Hot take: 5 best catchers in Pirates 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 Adam Berry’s ranking of the top 5 catchers in Pirates history. Next week: First basemen.

1. , 1996-2004
Key fact: Leads Pirates catchers in fWAR (31.2), bWAR (30.7) and homers (67)

Only 19 catchers have been elected to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Pirates can’t claim any of them -- somewhat of a surprise given the franchise’s long history and past championship heights. So there isn’t necessarily a home run pick at this position, especially when the rest of the all-time lineup will be loaded with iconic Hall of Famers.

Statistically, Kendall has the strongest case even though he never played for a winning team in Pittsburgh. The former first-round Draft pick slashed .306/.387/.418 with 67 homers, 471 RBIs and 140 steals over nine seasons with the Pirates. He walked more than he struck out as a Pirate. He made three National League All-Star teams, and a gruesome ankle injury ended what was shaping up to be an excellent 1999 campaign.

In a remarkable testament to his durability and old-school approach to such a physically demanding position, Kendall -- known for carrying himself with a chip on his shoulder -- averaged 149 games and 654 plate appearances per season in the seven years after ankle surgery.

Kendall is still the franchise’s leader in WAR, hits, homers, steals and OPS among catchers. The six-year, $60 million deal he signed in 2000 remains the largest contract in Pirates history.

2. , 1967-76 and ’78-80
Key fact: Three-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion

Sanguillen might be the sentimental pick for the No. 1 spot, and he has a strong statistical case as well.

He ranks second behind only Kendall among Pirates catchers in bWAR (26.9) and fWAR (27.3). He hit more homers as a catcher (49) than only three other Pirates -- Kendall, Tony Pena and Ryan Doumit -- and he ranks first in franchise history in RBIs while playing catcher. He was a part of two World Series championship teams (1971, ’79), and he was one of the best overall players on the ’71 club as he slashed .319/.345/.426 in 138 games. And he remains a beloved figure with a residence in Pittsburgh and a “Manny’s BBQ” stand at PNC Park.

The free-swinging Panamanian catcher, a close friend of Roberto Clemente, hit .300 or better in four of his 12 seasons with Pittsburgh. He batted .379 in the 1971 World Series, and his lone hit in the ’79 Fall Classic was a big one -- a game-winning RBI single in the ninth inning of Game 2.

3. , 1980-86
Key fact: Four All-Star nods, three Gold Glove Awards with the Pirates

Known for his defense and unorthodox squat behind the plate, Peña enjoyed the best seasons of his 18-year career in Pittsburgh. In seven seasons, he slashed .286/.327/.411 with 63 homers and 340 RBIs while totaling 22.4 bWAR and 20.5 fWAR, making him a clear No. 3 on this list behind the 1-and-1A duo of Kendall and Sanguillen.

In 1983, Peña finished 12th in NL MVP voting as he batted .301 with 15 homers and 70 RBIs over 151 games while winning his first Gold Glove Award. As the Bucs’ full-time catcher from 1982-86, the strong-armed Pena caught a total of 310 baserunners attempting to steal, ranking among the league’s top four -- and twice finishing first -- in that category each season.

4. George Gibson, 1905-16
Key fact: Started 150 games behind the plate for 1909 World Series champions

Born in London, Ontario, this Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer was widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers of his era.

He didn’t offer much at the plate, even by deadball era standards, as he slashed .238/.296/.314 with 15 home runs during his 12 seasons with the Pirates. But he was a workhorse behind the plate, as exemplified by the 143 games he played in 1908 and ’10 and the whopping 150 games he played for Pittsburgh during the 1909 season.

Gibson then started all seven games of the Pirates’ World Series triumph over the Tigers. Perhaps it’s a testament to his work behind the plate that Ty Cobb, fresh off a 76-steal season, only stole two bases -- as many as Gibson himself -- in the 1909 World Series. (The Pirates stole 18 bases in that series compared to Detroit’s six.)

In a delightful bit of old-time baseball writing, a report in The Evening News on June 13, 1910, stated that baseball experts “claim there is no wind paddist in the game today who is Gibby’s peer in all around work. … Gibson is so big, so ideally built, so muscular and so strong that he can work twice as hard as the ordinary man without feeling any effects.”

At least one modern metric agrees with that lofty review. Gibson ranks fifth among Pirates catchers with a 14.9 bWAR.

5. Smoky Burgess, 1959-64
Key fact: 1960 World Series champion, caught Harvey Haddix’s nearly perfect game in 1959

There’s a statistical case for Burgess here, as he ranks sixth among all Pirates catchers in bWAR (14.5) and fifth in fWAR (also 14.5). Known later in his career for his outstanding pinch-hitting, Burgess was a four-time All-Star who hit .296/.352/.445 with 51 homers in 586 games for the Pirates.

There’s some anecdotal support for Burgess, too. Consider that he was behind the plate on May 26, 1959, when Haddix carried a perfect game into the 13th inning at Milwaukee County Stadium, only to lose, 1-0. And he was the primary catcher for the 1960 World Series champions. The Pirates went 4-1 in Burgess’ five Fall Classic starts and lost the other two games, 10-0 and 12-0.

It may have been Burgess’ less-than-ideal athleticism that set up one of the biggest home runs in franchise history, too. After he singled to lead off the seventh inning of Game 7 in the 1960 World Series, he was lifted for a pinch-runner. Replacing Burgess behind the plate: Hal Smith, who hit a go-ahead three-run homer before the Yankees tied it up and Bill Mazeroski ended it with a walk-off homer that has never since been matched.

Honorable mentions
George Frederick “Doggie” Miller
began his professional career with the Pittsburgh Alleghenys and ranks fourth all-time in Pittsburgh catcher WAR (15.8), according to Baseball-Reference, though he played multiple positions during his time in Pittsburgh. The list feels incomplete without the successful early ‘90s duo of Mike LaValliere (10.6 bWAR from 1987-93) and (10.3 WAR, ’90-95). only played two years for the Pirates (2013-14), but he ranks ninth all time in catcher home runs, with 26, and 10th in bWAR, with 9.8, and he left an indelible mark on franchise history with his 2013 NL Wild Card Game homer off Johnny Cueto.