Hot take: 5 best catchers in Mets history

March 24th, 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 Anthony DiComo’s ranking of the top 5 catchers in Mets history. Next week: First basemen.

1. Mike Piazza, 1998-2005
Key fact: Piazza is the only Hall of Fame position player with a Mets cap on his plaque

Although people tend to throw around superlatives too easily these days, sometimes they are appropriate. In Piazza’s case, he is the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history. No one who worked primarily behind the plate finished with more home runs, a higher slugging percentage or a better OPS than Piazza, who played a little more than half of his career games with the Mets. All told, Piazza hit 396 of his 427 career homers as a catcher -- a record that isn’t going to fall anytime soon.

“He had the ability to change a game,” former teammate Tom Glavine said. “He had the ability to carry a team.”

Piazza also had a flair for the dramatic, offering the Mets legitimacy as soon as he arrived in Flushing. Think about the 2000 World Series, and you’ll probably see Piazza scowling at Roger Clemens in Game 2, after the pitcher threw a broken bat in his general direction. The following year, Piazza hit one of the most memorable home runs in franchise history: a go-ahead, two-run shot at Shea Stadium in New York City’s first game following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

The only knock on Piazza’s career was his defense (particularly his ability to throw out baserunners), but the debate still rages regarding how differently Piazza might have been perceived had he played in an era that valued pitch framing and other modern statistics. Certainly, Piazza’s deficiencies did not come close to overshadowing his offensive prowess.

The Mets inducted Piazza into the Mets Hall of Fame in 2013, then retired his No. 31 three years later. That same summer, Piazza went into Cooperstown. It bears repeating -- he’s the greatest offensive catcher of all time, and it’s not particularly close.

2. Gary Carter, 1985-89
Key fact: One of four captains in Mets history

This is a tougher call than it might appear on the surface. Statistically, it’s not difficult to justify a vote for multiple catchers lower down this list, considering Carter played only five seasons in Flushing. But they were five impactful seasons. Carter is widely credited as the engine that led the Mets to their World Series title in 1986, coming to New York from Montreal in one of the most seismic Winter Meetings trades in history. With that as Carter’s backdrop, simple stat lines lose a bit of their effect.

That’s not to say Carter accomplished little over his half-decade in Flushing. To the contrary, he appeared in more games as a catcher than all but four Mets in history, hitting 83 home runs as a backstop to rank third on the franchise list. His OPS as a catcher was .722.

He also hit two home runs in Game 4 of the 1986 World Series, allowing the Mets to tie the Fall Classic in Boston after falling behind, two games to none, at Shea Stadium. In the Mets’ iconic Game 6 victory, Carter hit a game-tying sacrifice fly in the eighth before singling to spark the two-out, game-winning rally in the 10th. Two years later, the Mets named Carter co-captain with Keith Hernandez, making him one of the first two players to earn the title.

So yes, Carter’s contributions to the Mets were about more than just stats. The GM who acquired Carter, Frank Cashen, called him “the perfect guy for so many reasons,” while 1986 Mets manager Davey Johnson defined him as “the ideal catcher for our young pitching staff.” Carter was a textbook fit to take a wild, talented roster and help mold it into a World Series champion. For that reason, he clocks in as the second-greatest catcher in Mets history.

3. Jerry Grote, 1966-77
Key fact: Fifth in Mets history with 1,235 games played

Grote probably doesn’t receive enough credit for what he did in helping legitimize the expansion Mets in the late 1960s. Coming to the team in a 1965 trade, Grote became an All-Star starter in his third season with the club. A year later, he guided the Mets’ pitching staff to a 2.99 ERA, which was third in the Majors (including a league-best 2.61 mark after the All-Star break). Only Ed Kranepool, David Wright, José Reyes and Bud Harrelson appeared in more games for the franchise than Grote.

Although Grote profiled as a below-average offensive catcher, he made up for it on defense and with his handling of the pitching staff. No Met spent more time behind the plate than Grote, who caught every pitch of the Mets’ 1969 and ’73 playoff runs. In the 10th inning of Game 4 of the 1969 World Series, Grote hit a leadoff double to set up the winning run, putting the Mets within one win of their first championship.

4. Todd Hundley, 1990-98
Key fact: Was the Mets’ single-season home run king for 23 years

Because of his inconsistency, and because he was named in the 2007 Mitchell Report, Hundley never received the same type of adulation as others on this list. His offensive numbers, however, rank second only to Piazza among Mets catchers. From 1996-97, Hundley hit 71 home runs as a catcher -- second to Piazza and 25 more than any other Major League backstop that stretch. He set the Mets’ single-season record with 41 home runs in 1996, standing alone in franchise history until Carlos Beltrán tied him in 2006 and Pete Alonso topped him last season. Judging by numbers alone, Hundley was an elite offensive player -- albeit for a relatively brief period of time.

5. John Stearns, 1975-84
Key fact: 295 men caught stealing

Stearns came to the Mets two years after their 1973 World Series appearance, and departed two years before their ’86 pennant. He played on just three winning Mets teams, but was a star of them, leading the franchise in WAR by a wide margin from 1977-82. Although much of that value surfaced via his defense, Stearns was also a surprisingly strong baserunner, stealing 91 bases in his Mets career.

Stearns enjoyed a long career post-retirement as a scout, coach and Minor League manager in the Mets organization and elsewhere.

Honorable mentions
Mets fans may have expected more from him given his prospect hype, but Travis d’Arnaud was statistically one of the best catchers in Mets history. He hit eight home runs with an .805 OPS after the All-Star break in 2015, then added three more homers in the postseason. … Paul Lo Duca spent only two years in Flushing, but his 2006 season was one of the 15 best by a Mets catcher in terms of WAR. … Ron Hodges played his entire 12-year career with the Mets, appearing in the 1973 World Series. Only the five men listed above caught more games for the Mets.