Hot take: 5 best catchers in Reds history

March 24th, 2020

CINCINNATI -- 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 Mark Sheldon’s ranking of the top 5 catchers in Reds history. Next week: First basemen.

1. Johnny Bench, 1967-83
Key fact: Elected to Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989

There really is no debate here. Not only is Bench the best catcher in Reds history, he is arguably the best to have ever played the position in baseball. Bench had second-highest WAR in club history, 75.2, after a 17-year career. Along the way, he was a National League Rookie of the Year in 1967 and earned NL MVP Awards in '70 and '72. He made four World Series appearances in 1970, '72 and the championships of 1975-76.

Bench also slugged 389 home runs, which was at one time the most ever for the position, won 10 Gold Gloves and was a 14-time All-Star.

“Johnny, you will always be the best of all time,” catching great Mike Piazza told Bench during his own 2016 Hall of Fame induction speech. “You revolutionized catching and the game is better because of it. Your leadership and performance in the biggest games will never be matched.”

Bench also became a pop-culture staple in the 1970s and ‘80s with appearances in movies, television, talk shows and as the host of his own program for kids, “The Baseball Bunch.” His No. 5 was retired -- the first player in club history to receive the honor and the second person overall.

2. Ernie Lombardi,1932-41
Key fact: He’s the only catcher to ever win two batting titles.

The 1938 NL Most Valuable Player and also a member of the Hall of Fame, Lombardi batted .311 with 120 homers over 1,203 games with Cincinnati. He was behind the plate for both of pitcher Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back no-hitters and a member of two pennant-winning clubs, including the 1940 World Series winner.

“Give some credit to Lombardi,” the home-plate umpire of Vander Meer’s second no-hitter, Bill Stewart, said in research found by SABR. “Sure, Vander Meer had to pitch perfectly to get his no-hitters. But what about the guy who told the kid what to pitch? If Lombardi had guessed wrong on one hitter, if he had called for a fastball when a curve was the smart pitch, Vander Meer never would’ve made it. Lombardi’s judgment was just as perfect and just as important as Vander Meer’s pitches.”

After his death in 1977, Lombardi was posthumously voted into the Hall of Fame by the veteran’s committee. Lombardi, who had a 27.9 WAR for the Reds, also played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Braves and New York Giants during a 17-season career.

3. Bubbles Hargrave, 1921-28
Key fact: The first modern-era catcher to win a batting title.

Hargrave played eight of his 12 seasons for the Reds and had a .314 average over 766 games. He hit .300 or better in six consecutive seasons, including .353 to win the batting title in 1926. The next catcher to achieve the feat was Lombardi, 12 years later.

The Reds inducted Hargrave into the club’s Hall of Fame in 1962.

4. Ed Bailey, 1953-61
Key fact: His 94 homers are third-most all time for Reds catchers.

A left-handed hitter, Bailey initially struggled offensively and served as a backup for several seasons with Cincinnati after he broke into the big leagues. Things turned around for Bailey in 1956 when he claimed the regular job while batting .300 with a .936 OPS and 28 homers in only 118 games. It earned him the first of his five All-Star team honors.

5. Ryan Hanigan, 2007-13
Key fact: Caught both of Homer Bailey’s no-hitters in 2012 and ‘13.

Hanigan’s offensive exploits aren’t what got him on this list. His 126.4 defensive rating on Fangraphs ranked him second among Reds catchers behind only Bench, giving him the fifth-best overall WAR at the position. Appreciated by pitchers for his game-calling skills, Hanigan’s efforts really stood out in 2012, when Cincinnati won 97 games and the NL Central. The pitching staff ranked third in the NL in ERA (3.34), while the bullpen had the lowest ERA in the Majors (2.65). The rotation had four 200-innings starters, with 98 quality starts. Hanigan caught 11 of the team's 12 shutouts and six of the nine complete games -- including the first of Bailey’s two no-hitters.

Honorable mentions

Johnny Edwards (1961-67) was a three-time All-Star and won two Gold Gloves … Heinie Peltz (1896-1904) has the fifth-best WAR among Reds catchers … (2014-present) became the first Reds catcher since Bench to win a Gold Glove in ’17.