Johnny Bench is the greatest all around catcher of all time
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
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
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
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