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Is this the best defensive season a catcher has ever had?

Thursday 8/10/23

Catchers and pitchers are apt to understand mortality better than other baseball players.

A pitcher can be all done for good with a single pitch. The pitch is thrown, the arm goes, life as life was is no more.

Catchers, meanwhile, no matter how good they are, aren't likely to excel for long (and they also know about mortality on account of their close relationships with pitchers). A Carlton Fisk is such a rarity. But's not just a Fisk--a Lance Parrish, a Bob Boone, a Jim Sundberg, who we don't think of as Hall of Fame-type players (though I think there's an argument for Parrish) are also true rarities, being scarcer than corner outfielders or first basemen who bash 40 home runs, but a Bob Boone is harder to find than a Paul Konerko.

I have always pulled for catchers more than players at any other position in baseball. I want to like the catcher of the team I root for. If the catcher can possibly be my favorite player, that's ideal. I wish more people knew about certain catchers and how good they were. Benito Santiago, for instance. But you have to understand the attrition that comes with the position, and which cuts back on numbers and service time.

Do you know how hard it was to be Benito Santiago and put up the numbers he did for as many years as he was in the big leagues? But they don't stand out the way a first baseman's numbers could. Take a Rich Gedman. He was a legit All-Star catcher, but he was able to be good for such a brief amount of time. Two years. Less? It's not like he lost his ability. It was the toll of the position. It happens fast.

A catcher I've always loved was Jody Davis, who is one of my all-time favorite players. He was like Gedman in that he wasn't what we think of as good--All-Star-level good--for more than two, three years.

His best year as a hitter was in 1983, but his 1984 season looks flashier, because he had 94 RBI--which is a sexy RBI total for a catcher--and the Cubs had what at the time was a magical year for them; that is, they actually made the playoffs, which didn't happen back then and hadn't happened since World War II. Ryne Sandberg got the bulk of the credit--as he should have--but Davis was key, and people knew it. He finished tenth in MVP voting. He was beloved by the Cubs fans at Wrigley, who chanted, "Jo-Dee, Jo-Dee" when he came to the plate.

Davis played from 1981 to 1990. Ten years. He was out of the league at age thirty-three, four years after his second and final All-Star appearance. The numbers will seem pedestrian for a big leaguer, but only if you don't understand how hard it is to be in the big leagues for ten years, and as a catcher to boot.

He hit .245 for his career. He had 877 hits, which is like four Wade Boggs seasons' worth of hits. He fell off offensively in 1985, then bounced back by hitting .250 with 21 homers and 74 RBI--nice power numbers for a catcher--in 1986, though his OPS+ was 93. Still, that's good offensive value from that position.

But Davis had made a decision heading into that 1986 campaign to be better defensively, and he then went on to have what might be the greatest defensive year a catcher has ever had. It's up there.

Davis led the National League in defensive WAR that season, with a mark of 3.3. That beat out Ozzie Smith, which wasn't an easy feat at the time. The Wizard, as the Cardinals shortstop was known, was at a level perhaps unmatched by any shortstop in history, though I think shortstops like Luis Aparicio, Mark Bellanger, and Rabbit Maranville got close. But when you're a catcher and your defensive WAR is higher than that of prime Wizard--that's historically notable.

Davis also led the league in games caught at 145 (his career best being 150 in 1983). He led all players in Total Zone Runs. He led all catchers in putouts, assists, double plays turned. He threw out 89 runners attempting to steal, and also had the highest caught stealing percentage at 47.6%.

I don't know of another catcher having statistical season like the one Jody Davis had in 1986 defensively. But it was really the last time that Davis was this kind of player, and it was only his age twenty-nine season. But that's the position, as we've seen.

For this defensive excellence, he won his one and only Gold Glove.

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