Cincinnati Reds Catcher Johnny Bench



The Johnny Bench

Story


 









Johnny Bench is the greatest all around catcher of all time


Benched
Harold Friend


He was the greatest catcher of all time. He was better than Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Mike Piazza, and Ivan Rodriguez. He was Johnny Bench and he had a .267 lifetime batting average, which is only twenty points lower than the average for Hall of Fame catchers.

In his first full season with the Cincinnati Reds, Johnny Bench batted .275, hit 15 home runs, and drove home 82 runs. The year was 1968, which is known in some circles as ďthe year of the pitcher,Ē and for good reason. In 1968, National League teams averaged 3.43 runs a game. The league earned run average was 2.98. In contrast, in 1999, National League teams averaged 5.00 runs a game. The league earned run average was 4.56.

After the 1968 season, the height of the mound was lowered from fifteen inches to ten inches. Pitchers would no longer tower over batters. They would be throwing off a hill whose height was decreased by thirty three percent. The rules were changed to favor the batter because pitching was dominating hitting. When the mound was lowered, the playing field was leveled, literally. For the rest of his career, Johnny Bench would face pitchers throwing off a ten inch high mound.


The next two seasons were Benchís best and compare favorably with the greatest seasons of any catcher. He batted .293 both years and hit 26 home runs with 90 RBIs in 1969 and then hit 45 home runs with an amazing 148 RBIs in 1970. In his first three seasons, Bench hit .286, averaging 29 home runs and 107 RBIs a season. For the remainder of his career, he hit .263 and averaged 23 home runs and 81 RBIs a season.

In 1971, Johnny Bench batted .238 with 27 home runs. He has had seasons in which he hit .253 (1973), .234 (1976), .250 (1980), .258 (1982) and .255 (1983). Johnny Bench played in the major leagues for sixteen complete seasons. He hit .255 or less in six of them. These were not the averages of a part time player. They were the batting averages of baseballís greatest catcher.







Okay, so Bench didnít always hit .300 but he was a power hitter who had a .476 lifetime slugging average. Wait a second. Yogi Berra (.482), Roy Campanella (.500), and Mickey Cochrane (.478) had higher slugging averages than Bench. Isnít that interesting?

How about Bench averaging 96 strike outs a season? Berra averaged 32 strikeouts a season, Dickey averaged 26 strikeouts a season, and Cochrane averaged 24 strikeouts a season. Of course, a strikeout is merely another out---unless the tying run is on third base with one out. Donít we just love statistics?


Many consider Bench to be the greatest defensive catcher of all time. The problem with that assessment is that many outstanding defensive catchers could not hit and are ignored when the experts evaluate great backstops.

Jim Sundberg is an excellent example. Sundberg played from 1974 through 1989 but couldnít hit. He had a .248 career batting average with only 95 home runs but he led American League catchers in fielding average seven times, in put outs and assists six times, and he was deadly at throwing out would-be stealers.


Birdie Tebbetts was a fine defensive catcher who later managed and worked as a scout. He rated Jim Hegan, who had a .228 lifetime batting average with 92 home runs, the greatest defensive catcher he had ever seen. Tebbetts is quoted as stating, "As far as I'm concerned, you start and end any discussion of catchers with Jim Hegan. Add all the things a catcher has to do (catch, throw, call a game) and Jim Hegan was the best I ever saw." Tebbetts is talking only defense but the point is that many great defensive catchers played the game and might have been as good as or better than Johnny Bench defensively, so those in the media might want to qualify their position to claim they believe Bench was the greatest offensive defensive catcher.


Johnny Bench is the greatest all around catcher of all time. A minority of experts might select Carlton Fisk, but Fisk had eight seasons in which he batted .256 or less. How can any expert claim that the greatest of the greatest catchers could be the greatest when he had seasons in which he hit .246 (1973), .255 (1976), .231 (1984), .238 (1985), and .221 (1986). You read that right. In 1986, Carlton Fisk hit .221 with 14 home runs. Johnny Bench never had such a season. He never even came close. Hold it. Wait a second. In 1971, Bench batted .238. Oh, thank goodness. But he hit 27 home runs. End of story. The experts are right. Bench was the greatest



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