Padres' Top 5 catchers: Cassavell's take

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, vote in the Twitter poll for your favorite at this position.

Here is AJ Cassavell’s ranking of the top five catchers in Padres history. Next week: First basemen.

1. Benito Santiago
Key fact: Santiago won the Gold Glove Award in three straight seasons from 1988-90, the only catcher in Padres history to win the award.

Santiago wasted no time staking his place among the Padres’ all-time greatest catchers. In his rookie season in 1987, Santiago recorded a 34-game hitting streak -- a Major League record that still stands among rookies and among catchers. Santiago would take home the National League Rookie of the Year Award, hitting .300 with a .791 OPS. But he wouldn’t quite reach those heights again offensively in San Diego.

Still, it quickly became clear that Santiago’s strength was his defense. He boasted one of the NL’s top throwing arms and took home three consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 1988-90. At a time in baseball history when the running game was as prevalent as ever, Santiago shut it down, throwing out 37 percent of basestealers with the Padres and three times sitting above 40 percent.

2. Terry Kennedy
Key fact: Kennedy is the Padres’ all-time leader among catchers with 817 hits and 414 RBIs.

The Padres essentially built a World Series-caliber offense around Kennedy in the early 1980s. The lefty-hitting backstop arrived in San Diego in ‘81 and was named to the NL All-Star team later that year. He quickly developed a reputation for being tough-as-nails behind the plate, and he was the first key offensive contributor to arrive among the eventual '84 pennant-winning group. The Padres had their backstop, and they filled in the rest from there.

Kennedy batted .274/.319/.407 across six seasons with the Padres, making the All-Star team three times (one shy of Santiago’s four). In 1982, he tied Johnny Bench’s record with 40 doubles as a catcher (a mark which would be broken by Ivan Rodriguez in '96).

3. Gene Tenace
Key fact: Tenace’s 19.8 bWAR is the highest among catchers in Padres history, as is his 139 wRC+.

Tenace was regarded as a solid backstop during his tenure in San Diego from 1977-80, but the benefit of hindsight makes it even more clear just how good he was during those four seasons. He notched a .403 on-base percentage with the Padres, and he led the Majors with 125 walks in ’77. Among players who played at least half of their games at catcher, Tenace’s 19.8 WAR was the second highest in baseball over those four years -- trailing only Gary Carter and ahead of superstars like Bench, Carlton Fisk, Ted Simmons and Darrell Porter.

During his tenure in San Diego, Tenace’s defense certainly wasn’t at Santiago’s level -- or even Kennedy’s. His batting average slumped, too. But a closer examination of his value makes it clear: Tenace was easily one of the three best catchers in Padres history, and there’s an argument to have him atop this list.

4. Brad Ausmus
Key fact: Ausmus was part of one of the most lopsided trades in franchise history. The Padres landed Ausmus, Andy Ashby and Doug Bochtler for Bruce Hurst and Greg Harris in 1993. Hurst and Harris would combine for a 6.91 ERA over the rest of their careers. Ashby, Ausmus and Bochtler, meanwhile, set the Padres back on course for the playoffs.

After the obvious top three on this list, there’s a sizeable gap with a handful of catchers vying for the No. 4 spot. Ausmus gets the slight edge with a .255/.314/.365 slash line and some solid contributions behind the plate. Ausmus’ counting numbers are strong, and could be stronger if not for shortened seasons in 1994 and ’95. He ranks sixth among Padres catchers with 246 hits.

5. Ramon Hernandez
Key fact: During the Padres’ run to a division title in 2005, Hernandez batted .349 with a .984 OPS over the season’s final month, including a dramatic walk-off homer against the Nationals.

Hernandez only spent two seasons with the Padres, but they were two of the most successful seasons for a catcher in San Diego in recent memory. He batted .283/.332/.463 across 2004 and ’05, and he anchored a strong pitching staff that would push the Padres to a division title. Despite his only playing two seasons for the Padres, Hernandez ranks fourth in bWAR and seventh in fWAR in franchise history among catchers.

Honorable mentions
Yasmani Grandal’s framing ability and strong switch-hit bat makes him an obvious candidate for a spot on the top five, though his tenure in San Diego was tumultuous and he falls just short. … Mike Piazza only spent one season in San Diego, but his 22 homers are the most by a catcher in a single season in franchise history and he posted a .283/.342/.501 slash line. … Nick Hundley ranks fourth among Padres catchers in hits and home runs and fifth in games caught and bWAR. … Carlos Hernandez was excellent in 1997, then backstopped the team’s ’98 pennant run.