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Top 5 catchers in Braves history: Bowman's take

@mlbbowman
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 -- here's what fans had to say:

Here is Mark Bowman’s ranking of the top five catchers in Braves history. Next week: First basemen.

1. Brian McCann, 2005-13 and ’19
Key fact: 43.6 fWAR leads all Braves catchers and stands sixth among all players in franchise history

How great was Brian McCann during his first tour with the Braves? Well, from 2005-13, his 42.5 WAR (per FanGraphs) ranked second among all MLB catchers. That trailed only Joe Mauer, who produced a 44.9 fWAR while logging more than one thousand fewer innings than McCann as a catcher in this span.

Looking at Weighted Runs Created Plus, which accounts for external factors like ballparks and eras, Joe Torre ranks first among all Braves catchers with a 131 wRC+. McCann ranks second (115) and Javy Lopez third (114). But it should be noted Torre logged approximately 2,500 fewer innings behind the plate than both Lopez and McCann while playing for the Braves.

Yeah, that means Torre’s bat was so valuable there was reason to get him at-bats as a first baseman during those pre-load-management days. But when determining the best catcher, it seems best to focus on the production generated while playing this position, which gains significant value from defensive contributions.

Lopez ranks first among Braves catchers with 214 homers, and McCann ranks second with 188. But before Lopez had his monstrous 43-homer season in 2003, his at-bats-per-HR ratio was 20.7, which is pretty similar to McCann’s 21.5 AB/HR ratio from 2005-13.

But although Torre was slightly more productive from an overall offensive perspective and Lopez might have had a little more power, McCann gets the nod because he was clearly superior defensively to both.

Per FanGraphs’ Defensive WAR model, McCann ranks fourth all-time among catchers with a 232.1 mark, trailing only Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez, Yadier Molina and Bob Boone. Yeah, recent catchers have benefited from PITCHf/x allowing this metric to account for framing. But with that being said, Lopez (55.9) and Torre (40.6) weren’t even close in this defensive category.

2. Javy Lopez, 1992-2003
Key fact: Owns the MLB single-season record for most homers (42) while in the lineup as a catcher

The Twitter poll showed fans consider Javy Lopez to be the best catcher in Braves history. He received 52% of the votes, while McCann ranked second with 42%.

Lopez established himself as a fan favorite. He was behind the plate when Tom Glavine’s gem helped clinch the 1995 World Series, and Lopez’s tremendous performance in the 1996 National League Championship Series sent the Braves to a second straight World Series. And of course, there's his 43-homer campaign in 2003 before bidding adieu to Atlanta.

Many recall Greg Maddux did not use Lopez as his catcher, but it should also be remembered that Lopez was behind the plate for approximately 64% of the innings tallied while Braves pitchers were producing an MLB-best 3.55 ERA from 1995-2003.

Lopez might not have been the best defensive catcher, but the 116 wRC+ he produced in nine seasons as Atlanta’s primary catcher was just a tick behind the 117 wRC+ McCann produced during his first nine seasons with the Braves.

3. Joe Torre, 1960-68
Key fact: Led all MLB catchers in fWAR (34.9) and wRC+ (131) from 1961-68

When Del Crandall injured his throwing arm a few weeks into the 1961 season, the Milwaukee Braves had to promote a 20-year-old Joe Torre to serve as their primary catcher with just a little more than a year’s worth of professional experience. He finished second in NL Rookie of the Year balloting that year and finished fifth in NL MVP voting after producing a 145 wRC+ in 1964.

Torre produced a similar 144 wRC+ in 1965 and then drilled a career-best 36 homers while constructing a 157 wRC+ when the Braves moved to Atlanta in ’66. His production dropped over the next two seasons and he was traded to the Cardinals after the 1968 season. Younger fans identify him as the Hall of Fame manager who led the Yankees to World Series wins over Atlanta in 1996 and ’99. But many longtime Braves fans understand why he was widely considered the best catcher of the 1960s.

4. Del Crandall, 1949-63
Key fact: Won four of the first five Gold Gloves given after Rawlings began designating a winner in each league

Quite possibly, the best defensive catcher in NL history, Del Crandall’s metrics were not influenced by the advancements made via today’s analytics. But he was certainly respected by his peers, named an All-Star in eight seasons with the Braves.

Crandall was 19 when he debuted for the 1949 Boston Braves. He finished second in NL Rookie of the Year balloting, then played one more year before missing two seasons while performing military service. The 151 homers he hit from 1953-60 ranked second among MLB catchers, trailing only Hall of Famer Yogi Berra (186). In addition to being behind the plate for Lew Burdette’s gem that sealed the 1957 World Series, Crandall also homered in the eighth inning of that Game 7 win over the Yankees.

5. Eddie Pérez, 1995-2001 and 2004-05
Key fact: Owns a franchise-best 1.250 OPS (minimum 25 at-bats) in NLCS games

It might initially seem ridiculous to give this spot to a guy who was a backup throughout his career. But beyond McCann, Lopez, Torre and Crandall, no other Braves catcher has ever produced more than a 12.5 fWAR. To put that in context, Tyler Flowers ranks eighth in franchise history with an 11.6 fWAR, despite having totaled just 349 games with the Braves.

So we’ll give this final spot to Eddie Pérez, who primarily played because of his eternal link to Greg Maddux. The Hall of Fame hurler produced a 2.52 ERA while working with Pérez, who logged at least 248 more Maddux innings than any other catcher who worked with the four-time Cy Young Award winner. The beloved catcher will also remind you he won the 1999 NLCS MVP while filling in for Lopez, who underwent season-ending left knee surgery in June that year.

Honorable mentions
Bruce Benedict was a strong defensive asset who logged the fourth-most innings as a catcher in franchise history ... Greg Olson was the primary catcher when the Braves made their surprising run to the 1991 World Series ... And no list of Braves catchers would be complete without at least mentioning Biff Pocoroba.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.