WAR. Which if you’re wondering makes Schalk the 73rd best catcher of all time by fWAR and Ferrell the 56th. With their inclusion the WAR standard is just 52.4 WAR for catchers, which is certainly good news for Yadi, but like I said, these guys are so far out of the box outliers that I think it’s ridiculous to count them. Ferrell at least has a pie in sky “best framer of all time” possibility that is unlikely, and even with that he’s still borderline. Schalk, well there’s no way to make a career 88 wRC+ look like a Hall of Famer. So knock out them, and we have an average catcher WAR of 57.1 fWAR.
Now that’s the average Hall of Fame WAR, so there is some wiggle room below that number, although me personally, it wouldn’t be much wiggle room. Where I’m flexible on that number is if they are close and they have a good peak, or at least five seasons with 5+ fWAR. With an average WAR of 57.1, but some wiggle room, I’d say we should only look at catchers with 40+ fWAR. I realize Yadi had 35 fWAR before the framing, although his career wasn’t over and he’s a lot more borderline for me than he is for most people I imagine (although I’ve been won over to include him don’t worry.). Someone who needs 20 extra wins and is still borderline is probably someone I wouldn’t think should make it anyway.
As for the peak part, well unfortunately McCann had about five straight seasons where his framing added nearly 3 wins, so nobody who accomplishes career 40 fWAR is gonna have any trouble having at least five 2+ win seasons. But I’d like to factor in peak somehow, so I’m going to look at potential peak on a case-by-case basis.
There’s only one Hall of Famer under 40 WAR who I didn’t exclude from my average and that’s Roger Breshanan with 39.6 fWAR, so he almost qualifies. Whatever version of defense we use to judge early 1900s catcher defense is not a fan of Breshanan’s defense, but he was a 128 wRC+ hitter as a catcher. Also Breshanan is a bit of a special case. He is credited with 1) developing the first batting helmet 2) introducing shinguards for catchers and 3) added padding to the catcher’s mask to better absorb foul balls. Even though it’s not why he’s in (at least I doubt it), he gets in my Hall of Fame for player safety alone and sure it helps that he had a pretty good career.
Excluding players with post 2008 careers and players who actually made the Hall of Fame, our first real test starts with Brian Downing, who received 0.4% of the Hall of Fame vote. He has 48.4 career fWAR. But he was only a catcher for his first nine seasons of his career. Of those nine seasons, only three of them were above 2 fWAR. So no realistic chance his framing numbers would help enough, and since he moved to the OF and eventually DH, it seems unlikely he was an excellent framer. Easy no.
Next up is Gene Tenace. He’s a weird case. He played over 4,500 innings at 1B, but most of that actually happened at the beginning of his career, not the end. Tenace was a career .241 hitter and as such, absurdly underrated as a hitter. That’s because he hit 201 career home runs and had a 17.8 BB%. 17.8%!! He had a career .388 OBP. He had a career 140 wRC+. And he played catcher. In 1980, he had a 140 wRC+ as a starting catcher for the Padres, and the best job he got was backing up Darrell Porter for the Cards, and he did that for the next two years and was worth 3.7 fWAR in just 339 PAs.
He doesn’t have much of a case for the Hall, but it’s not remotely his fault. Teams just underrated the ever living shit out of the dude. He was a 4.5+ fWAR player SIX times in his career. Put it this way. He was a backup catcher for three years before getting regular playing time - he was a 123 wRC+ hitter in those three seasons combined, and yet only received 595 PAs. He was forced to be a backup catcher by 34 after a 140 wRC+ season as a full-time starting catcher and as a backup catcher for the Cards, he was a 140 and 168 wRC+ hitter. This is like discovering Bigfoot to me. Seriously, I think I can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that he would have been Hall of Fame caliber had he not gotten screwed with the wrong time period. I kind of hope he was godawful at framing because this is a travesty.
Next up is Detroit Tigers’ catcher Bill Freehan, who might have a case. Like Tenace, he might not have the longevity necessary, because he retired after his age 34 season and it’s pretty hard to make the Hall if you stop playing when you’re that young. Even so, he had 44.8 career fWAR and four seasons with at least 4.9 fWAR. It’s that fifth season that would need a framing boost for me, but 3.9 fWAR is pretty easily within that range. Most importantly, Freehan had the reputation as one of the game’s best defensive catchers. And he doesn’t really get that big of a boost defensively from the stats. There might be something here, but his career was also really short, so depends on what you’re looking for.
Lance Parrish is interesting because he actually does having framing stats in his career. The only problem is that it’s only from age 32 on, which feels about as useful as having no stats at all. He was a neutral framer in the first year of framing’s existence in 1988, then +4.6, +6.7, then +10, but then negative for his last four seasons. Baseball Prospectus as a whole is more down on Parrish than Fangraphs with just 37.6 WARP. But if he can be a +10 framer at age 35, I mean there’s definitely a case here. Brian McCann was the best framer in the game from 2008 to 2012, and he ended up settling into slightly above average by his 30s. He also has five seasons with 4+ fWAR, with one of those seasons being 1990, where he was a +6.7 framer, so we can say he was actually a 5.1 fWAR player that year. Again, pretty solid case here in my opinion.
Wally Schang, with 41 career fWAR, would be a hard sell for me. His career high fWAR is just 4.2 and he has just 4 seasons with 3+ fWAR. Fangraphs rates him as a below average defending catcher, though obviously that means next to nothing. He received a high of 4.1% in Hall of Fame voting so it’s not like he was highly thought of at the time either. Granted, his first time on the ballot was 17 years after he stopped playing and about 27 years after his prime, so good chance a lot of voters never saw him play when he was a main attraction. His main problem is just that he didn’t play in enough games per season - he had just two seasons with over 120 games played and had 9 seasons with less than 100 games played.
Then we have a famous “Why isn’t he in the Hall?” guy: Thurman Munson. His career was cut short at 32 when he died in a plane crash so he’s a special case. It’s here where I had special access to a ZiPS projection system since you can, in theory, guess how the rest of his career would have gone. At the time of his death, which was the middle of the season, he was on pace for a 3 fWAR season. He was likely on the downslope of his career. He has a career 40.9 fWAR. If you make this super simplistic and just remove 0.5 WAR for every subsequent season, he ends up replacement level by 38 with a career 49.4 fWAR. It is somewhat difficult to make the case for him without framing in my opinion. If he was remotely decent at framing, he’s pretty easily a Hall of Famer to me, with five seasons with at least 4.4 fWAR
We’ve got Darrell Porter with 40.8 career fWAR and I know he was considered a good defender because Whitey Herzog preferred his defense to Ted Simmons. Unfortunately, Porter’s career ended literally the year before framing stats are available, although they wouldn’t have been much use for a 36-year-old catcher if he stayed one more year. Yeah Porter pretty easily doesn’t have the peak here. And really, his career ended early (for a Hall of Famer) AND he has about four seasons where he has the play of a backup catcher (I believe injuries are responsible for some of those seasons). Too much imagination required for Porter.
The next guy is going to be a short one. Jorge Posada, who is sometimes thrown around as a candidate because of his bat, was an atrocious framer, and it makes me a little bit happy that someone’s defensive reputation matches the stats. Makes me feel like we can at least go off people’s word on some of these borderline cases. Anyway, Posada is very much not even borderline. Baseball Prospectus has his framing costing the team 117 runs for his career, which means he lost nearly 12 wins from framing alone.
That covers the players with 40+ fWAR but there’s another guy I want to talk about slightly below that. Charlie Bennett played from 1878 to 1893 and was worth 38.8 career fWAR. He did this in just 4,310 plate appearances, which isn’t really his fault. Players didn’t play that many games in the 1800s. He also has five seasons with at least 3.8 fWAR, and again, whatever they used to judge defense then has him as an unbelievably good defender with 168.7 runs above average. Why isn’t he in the Hall? Because he batted .256. That’s almost certainly the reason, even though he was a career 116 wRC+ hitter. His contemporary who is in the Hall, Deacon White, had a .312 average and a 121 wRC+ but with defense that didn’t grade as well. He also had over 2,500 more plate appearances for just 3 more fWAR.
Oh what the hell there’s four other guys with 37+ fWAR and then it drops down to 34.2 so it seems foolish to stop here. Jim Sundberg is easily a no. He was on track for a Hall of Fame career, but had one good season from age 32 on, so even if I can squint and see a peak, which is already a stretch, the longevity is just not there. Sherm Lollar, who played from 1949 to 1963, also has a peak that requires imagination in order to make the Hall with just four seasons of 3.5+ fWAR. Jason Kendall played past 1988 and was about as bad at framing pitches as Jorge Posada was, with a -110 framing runs above average for his career, so easy no there. Then there’s Jonathan Lucroy, whose framing is already taken into account for his total WAR.
I’m interested in seeing if people think some of these catchers deserve to be in the Hall. I think there’s a good case for Bill Freehan, Lance Parrish, and Thurman Munson. Gene Tenace depends entirely on how much you want to “forgive” him for never playing and I’m honestly torn about that one. I think I uncovered a pre-Deadball era Hall of Famer quality player in Charlie Bartnett as well.
As for the modern day players, Yadier Molina, Russell Martin, and Brian McCann all have identical cases for the Hall. You may think they’re different, but they are not. Yadi has 54 career fWAR, McCann 54.5, and Martin 55.2. Martin has a five-year peak of 30.3, McCann 32.8, and Molina 31.5 fWAR. If you want to expand it to a seven-year peak, Martin has 38.6, McCann has 40.7, and Molina has 39.5. McCann’s fifth best season is just 4.3 fWAR so the vast majority of his peak is just 4 seasons. If you want to use that as a pretense for not including him, I encourage it. I’m not going to care when he doesn’t make the Hall. He can thank the sign stealing for that. However, I will encourage Cardinals fans to please argue for Yadi AND Russell Martin, because I believe it will undercut your argument for Yadi and just make you look like a homer without thinking both should make it. Just word of advice going forward if you hadn’t considered Russell for the Hall, you best start now.