Indians

The greatest All-Time Cleveland Indians: Catchers

In the history of the Cleveland Indians’ franchise, the position of catcher has been an interesting dichotomy of offensive fixtures in the mold of Victor Martinez, or defensive backstops in the mold of the great Jim Hegan. Rare has the all-around catcher made his mark with the team.

The one exception to the rule may have been Sandy Alomar Jr., who commanded the pitching staff, was a natural athlete behind the plate, and when he had the bat going, could dominate a game by himself. Alomar’s only drawback what that there weren’t many days that went by in which Alomar Jr. wasn’t hurt, which often kept him from reaching his true potential. While he’s the top backstop for many regarding polling numbers, I always thought the injury issues took away from his overall value.

Over the coming weeks, WFNY is going to take a look at the All-Time Great Cleveland Indians players, starting today, with the catchers. The process will be simple. I’ll run down all the catchers that deserve mentioning, which will be followed by my rankings, and my reasoning.

No, not every player listed is “great” by any definition, but each player listed had an impact on their team, and in some cases, the entire era of baseball they played in. Circumstances are so important, especially in the game of baseball.

Here are the catchers:

Harry Bemis (1902-1910–League Park)

Bemis had me at Cobb. Let me explain.

While he was the primary backstop during the first stretch of the Naps, what I loved the most about this hard-nosed, turn-of-the-century catcher was that his “Handsome” nickname had nothing on his crotchety approach on the field. In 1907, Ty Cobb tripled in a game against the Naps, and decided to head home while he was rounding third. Waiting for him was Bemis, who took a shoulder from Cobb, and dropped the ball. Bemis grabbed the ball, and furiously pounded Cobb in the head until umpire Silk O’Laughlin pulled him off, then threw him out of the game. Imagine that, a player out-fights the well known fireplug, Ty Cobb, widely known for his dirty play.

While Cobb was known for spiking players, at the end of his career, Bemis was one of only two players that Cobb said he intentionally tried to spike. That alone gets Bemis mentioned here. There weren’t many players that got under the skin Cobb, but Bemis was one of the few.

Defensively, he spent some of those early seasons as one of the better defenders in the league, but he played in an era of tough catchers, who could throw runners out. Offensively, we’re talking about the dead-ball era here, so his numbers aren’t going to be comparable to those that came later. He had a lifetime .255 average, with five dingers and 234 RBI.

Bemis ended his career with a 7.5 fWAR, mostly based on his defensive prowess. He wasn’t much of a hitter, unless it was with a baseball, to the noodle of the Major League’s best player.

Steve O’Neill (1911-23–League Park)

There are many similarities between Steve O’Neill and Jim Hegan in that he was considered one of the best fielding catchers of his day. The major difference is that he did have a bit more offense than Hegan during his tenure with the Tribe. Unfortunately, that isn’t really saying much. O’Neill is also one of only two catchers on this list to spend a part of his career with the Naps version of the Cleveland franchise, so he played alongside the great Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Nap Lajoie.

It’s also worth noting that O’Neill had five brothers, and all played professional baseball…three in the majors. It doesn’t have a thing to do with the rankings, but this was a talented family, and baseball was king in the day.

He also is one of only two Tribe catchers that can say they were World Series champion backstops in Cleveland (along with Hegan). O’Neill was behind the plate for the Tribe in 1920, when the Indians won their first World Series, in one of the most memorable seasons in the history of the game.

Overall, O’Neill had a stat line of .265/.348/.341/.689, with 11 homers, 458 RBI and 394 runs scored in his 1,365 games as the Indians catcher. His best seasons came from 1920-1922, when he hit .321, .322 and .311 respectively. If you add in 1919, he had a four-year stretch in which his OPS was above .800. In the final year of that run, O’Neill finished sixth in MVP voting. When he was at his best, he was really good.

O’Neill grew up in the era of stolen bases, and in his Tribe career, had an incredible 1,890 stolen base attempts against. Even more incredible was the fact that he threw out 45% of his baserunners. Remember though, the league average at the time were generally in the 40 percent range, so while impressive to today’s standards, this was standard issue back in the day. You played catcher to defend, and having an arm was a part of the deal.

His fWAR with the Indians during his 13-year Tribe career was an impressive 18.4, and his bWAR was 20.7, with his best season coming in the 1920 World Series year, ( bWAR 4.5/fWAR 4.6).

O’Neill returned to the Indians as their manager in 1935, and in three seasons, had a record of 199-168 before being fired. He later won the World Series as manager of the Detroit Tigers in 1945.

Luke Sewell (1921-32–League Park)

The Indians were the beneficiaries of two Sewell brothers during the roaring 20’s, with catcher Luke, and his more prominent brother, Joe Sewell. Joe was a rookie in the 1920 World Series season, and went on to be elected into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1977. While Luke will never get entrance into the hall, he was equally important to the Indians of the 20’s.

Sewell’s career began as a back-up to Steve O’Neill, and he didn’t become the regular catcher until the 1926 season based on his defensive skills. Overall, Sewell played 13 years with the Indians, and came in with a slash line of .259/.320/.342/.662, with eight homers, 386 RBI and 381 runs in 978 ballgames.

His best season was in 1927, when he hit .294, with 53 RBI and 52 runs scored in 128 games. He finished 9th in the league in MVP voting, and followed that up by finishing 12th in the league in MVP voting in 1928.

How good was he defensively? He caught 69 baserunners in 1927, and 61 in 1928. In both seasons, he threw out an incredible 53% of his runners. Overall for his career with the Tribe, his worst Caught Stealing percentage was 40%, and he threw out 47% of the 859 idiotic baserunners that tried to steal a base against him. Of course, it was a different era, and really, the tail end of the era in which stolen bases were expected, not a surprise.

He was essentially a replacement level player, who did what he was supposed to do.

Frankie Pytlak (1932-1940–League Park/Municipal Stadium)

Pytlak was in a long-line of defensive catchers for the Cleveland Indians. He was agile, like many of his day, could throw out runners. He also had some bad misfortune, with broken fingers and stomach disorders that disrupted his career. This likely cost him a spot with the top three or four guys.

Walter Johnson, one of his first managers, was quoted as saying “he’s the best catcher in the game,” and at the time, it was likely true.

Pytlak had two claim’s to fame. He caught Bob Feller’s 18K game, and he also caught a ball that Ken Keltner threw off the top of Cleveland’s Terminal tower, which was a World Record at the time. His best seasons came between 1936 and 1938. He had his only two Indians’ seasons with over 100 games played, and hit over .300 all three years.

But Pytlak was all defense, had only seven homers in his career, but did steal 56 bases, including 16 in 1937. In the end though, Pytlak was mercurial, asking for a raise multiple times, and cleaning out his locker a few times as well. When he wasn’t playing, whether in a platoon, or injured, the eccentric catcher often didn’t show up to games, firing up management and ownership. He was good, but the attitude likely kept him from being great. He was dealt in 1940, to the Boston Red Sox.

He had a 7.6 career fWAR as a catcher for the Cleveland Indians.

Jim Hegan  (1941-57–Municipal Stadium/League Park)

Jim Hegan will always be one of my favorite Indians’ catchers, even though I never saw him play a game, except in old video replays. Hegan was heading towards the full-time Tribe catcher’s job when something got in his way: World War 2. He was another one of those guys that put his country ahead of his career. He missed the 1943-1945 seasons, before returning to the Tribe in 1946. He remained the club’s primary backstop through the 1957 season.

He was the last Cleveland Indians’ World Series WINNING catcher. Hegan also led a Cleveland Indians pitching staff that may have been the best all-time, and not just in Cleveland. When Bob Feller calls you “one of the best defensive catchers in baseball history,” you tend to listen. While some knocked Hegan for having an incredibly talented staff, I feel just the opposite. I think that staff owes a ton to Hegan’s game calling.

Sure, when your starting pitchers are Bob Lemon and Bob Feller and Early Wynn and Mike Garcia and Herb Score, you likely get a bounce in ability. Of course, you do have to believe that Hegan’s defensive prowess and ability to call a game had something to do with the Indians’ starters being some of the best.

Hegan was never an offensive catcher. Overall, with the Indians, his slash line was .230/.299/.349/.648, with 90 homers, 499 RBI and 526 runs in 1,526 games. Still, when your starting staff was leading the league in ERA from 1948-1951 and 1954, and had two seasons in which THREE PITCHERS won 20 games, you can overlook the offensive piece. The rest of the league noticed as well, as Hegan played in five all-star games in six seasons from 1947 through 1952. He didn’t make the all-star game in the World Series year, but was good enough to place 19th in MVP voting. He placed 22nd in MVP voting in 1954, the year the Indians lost in a four-game sweep to the New York Giants (darn you, Willie Mays).

His career fWAR with the Indians was a solid 9.4, and much of that thanks to his fantastic defense.

Johnny Romano (1960-64–Municipal Stadium)

Welcome to the first real power-hitting catcher of the bunch.

Romano came to the Indians with Norm Cash in a big trade in 1959, and he didn’t disappoint. He blasted 16 homers in his first year with the Tribe, and followed it up with 21 and 25 homers. He only hit 10 in the 1963 season, but rebounded with 19 in 1964, his final year with the Tribe. His 91 homers over that five-year span were the most by an Indians catcher until Sandy Alomar broke his record during his tenure (by one…92-91, and VMart has since passed them both).

His best season was in 1961, when he hit .299, with 21 homers and 80 RBI, while scoring 71 times in 135 games. He played in his first of two All-Star games that year (he actually played in four all-star games, as there were two each in 1961 and 1962), and finished 24th in MVP voting in ’61 as well.

After he broke his pinky in 1963, he never really reclaimed the job full-time, platooning with Joe Azcue in 1964, before he was traded to the White Sox.

His career fWAR with the Tribe in his five seasons was 16.4.

Joe Azcue (1963-69–Municipal Stadium)

The Cuban-born Azcue came to the Indians as part of a trade in 1963, and he provided immediate offense for the Indians that season. In only 94 games with the Tribe, he hit 14 homers, and drove in 46 runs, while scoring 26. His slash line with the Tribe that year was .284/.314/.466/.779.

Azcue was named to the All-Star team in 1968, and hit .280 that season, and he led the AL catchers in fielding percentage in both 1967 and 1968. He certainly wasn’t much of an offensive threat, but was one of the better fielding catchers in baseball during his tenure, and was largely underrated.

His career bWAR with the Tribe was 9.5 with the Indians.

Ray Fosse  (1967-72, 1976-77–Municipal Stadium)

Ray Fosse will always be a big what-if in Cleveland. In the 70s, Cleveland Indians’ fans always wondered what could have been, had Pete Rose not barrelled over Fosse, who was the ‘next big thing’ in The Land at the time.

Fosse began his first full season in Cleveland in style, hitting .313, with 16 homers and 45 RBI. All indications were that Fosse was going to be a game-changing offensive catcher, who could play some defense as well. He even managed to hit in 23-straight games during that first half, and his all-star game appearance was what many thought would be the first of many.

The All-Star game in Cincinnati was a tough contest, and went into the 12th inning. Pete Rose and Billy Grabarkewitz singled with two outs in the inning, and with Rose on second, Jim Hickman singled to center. There was never a doubt that Rose was going to try and score the winning run. He was at home, had a chance to win a game (albeit a meaningless exhibition game), and had that tenacious streak everyone knew at the time. Rose bowled over Fosse just as the ball reached him, separating his shoulder, which played at least a small part in making what could have been a superstar career into a wayfaring journey from Cleveland to Oakland, back to Cleveland, to Seattle, and finally ending in Milwaukee.

Whatever you think about the play by Pete Rose (and Fosse has a lot to think about it, and most of it not good), it certainly changed what could have been. In the grand scheme of things, Fosse was a good catcher, but perhaps we’ll never know just how good he could have been.

Fosse’s career slash line with the Tribe was .269/.323/.385/.708, with 50 homers, 230 RBI and 219 runs in 600 total games played. His career fWAR with the Tribe was 8.5 during his eight seasons. He played in two all-star games (he made it back in 1971, albeit with far worst stats), and finished with two gold gloves (1970 & 1971).

Ron Hassey (1978-1984–Municipal Stadium)

Hassey was a solid defensive catcher for the Indians in the late 70’s and early 80’s, who had a moment of offensive brilliance, that he was never able to recapture with the Indians. In 1980, Hassey played in 130 games, and rolled in with a .318/.390/.446 slash, and had himself a 3.7 fWAR season.

Hassey’s claim to fame was catching Len Barker’s perfect game in 1981, then 10 years later, catching Dennis Martinez’s perfect game with the Expos. He’s the only catcher to date to have caught two perfect games, and only the second catcher in history to catch a no hitter in both leagues.

Hassey had an 8.1 fWAR as catcher for the Cleveland Indians.

Sandy Alomar (1990-2000–Progressive Field/Municipal Stadium)

Sandy had the benefit of playing baseball for the Indians when all was right in the world. The deal that brought Alomar to the Indians in 1989 really was the true beginning of a brand-new mentality in Cleveland. Indians’ GM Hank Peters and his assistant John Hart traded their best and only commodity in Joe Carter for Alomar Jr., Carlos Baerga and Chris James, with Alomar and Baerga becoming the cornerstones in the Indians resurgence. Alomar truly was one of the most popular players in Indians’ history, and while his statistics weren’t the anchor of those 90’s teams, you could make a solid case that he was the leader in the mold of what catchers were in year’s past. Alomar could call a game, command a staff, and hit…when he was healthy.

In his 11 seasons with the Indians, he had a slash-line of .277/.315/.419/.734, with 92 homers and 453 RBI and 416 runs scored. He was the 1990 rookie of the year, and his shining moment may just have been his performance during the 1997 All-Star Game at Jacobs field when he hit the game-winning home run and was named the MVP. He played in six All-Star games overall, and all were with the Indians.

His best season was unquestionably that 1997 season, when he had a .324/.354/.545/.900 slash, and led the Indians to their second World Series appearance in three seasons. Alomar’s 1997 home run in the ALDS off of Mariano Rivera in Game 4 tied the game in which the Indians were losing 2-1. They’d eventually win Game 4 and Game 5, which led them to a memorable series in Seattle.

It was that tantalizing talent, along with Alomar’s affable demeanor on the field that really settled Alomar as one of the team’s great players during their best stretch of franchise baseball. His overall fWAR during his tenure in Cleveland was 13.2.

In reality, Alomar’s career was mired in unreached potential because of injuries that plagued him after his first season with the Tribe. He played in 132 games in his rookie year of 1990, which was the most he EVER played in a full season…for any team in his career. As a matter of fact, Alomar didn’t play in another 100-game season until 1996, and in between 1990 and 1996, never played in more than 89 games.

While Sandy struggled in the playoffs overall, he saved his best for the World Series. He only hit .214 overall in the playoffs, but in his 12 games in the World Series, he had a .311/.340/.511/.852 slash, with three doubles, two homers, 11 RBI and five runs.

While there was good with Alomar, it was countered by an unbelievable amount of injury, which likely turned a Hall of Fame career, into a really good one. Alomar will always be remembered as the catcher of those great 1990’s teams, and the unsung leader that started it all. Thanks to intense popularity, and his current coaching role with the organization, it’s Alomar that is often put atop the catching pedestal in Indians’ history.

Victor Martinez (2002-2009–Progressive Field)

Victor Martinez played the first eight seasons of his career with the Cleveland Indians. During his tenure with the Tribe, he had a .297/.369/.463/.832 slash line, and was clearly the captain of the team during that stretch. He hit 103 home runs, drove in 518, and scored 413 runs in 821 total games. He did spend some time at first base, but was clearly the primary catcher during his Indians tenure.

He played in three All-Star games with the Tribe, and had several fantastic seasons to choose from as his best. Arguably his two best are the 2007 season, when he hit .301, with 25 homers and 114 RBI; and 2004, when he hit .283, with 23 homers and 108 RBI.

His only season in the playoffs was that 2007 season, and he was the one offensive player that was electric throughout. In the four-game series with the Yankees, Martinez shredded the Evil Empire’s pitching with a .353/.421/.588/1.009 slash, with a homer, four RBI and two runs in his four games. He wasn’t as good in the seven-game series against Boston, but still managed to hit .296, with a homer, three RBI and four runs.

For the WAR geeks out there, his total fWAR in Cleveland was 17.4 during his eight-year tenure.

He was the quintessential Cleveland Indians’ player while he was here in Cleveland, and it would have been interesting to see what would have happened had the Indians not dealt him to Boston. He likely still would have left, but if ever there was a player that screamed “career Indian,” it was VMart. While Sandy Alomar was a figure-head atop the Indians’ banner for much of his career, VMart was a durable, in-the-trenches, offensive factor. He WAS Cleveland Indians baseball during his eight seasons, as the one constant in the midst of a lot of turmoil

Yan Gomes (2013-current)

It would be impossible not to mention Yan Gomes, even if his only major seasons turn out to be his first two. They were so incredibly good overall in the pantheon of Indians’ catchers, that he has to be mentioned. Consider this: in Gomes first two seasons as the regular Indians’ catcher, his overall fWAR was 7.7. He was a fantastic power hitter, and one of the top five or so defenders in baseball. He could frame, call a game, and gun runners down.

I say all of this in past tense as though he weren’t with the club anymore, but in the 2 1/2 seasons since he’s claimed the full time job, his fWAR has only been 0.8, and that’s including a monstrously sub-par season in 2016, a lot of injuries, and a degradation in some of those defensive skills. He’s still gunning down runners, and his framing skills likely aren’t as bad as some say when he’s healthy, his offense just has fallen off the cliff.

That said, Gomes is worth a mention here, if only because his two seasons showcased that unicorn-like stat line for an Indians catcher: one that can both defend, and be a major player on offense.

The Rankings

It’s actually one of the toughest positions to rank, because you have so many similar players who were so good in their respective eras. Looking at today’s stats, there are guys like Hegan, O’Neill and Sewell who likely wouldn’t have made it past a couple of seasons thanks to their relative lack of offense. Hitting catchers were not a commodity until the Yogi Berra and Roy Campenella era. Sure, you had Mickey Cochrane, but they were few and far between.

You also have to take into account the players WAR #s in overall perspective, because Johnny Bench, generally considered the greatest catcher of all-time, had a career WAR of 72.3. Considering the Indians players here are far less than that really puts the position in perspective in the overall scheme of Major League Baseball. Thanks to injuries, trades and position changes, the Indians just don’t have a catcher that’s in the equation regarding the All-Time MLB greats.
Fortunately, this is my list, so I can rank them however I want to, so just realize that I’m trying to take into account everything, from personal feeling, to WAR, to having seen them, to having heard stories, to the general belief that Steve O’Neill is the best overall catcher of the bunch in the grand scheme of catchers. I also have to take into account World Championships into this, which immediately bump up O’Neill and Hegan, although Hegan does have to fight through the fact that his starting rotation was easily the most talented in Indians history.
I also didn’t include Carlos Santana here, and he really is going to be a struggle. My catch with him is that he only played 100 games or more at catcher once, at that was exactly 100 games. That Santana is a tricky fellow to rank, but rest assured, I’ll find a spot for him. While Gomes has only caught one season over 100 games, there’s still some future in that contract. We’ll see how it plays out.
I also didn’t include players like Chris Bando, Andy Allanson, Kelly Shoppach and a few other catchers that fall in that grey area of either not enough play, or just not good enough. If you see someone that I omitted, please feel free to let me know. If you are convincing enough, perhaps I change MY rankings.

Without further ado, here are my top Tribe Catchers of all-time:

#12. Luke Sewell–I really feel like these first five or six guys are somewhat interchangeable. Sewell didn’t have any World Titles, and while he certainly played in a ton of games and was a respected catcher, his low WAR and the fact that defensively, Azcue was equal or better defensively in an era (60’s) when defensive catchers weren’t common place, led me to move Sewell below Azcue in the overall rankings. Honestly, that says a lot about the catchers on this list, at least the defensive ones. But like I said, they’re pretty interchangeable. While they aren’t going to be listed among the greats of all time, they certainly were among the best in the league while they were playing. Sewell was clearly one of the most respected during his day, as many on this list were. I moved him further down, simply because he truly was a league average player, and nearly non-existent offensively.

#11. Frankie Pytlak–Pytlak could hit, and defensively, was one of the best. A I mentioned already, he had some claims to fame that were both impressive (catcher of Feller’s 18 Ks) and odd (hold outs and general odd behavior). It’s that oddity that kept him from reaching his potential. He could steal some bases, but outside of that, there’s nothing that really makes him stand out other than his length of tenure. He likely loses spots here because I just didn’t know much about him prior to my research for this piece.

#10. Harry Bemis–Bemis was a hard-nosed backstop in an era when catchers truly were the centerpiece to most baseball teams. He wasn’t a dirty player, but was the type of player that didn’t like taking a back seat to anyone, including players like Ty Cobb. He never hit .300, never played in more than 100 games, and really saw his numbers tail off at the end of his career. He made his home in Avon after his career was over, but never played in the bigs after 1910. He did play in the minors for five more years, however.

#9. Ron Hassey–Hassey likely gets the Pete-bump here because he played in an era in which my family had season tickets, and I saw him play a ton. During that fantastic 1980 season, Hassey, along with Joe Charboneau led a pretty good Indians’ team that almost finished .500. Back then, that was saying something. He had a monster year as far as Indians’ catchers go, and was a good overall catcher, that played a long time in this league.

#8. Yan Gomes–I’m not going to say a lot here, other than to say that a lot of what I said about Hassey, fits here too. Gomes is a good catcher. He’s caught a lot of hell over the past 2 1/2 years, and for good reason, but he’s respected behind the plate by some of the best pitchers in baseball, and during a 200 game stretch, was the complete package. Since he has a bit of a future that has to play out, I’m going to sell high on Gomes today, realizing that he could drop in years…hell…weeks to come. Also realize that 7-12 on this list are somewhat interchangeable, dependent on what you think about era, and level.

#7. Ray Fosse–I grew up in Cleveland in the 70’s, and the Fosse story was big back then, and for a long time. Part of it was lore, and part of it was the fact that it was an Ohio story with Pete Rose at the center. In the end though, while there is a lot of promise supposedly missed, Fosse was still a really good catcher for the Indians during his tenure here. But while Fosse was a big story and put together some nice seasons, there just wasn’t the quantity of quality to put him in the top five. A lot put him there, but without the titles, I’m not one of them. What could have been…the story of Indians’ fans lives.

#6. Joe Azcue–Azcue had a great season, and was a good player for the Tribe, but while better defensively, he wasn’t as good behind the plate as the guy that he replaced in Johnny Romano. Azcue did have a blend of solid defense and offense that was intriguing to say the least. In 1966, Azcue led the league by throwing out 62% of potential basestealers. His percentage with the Tribe was never below 40% in an era when the league average was below 40% every year. You combine that with a fielding percentage over .995 during that stretch, and you have an extremely underrated player.

#5. Johnny Romano–Before Sandy Alomar Jr. and VMart, you could make a case that he was the greatest Indians power hitter as a catcher…all time. While that certainly isn’t saying much, any time you can lay claim to something all-time on any major league team, you have to get props. Had he have played longer for the Tribe, I likely would have included him even higher on this list. Azcue and Romano were solid backstops, and on the right teams during their prime, may even be better remembered historically.

#4. Steve O’Neill–So, I was going to shock the world, and put O’Neill at #1, but that would be moronic. I never saw him play, and I really had only heard rudimentary comments about him over the years, but everything that I’ve read about O’Neill says just how good he really was, even during the era. Hegan was better defensively, which puts him ahead with regards to World Champion catchers, and Alomar was better all around. VMart was so much better offensively, that he’s way ahead of O’Neill. He’s slightly better than the players are behind him, and the Championship locks him ahead of them going.

#3. Jim Hegan–So, I’m just going to start with the 1948 World Series victory, and while I could likely leave it at that, I’m not. Hegan is one of only two backstops that can claim to be World Series catchers (main backstops, that is) in Cleveland, and Hegan was perhaps the most heralded of the two…in Cleveland at least. Some of that has to do with Mike Hegan being around for so long in the announce booth, and part  of that is simply the fact that Hegan was catcher during the Indians arguably best era. He also caught the best pitching staff in Indians history, which both works for and against him. Hegan was a beast defensively. He led the league three times with regards to catching base stealers (68% in 1946, 53% in 1949, and a crazy 69% in 1950), and in an era in which the league average was over 40%, Hegan was always better. His career percentage is at an insane 50%, which is 4% better than the league. His fielding percentage was also .990. This guy was just…plain…good. I always bounce him around with Alomar Jr., and you could make a solid case that Hegan is #2, or even #1 here.

#2. Sandy Alomar Jr.–When I started this idea a couple of months ago, I actually believed that Alomar would be my #1 pick. It is funny how over the years, I had forgotten how much time that he actually missed. Even so, Alomar was generally considered a top defensive catcher, who’s caught stealing percentages were generally higher than the leagues, and who’s fielding percentages were almost always near 1.000. He was so gifted offensively, and if he could have maintained health, likely would show up in top ten Indians All-Time lists. He was that good. Unfortunately, injuries derailed a career that could have been incredible. I can’t help but hear my Dad saying, “Opening day? What’s the countdown to Alomar getting injured.” I’d argue with him every day, but he’d always prove right. Such is life. I had to bump him down.

#1. Victor Martinez–Maybe this is controversial, and maybe it isn’t. While I would consider Sandy Alomar the catcher most closely associated with my “era” of watching, VMart certainly wouldn’t be far behind. I was blessed enough to watch him through his minor league days, and saw him develop into an offensive juggernaut. While that is certainly hyperbole, you could really make a case that VMart was everything that Sandy Alomar Jr. could have been, and more. Martinez was the captain of this team for sure, during his tenure, and he was the one constant on this team. There is NO DOUBT IN MY MIND that Sandy Alomar had a higher ceiling, and really could have been something more special than he already was (think a .320 hitter, with 20 homers and 100 RBI every year sorta special, with plus defense) if he was healthy, but VMart was something different. He was your blue collar, play-ever-day catcher that made himself into a fantastic player. While VMart was never a plus defender, you could make a case that he improved more than anyone on this list to the point where he didn’t hurt you. While he was likely the worst throwing catcher of all the players, he had moments where he was better than average. Let’s face facts though. Victor Martinez was the face of this team for his entire tenure, related well to his pitchers, caught fairly well, and in my opinion, was the greatest catcher to ever lace them up for the Tribe.

Make sure that you vote leave a comment below. If you have a difference, or if you want to suggest any changes, let WFNY know! There’s nothing like a debate on the best all time!


  • RGB

    Chris Bando!

  • Harv

    … Ron Hassey, same diff.

  • Harv

    Jim, no knock on what you’re doing but let me ask just once and then not again: is this completely stat based? I saw Azcue, and doubt anyone who did found him in the top ten of anything. First, but for ’68 he was barely a starter. They had vets like Duke Sims to handle nearly half the load. I think he got hurt a lot, believe he was undersized. And a catcher’s fielding % – what does that mean, passed balls and errors? In ’67-’68 he had a fabulous staff, with Tiant, Sam, Siebert, and a few others. Barely had to move the mitt.

    Hassey … Hassey? I mean, Andy Allanson also had a year.

    Ok, back under my rock. Just think top 10 is too much when we’re down to plucking the real journeymen from the truly forgettable.

  • Garry_Owen

    I’m sure this is just sentimentality talking (because I mostly don’t know what to do with the stats), but I’ll have to go with Alomar. If not Alomar, then Hegan. But gun to my head, it’s Alomar.

  • MartyDaVille

    Impressed with the very thorough analysis.

    BTW, his proper name then, now, and always is “The Immortal Joe Azcue.”

  • mgbode

    I believe Indians catchers is just one of the non-deep positions in our history.

    Also, Jim is clear w/ his bias 🙂

    Hassey likely gets the Pete-bump here because he played in an era in which my family had season tickets, and I saw him play a ton.

  • I definitely said this wasn’t stat based per se, and I’m less concerned about MY top ten, as who people think is the best. Azcue gets rated because my Dad told me stories, and clearly liked him. I guess if you’re ripping a guy in my list that I think could get lumped in with anyone after the top four, then I’m doing okay. I think if you go through season-by-season, these catchers, as I did, you’ll find that most of them had their day in the sun, splitting half time. That’s why a lot of these guys didn’t play a lot of 100+ game seasons. I think it’s fair to say that this position, in the history of the Indians, isn’t all that special.

    As far as “Hassey” bias compared to Allanson…well..I had season tickets for their whole careers. If you think Allanson had a year, well…I guess that’s what opinions are for, because that makes one of us. I didn’t have to even touch his stats to remember that. Andy Allanson wasn’t Ron Hassey…and that’s all I really need to say anything about Allanson.

    I don’t think Hassey was special by any stretch, but neither was this position.

    This is a passion project…talking about a lot of players that I didn’t get to see. I put them in a ranking because it was fun. Like I said, most of these guys you can group together. I could easily have done a top two or three. I could have just done the top player, but in the end, this was less about rankings and pissing matches, and more about digging out players that nobody talks about anymore…as well as eras.

  • I think this is mostly the route that people will go. I loved Alomar Jr….he truly was the most “complete” catcher the Indians have ever had. He also had longevity in years, even though he missed a butt load of games.

  • Definitively not

  • Eric G

    VMart. Because he cried when he got traded. Always VMart.

  • Every time I see him, that’s the first thing I think about…

  • Garry_Owen

    And I know it was just an exhibition game, but, as you mentioned in the article, that ’97 All Star Game will live forever in my memory. That’s enough for me.

  • Harv

    good explanation. I saw the stats invoked, which is why I asked.

    Agree the position is weak, maybe the weakest (second base would be right there, but for a few years of Alomar and Boudreau 7 decades ago. And ok, so Allanson had half a year, until he went around the league once. You can look it up. Not me, you. Too hard to find April-June only in the ’80s. Hassey never didn’t swing at strike 3 in the dirt with RISP with a game on the line. His career BA with RISP in close games was negative .019. You can find that somewhere.

  • Garry_Owen

    And his son asking his dad after news of the trade, “Are we still an Indian?” Gut punch.

  • But I think your explanation of half years and career BA w/ RISP with really horrid Indians teams says it all, doesn’t it?

  • Greg Popelka

    Love Alomar. I like O’Neill because he was manager when Feller came up and I have a signed photo of Feller, Harder, with O’Neill (wearing a catcher’s mitt). There is too much contrast in the photo because my brother got it for me- he just copied it out of a library book. Feller gave him crap about the photo quality when he signed it- love it.

    Pytlak was a favorite of my grandfather’s (he was Czech like us), so there’s an affinity there.

    But my favorite is Hegan. Really respect that guy, for several reasons.
    To indulge myself (thanks)-
    http://waitingfornextyear.com/2015/02/1957-cleveland-indians-jim-hegan/

  • 2nd base is top heavy…Joe Gordon is best known for the Yankees, but had four pretty amazing seasons with the Indians, including 1920. But past that, Lajoie, Alomar, Baerga…certainly up there. Loved Baerga…his last year with the club sometimes outweighs just how good he was offensively…Boudreau will be fun to talk about when we get to a stacked position for the Indians…shortstop…

  • Harv

    as long as Michael Martinez is in the second base convo, I’m good. Like to think of him as Hassey on SlimFast.

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  • jpftribe

    He gets my vote as well.

  • Agreed, but for me it’s because (and only because) Victor didn’t end his career here. Alomar was our rookie, then our everyday player, and eventually he became the old guy whose knees just wouldn’t cooperate.

  • Jaker

    VMart vs Sandy was always gunna be a toss up. I like the choice. VMart was a middle of the order hitter in some really great lineups. He was an excellent hitter here, and continued on plenty after us (he may have more games in Detroit than CLE). I know Sandy is a fan fave and won the pennant twice, but swap them and I think it’s pretty clear that Victor would make the 90’s teams sliiiiiightly better

  • mgbode

    if any name could trigger Jim…

  • mgbode

    and he is still with the Indians as a coach !

  • mgbode

    “Are we still an Indian?”

  • mgbode

    Always provide link backs to your stuff. Love re-reading them when the topic arises anew.

  • Eric G

    Crushing

  • Sandy didn’t end his career here either…two different scenarios…and I get it…he’s back as a coach…but don’t think ending your career anywhere should play a part. I’d be curious if you’d ask VMart and Sandy about their thoughts on leaving. Both would likely say almost the same thing…

  • scripty

    I think it was SI who did special book on best defensive players of all time, this was around 1990. Had a ton of awesome photography. They listed Bench (1), Hegan (2) as the best defensive catchers of all time. Just noting his greatness behind the dish isn’t some local narrative.

  • scripty

    Respectfully, Alomar was considered a poor signal caller for pitchers for first part of his career. We may now think some of that was PED fueled baseball oddity, but it’d be incorrect to lionize his ability to manage a staff. He was good at blocking pitches with lateral movement though. Excellent at that.

  • scripty

    Odd note, Ron Hassey was on the A’s teams that won the AL from 91-93. He was behind the plate for the Kirk Gibson HR.