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Brewers' Top 5 catchers: McCalvy's take

March 24, 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

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, feel free to let the reporter know on Twitter.

Here is Adam McCalvy’s ranking of the top 5 catchers in Brewers history.

1. Jonathan Lucroy, 2010-16
Key fact: 35.3 fWAR is fourth-highest in club history

Aside from the roundabout way that he helped the Brewers land Christian Yelich, Lucroy was a fascinating player in franchise history in terms of timing. Rushed to the Majors in 2010 amid a spate of injuries, it took Lucroy some time to get comfortable, and he established himself at the same time a new wave of analytics, including pitch-framing statistics, shed light on that part of a catcher’s production. Lucroy broke through in '13 with 18 home runs and 82 RBIs, and he took another step in ‘14 when he hit 53 doubles to break Ivan Rodriguez’s all-time record for a catcher. That year, he finished fourth in National League Most Valuable Player Award balloting. According to Fangraphs’ version of WAR, Lucroy owns the top four seasons in Brewers history for a catcher.

“He learned how to catch up here, and that’s not an easy thing,” said Brewers catcher-turned-TV-analyst Bill Schroeder. “He could hit. He always hit in the Minors. But he worked his rear end off to be a good catcher. When he was here, he would block 20 balls in the cage before every game. I mean, he wanted to be a good defensive catcher. He worked on his throwing all the time, his footwork. He took it personally that people thought he wasn’t a good defensive catcher or he didn’t call a good game.”

In 2016, Lucroy made his second All-Star team for a Brewers team in the middle of a rebuild. New general manager David Stearns arranged to trade Lucroy to the Indians, but Lucroy exercised his right to veto the deal based on concerns about what his playing time would look like in Cleveland. So, Stearns regrouped and traded Lucroy to the Rangers instead for a package of prospects headlined by Lewis Brinson. Two and a half years later, Brinson was the centerpiece of the package that lured Yelich from the Marlins.

2. Ted Simmons, 1981-85
Key fact: Elected to the Hall of Fame in December

Simmons was brilliant, opinionated, and one of the best switch-hitters of all time. He came to the Brewers at 31 years old, having already logged his best MLB seasons in a Cardinals uniform. Simmons did make the final two of his eight All-Star teams as a Brewer, including in a 1983 season in which he set a franchise record for a catcher with 108 RBIs. He was also very good for the Brewers’ World Series team in 1982, hitting 23 home runs with 97 RBIs during the regular season.

But a case for Simmons relies on factors you won’t find on the back of his baseball cards. He came to the Brewers in “The Trade That Made Milwaukee Famous,” as Sports Illustrated put it on the cover of the March 16, 1981, edition. When then-Brewers GM Harry Dalton got Simmons, future Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers and future American League Cy Young Award winner Pete Vuckovich from the St. Louis Cardinals at the 1980 Winter Meetings for a group of players headlined by hotshot prospect David Green, it put the finishing touches on a Milwaukee team that had been rising since the ’78 season. The Brewers promptly made their first postseason appearance during the shortened ’81 season, and won the first division title in club history in ’82, getting past the Angels in the AL Championship Series before meeting the Cardinals in the World Series. Last offseason, after a 25-year wait, Simmons was voted to the Hall of Fame by the Modern Baseball Era Committee.

“It changed everything in Milwaukee,” said Simmons of the trade. “It was a wonderful, wonderful period.”

3. B.J. Surhoff, 1987-95
Key fact: Only No. 1 overall Draft pick in Brewers history

There was a lot of talent at the top of the 1985 Draft, in which the Brewers took Surhoff out of the University of North Carolina with the top pick ahead of the likes of Will Clark (second to the Giants), Bobby Witt (third to the Rangers), Barry Larkin (fourth to the Reds), Barry Bonds (sixth to the Pirates) and Rafael Palmeiro (22nd to the Cubs). Surhoff went on to play 19 big league seasons, including the first nine in a Brewers uniform. His power at the plate didn’t develop until he was in his 30s and playing for Baltimore, but Surhoff is still one of 35 players in Brewers history with at least 2,000 plate appearances and an OPS north of .700. Thanks to his longevity, his 14.2 WAR (Fangraphs version) ranks 20th of all players in Brewers history.

4. Dave Nilsson, 1992-99
Key fact: First Australian-born player to make MLB’s All-Star Game

Nilsson was a heck of a hitter. His .817 OPS is ninth best in Brewers history among players who logged at least 2,000 plate appearances in the uniform, ahead of players like Paul Molitor, Cecil Cooper, Ben Oglivie, Sixto Lezcano, George Scott and Greg Vaughn. Nilsson’s 141 OPS+ in 1999, the year he made the American League All-Star team, is a record for a Brewers catcher. That also proved to be his final season in MLB, though his career continued in Australia, culminating with an appearance in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006.

5. Charlie Moore, 1973-1986
Key fact: 1,283 games played for the Brewers

Only Robin Yount, Molitor, Jim Gantner, Ryan Braun and Cooper have played more regular-season games in a Brewers uniform than Moore, who might have fit right in with the 2020 club given his defensive versatility. During a career that began while Milwaukee was still finding its way as an expansion team and culminated after it'd made it to the World Series, Moore made starts at catcher and all three outfield positions -- mostly right field. It was from that position that he authored one of his signature moments for the Brewers, throwing out Reggie Jackson at third base at a pivotal moment of Milwaukee’s win over the Angels in the decisive Game 5 of the 1982 AL Championship Series. But most of Moore’s action -- 892 games -- came as a catcher.

Honorable mentions
Ellie Rodriguez was the first Brewers catcher to make an All-Star team in 1972, when he was the team’s lone representative. … Two years later, Darrell Porter was an All-Star, a year after he finished third in AL Rookie of the Year Award balloting. Porter is fourth on the Fangraphs WAR leaderboard for Brewers catchers. … Yasmani Grandal’s 5.2 fWAR in 2019 is fifth in Brewers history for a catcher -- and best for any Brewers catcher not named Lucroy.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.