A's Top 5 catchers: Gallegos' take

March 23rd, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is a ranking of the top 5 catchers in A’s history as constructed by Martín Gallegos. Next week: First basemen.

1. Mickey Cochrane, 1925-33
Key fact: 39.8 WAR is highest among catchers in club history

When making the case for Cochrane, it’s hard to go against a Hall of Fame pitcher in Lefty Grove, who once dubbed his former batterymate the “greatest catcher of them all.” Most readers here did not get to watch the A’s Hall of Fame catcher do his thing, so let’s go back and take a look at just what made Cochrane great.

Over eight decades have passed since the final at-bat of Cochrane’s career, one that was cut short at age 34 after he was hit in the head with a fastball, yet his career .320 batting average remains the highest among catchers in Major League history. The first nine seasons of Cochrane’s illustrious career were spent with the Philadelphia incarnation of the A’s. The club won two World Series titles during Cochrane’s stint, and the catcher was one of the key pieces at the forefront of that success, winning the AL MVP Award in 1928. Cochrane batted a career-high .357 in '30, a year which resulted in the second of back-to-back World Series titles for the A’s.

Financial troubles led to then-A’s owner Connie Mack trading Cochrane to the Tigers in 1934 and the success immediately continued as he captured a second AL MVP Award in his first season with Detroit as a player/manager. Among the players he beat out that year was Lou Gehrig, who earned the AL Triple Crown that season. Cochrane also helped the Tigers to a World Series title in '35.

Becoming the first catcher to be elected into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers' Association of America in 1947, Cochrane found his way back to the A’s briefly as a coach and general manager of the organization’s farm clubs in '49.

A's All-Time Around the Horn Team: 1B | 2B

2. Terry Steinbach, 1986-96_
Key fact: Most All-Star selections of any catcher in Oakland history_

When it comes to strictly Oakland history, there may not have been a better backstop than Steinbach. His time with the A’s is often overlooked, perhaps for the fact that it coincided with a bevy of star teammates like Rickey Henderson and the Bash Brothers, but Steinbach developed into a mainstay with the A’s and one of their most clutch hitters during their title runs of the 1980s.

Steinbach seemed to thrive under the bright lights. A three-time All-Star, he earned the All-Star Game MVP Award in 1988, just his second full big-league season. He drove in the AL’s only two runs, including a solo blast off Dwight Gooden, in victory. The next season, Steinbach was a key cog to Oakland’s high-powered offense that overwhelmed the Giants in the World Series, driving in seven runs over the four-game sweep. In 25 career postseason games, Steinbach was a .281 hitter.

As the A’s dynasty came to an end with big-name players going elsewhere in the early 1990s, Steinbach stuck around a while longer and kept getting better. He made his third All-Star Game in 1993, and put together a monster year at the plate in ‘96 with a career-high 35 home runs, which is also a single-season franchise record for a catcher, and 100 RBIs over 145 games in the regular season.

As consistent of a threat Steinbach was as at the plate, though, you also can’t forget about his defense. He finished among the top-four catchers in the Majors in runners caught stealing and assists in five of his 11 seasons with Oakland and had the top fielding percentage (.998) of all catchers in 1994.

Steinbach left the A’s as a free agent in 1997 and signed with his hometown team in the Twins, playing three seasons in Minnesota. Perhaps his best moment there was catching Eric Milton’s no-hitter in '99, the second no-hitter he caught over his career. Steinbach was also behind the plate for Dave Stewart’s no-hitter in ‘90.

3. Gene Tenace, 1969-76
Key fact: Hit four home runs in 1972 World Series

We’ll stick with Tenace at catcher, even though his time between the position and first base is almost split.

Drafted by the A’s in the 20th round of the 1965 Draft, there was no hint of Tenace developing into anything more than a serviceable player based on his first four big-league seasons. But his career took an upswing in 1972. Tenace and the “Swingin’ A’s” knocked off the “Big Red Machine” Reds in the ‘72 World Series to bring Oakland its first Fall Classic title. Tenace was named the World Series MVP on the strength of his four homers, and then his career took off.

Right in the middle of an A’s dynasty that won three straight championships from 1972-74, Tenace cranked out 101 homers from ‘73-76. He also displayed a sharp eye at the plate by drawing over 100 walks in three of those four seasons, and earned his first and only All-Star selection in ‘75.

Tenace became a free agent in 1976 after eight seasons with the A’s and signed with the Padres, ultimately playing a total of 15 big-league seasons. His 22.6 wins above replacement (Fangraphs) ranks 26th of all players in A’s history. Tenace was honored by the A’s in 2018 as a member of the club’s 50th Anniversary Team.

4. Frankie Hayes, 1933-42, 44-45
Key fact: Career .270 batting average with A’s is third highest among catchers in franchise history

Hayes was given the daunting task of replacing a generational player in Cochrane after the Hall of Famer was traded to the Tigers. It wasn’t Hall of Fame production, but Hayes was more than a solid as a replacement, making four All-Star teams with the A’s. The catcher appeared in 992 games with the A’s, third most by a catcher in club history.

5. Ramón Hernández, 1999-2003
Key fact: One of six All-Star catchers in Oakland history

The A’s “Big Three” of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder electrified baseball through the early 2000s, and Hernández was the solid rock behind the plate who developed strong chemistry with all three. Not only was he good behind the plate, Hernández also began to develop into a threat at the plate, making the AL All-Star team in a 2003 campaign that saw him blast a career-high 21 homers and 78 RBIs. He was also involved in a memorable postseason moment in the ‘03 ALDS, laying down a two-out, bases-loaded bunt that scored Eric Chavez for the game-winning run in the 12th inning against the Red Sox. Just when it looked like the A’s were set at the position for the next decade with a young star, Hernández was traded to the Padres later that offseason. He played a total of 15 big-league seasons, spending the first five with Oakland.

Honorable mentions
Stephen Vogt
made two All-Star teams in five seasons with the A’s and earned a special place in the hearts of the Oakland faithful with a colorful personality that sparked a special connection to the club’s diehard fans. … Kurt Suzuki also established himself as a fan favorite who still receives warm ovations whenever he returns to the Coliseum. … Ray Fosse only played three seasons with the A’s, but he remains a popular figure in the organization as a color commentator on the club’s radio and television broadcasts.