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Dodgers Dugout: Who are the three best catchers in team history?

Dodgers Dugout: Who are the three best catchers in team history?
Roy Campanella holds the 1951 NL MVP award. (Associated Press)

Hi, and welcome to another edition of Dodgers Dugout. My name is Houston Mitchell and it’s time to start selecting the all-time 40-man roster for the Dodgers.

The all-time team, catcher

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Before we get to the first position, catcher, let’s lay down the ground rules as to who would be eligible for the polls.

First, we are only counting what they did as a Dodger. Frank Robinson is one of the greatest players of all time, but he only played one season with the Dodgers, so he won’t be appearing here.

Second, position players had to play at least 500 games with the Dodgers, or had such an iconic moment or season with the team that it would be strange leaving them off (the Kirk Gibson rule).

Third, only games played since 1901 count. My apologies to those who played before then.

Fourth, players who played at multiple positions will be listed at the position where they played the most games for the Dodgers.

Finally, you can vote for three players at each position. There will a link to a site where you can make your selections at the end of each player list.

With that, let’s get to our first position, catcher. There are 16 catchers who meet the above criteria for the Dodgers. Let’s look at them using three stats: OPS+ (which compares them to the league average hitter each season, making it easier for us to do cross-era comparisons. A league-average hitter will have an OPS+ of 100), WAR (which shows career value) and defensive WAR (which gives us an idea of how good they were defensively). Those three stats don’t give a complete picture, but it should give you an overall sense of how valuable each player was.

OPS+

Mike Piazza, 160

Babe Phelps, 125

Roy Campanella, 123

Joe Ferguson, 119

Yasmani Grandal, 112

Paul Lo Duca, 105

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Russell Martin, 101

Mike Scioscia, 99

John Roseboro, 97

A.J. Ellis, 93

Al Lopez, 88

Steve Yeager, 84

Mickey Owen, 80

Hank DeBerry, 74

Otto Miller, 67

Bill Bergen, 16

WAR

Roy Campanella, 34.1

Mike Piazza, 32.0

Mike Scioscia, 26.1

John Roseboro, 21.9

Steve Yeager, 17.9

Russell Martin, 15.9

Joe Ferguson, 14.2

Babe Phelps, 13.9

Paul Lo Duca, 13.8

Yasmani Grandal, 9.6

A.J. Ellis, 7.9

Al Lopez, 7.1

Mickey Owen, 4.0

Hank DeBerry, 1.6

Otto Miller, 0.1

Bill Bergen, -10.9

Defensive WAR

Steve Yeager, 14.9

Mike Scioscia, 13.4

John Roseboro, 8.4

Russell Martin, 7.1

Paul Lo Duca, 6.3

Bill Bergen, 6.1

Roy Campanella, 5.7

Otto Miller, 4.3

A.J. Ellis, 3.5

Mike Piazza, 3.2

Yasmani Grandal, 2.7

Al Lopez, 2.4

Mickey Owen, 2.0

Joe Ferguson, 1.8

Hank DeBerry, 1.5

Babe Phelps, 1.1

A closer look at the players:

Bill Bergen (1904-11, .162/.184/.187): I think it’s safe to say that Bergen is the worst-hitting position player to have a long career in baseball history. Bergen only hit above .200 once in 11 seasons. So how did he last so long? If they had Gold Gloves back then, Bergen would have won a lot of them, and in the dead-ball era, offense wasn’t nearly as important for a catcher as the ability to throw out base stealers. And Bergen was considered one of the best at it.

Roy Campanella (1948-1957, .276/.360/.500): I don’t want to lead the jury, but I would expect Campanella to finish first in this poll pretty easily. Campanella played with the team until his career was cut short after the 1957 season. In that time, all he did was win three NL MVP awards, make eight All-Star teams, hit 242 homers, have a .500 slugging percentage and play Gold Glove-worthy defense behind the plate. For more on Campanella, click here.

Hank DeBerry (1922-30, .267/.322/.345): Probably the most forgotten catcher in Dodgers history, DeBerry was the personal catcher for Hall of Fame pitcher Dazzy Vance. DeBerry was below average offensively but considered strong defensively, and Vance always credited him for a large part of his own success.

A.J. Ellis (2008-16, .239/.340/.352): I have this secret wish that the Dodgers sign Ellis for the 2019 season and let him catch Clayton Kershaw exclusively. Ellis was Kershaw’s catcher during his tenure with the team and the two remain friends today. Ellis’ best season with the Dodgers was his first full season as a starter, 2012, when he hit .270/.373/.414 with 20 doubles and 13 homers. He was mainly a backup in his Dodgers career, had a good eye for the strike zone and was good defensively. He was traded to the Phillies near the end of the 2016 season for Carlos Ruiz in a move that shocked many Dodgers fans.

Joe Ferguson (1970-76, 1978-81, .245/.359/.419): The Dodgers had two good, young catchers in the early 1970s, Ferguson and Steve Yeager. They eventually decided to go with Yeager because of his superior defense, but Ferguson was a much better hitter. He also played in the outfield quite a bit for L.A. and his most famous Dodger moment probably came as an outfielder, when he cut in front of Jim Wynn to catch a fly ball and throw out Sal Bando trying to score in the 1974 World Series.

Yasmani Grandal (2015-18, .238/.337/.453): I won’t spend a lot of time on Grandal because I’ve written so much about him the last four years. We all know what his strengths and weaknesses are.

Paul Lo Duca (1998-2004, .286/.337/.409): History has not been kind to Lo Duca. His offensive numbers, looking back at the context of the steroids era, were average at best and his reputation took a big hit when he was named in the Mitchell Report on PED use in baseball, which claimed Lo Duca not only used PEDs, he also introduced several players to them. And that basically sums up his career: He was Mike Scioscia on steroids. Lo Duca later acknowledged his use, and he currently works as a horse racing analyst at the New York Racing Assn.

Al Lopez (1928, 1930-35, .279/.336/.364): Lopez is in the Hall of Fame, but as a manager, not as a player. He was an All-Star in 1934 with the Dodgers and received MVP votes with Brooklyn in 1933 and 1934. His best season was 1933, when he hit .301 in 126 games. He was considered one of the better defensive catchers of the 1930s although modern metrics have downgraded him somewhat.

Russell Martin (2006-10, .272/.365/.396): Martin was a rare catcher who was fast enough to steal bases, including a career-high 21 with the Dodgers in 2007. He was with the team only five seasons, but made two All-Star teams and won the Gold Glove in 2007. Martin was hurt for the latter part of the 2010 season and the team let him go as a free agent. They replaced him with Rod Barajas, while Martin signed with the Yankees and has put together several solid seasons since the Dodgers let him go.

Otto Miller (1910-22, .245/.275/.308): Miller was a nondescript catcher for the team who is still fifth all-time in games played at catcher for the Dodgers. He was decent on defense but couldn’t hit, which seems to be a very common trait among a lot of Dodger catchers. When you play for 13 seasons and finish with a career WAR of 0.1, well, that about sums it up. I did find one thing about him that was quite tragic. He was in the hospital after cataract surgery in 1962 when he fell out of his open window and died.

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Mickey Owen (1941-45, .255/.318/.322): It’s unfortunate that Owen is best remembered for that passed ball in the 1941 World Series, because it has overshadowed his other accomplishment. He was a four-time All-Star and during that 1941 season had set a then-record for most consecutive errorless chances handled by a catcher (508). He is also the first player to hit a pinch-hit homer in the All-Star game, which he did in 1942.

Babe Phelps (1935-41, .315/.368/.477). Phelps was a three-time All-Star and a heck of a hitter. As a defender, well, Phelps was a heck of a hitter. He hit .367 in 1936, still the highest batting average by a catcher who qualified for the season title. He finished second that year to Paul Waner of Pittsburgh, who hit .373. Phelps was always considered a bit of a hypochondriac and in 1941, he refused to go on a road trip because he was worried about his heart, feeling it was skipping beats and that he might have a heart attack. The Dodgers suspended him and tried to trade him, but there were no takers. Phelps was suspended most of the season. A couple of months later, the team was in a pennant race and not entirely thrilled with the job Mickey Owen was doing as the catcher. The Dodgers wanted to bring Phelps back, but they couldn’t without Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ permission. Landis met with Phelps and refused to reinstate him. The Dodgers lost in the World Series, thanks in part to Owen’s infamous passed ball on a strikeout that would have ended Game 4.

Mike Piazza (1992-98, .331/.394/.572): The best-hitting catcher in baseball history was an All-Star every full season with the Dodgers and finished as the MVP runner-up two consecutive seasons. His best season was 1997, when he hit .362 with 32 doubles, 40 homers and 124 RBIs in 152 games. He wasn’t much defensively, and the less said about his trade to Florida in 1998, the better.

John Roseboro (1957-67, .251/.327/.382): Roseboro was supposed to be groomed by Campanella to be his replacement, but that timeline was sped up considerably after Camapanella’s auto accident left him paralyzed. Roseboro made five All-Star teams with the Dodgers and won two Gold Gloves. He was the starting catcher on three World Series title teams and when people mention the great Dodgers pitching staffs of the 1960s, they seldom mention who the catcher for all those great pitchers was. It was Roseboro.

Mike Scioscia (1980-92, .259/.344/.356). Scioscia was with the Dodgers for 13 seasons, never won a Gold Glove, never led the league in any offensive category and made only two All-Star teams. But what he did can’t be understated: He gave you above average play almost every season for 13 seasons. You never had to worry about the position when Scioscia was there, and he hit one of the most important home runs in Dodger history when he connected off of Dwight Gooden in Game 4 of the 1988 NLCS.

Steve Yeager (1972-85, .228/.299/.358). Yeager is one of my favorite Dodgers of all time. He was a brick wall when he blocked home plate, and if not for some guy named Johnny Bench, he would have about five or six Gold Glove awards. Offensively, he only had three above-average seasons, but was one of the three MVPs of the 1981 World Series and hit .298 with four homers and 10 RBIs in 21 World Series games.

Now it’s time for you to vote. Remember to vote for three. You can click here to vote, or you can email me your three choices. Ties are not allowed, and you have to vote for three. Vote for more or fewer and your vote won’t count.

Next week: First base. I’m predicting a landslide win for Hee-Seop Choi.

And finally

Roy Campanella appeared on “What’s My Line” in 1953. Watch it here.

Have a comment or something you'd like to see in a future Dodgers newsletter? Email me and follow me on Twitter: @latimeshouston.

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