The All-Time Cleveland Indians Catchers

In the history of the Cleveland Indians' franchise, the position of catcher has been an interesting dichotomy of talent. On one end, you have the offensive fixtures in the mold of Victor Martinez, or the 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. Of course, there weren't many days that went by that 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.

Sandy Alomar, C (1990-2000)
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. Hank Peters, John Hart and the Indians traded their one major commodity in Joe Carter for Alomar, 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.
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 WAR during his tenure in Cleveland was 11.6, with his best season coming in at 3.6 during his 1997 season. It was his only season above 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 wasthe 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 and bad with Alomar (and an unbelievingly amount of injury-prone bad), Alomar will always be remembered as the catcher of those great 1990’s teams, and the unsung leader that started it all.
Joe Azcue, C (1963-69)
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 drive 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 WAR with the Tribe was 9.5 with the Indians, with his best season coming in 1968, with his only season at 2 or above. His WAR that year was 2.0 on the dot.
Ray Fosse, C (1967-72, 1976-77)
Ray Fosse will always be a big what-if in Cleveland, and for me, was one of the one of the major 'factories of sadness' for Indians' fans of the 70's. While plays like The Drive, Red Right 88 and Michael Jordan over Craig Ehlo reminded fans of Cleveland pain in the 80s and beyond, in the 70s, we had Pete Rose barreling 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 appeared to 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 knows. He bowled over Fosse, 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.

Just another what-if in the city of Cleveland.
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. What we’re left with is what actually was, which was still pretty good, in the grand scheme of things.
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 WAR with the Tribe was 9.7 during his eight seasons, with his best being an impressive 5.0 during that 1970 season. He played in two all-star games (he made it back in 1971, albeit with far worst stats), had two gold gloves (1970 & 1971), and continues to be one of the real What-If’s in Indians lore.
Jim Hegan, C (1941-57)
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. Yep, 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 one 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).
This is where WAR really fires me up as a voodoo statistic, as his career bWAR is only 4.8 in 14 years with the Tribe. Here’s where WAR really doesn’t work, because it’s clear that the Tribe staff depended on Hegan as much or more than any other staff did at the time, and for good reason. He was just…plain…good.

Harry Bemis, C (1902-1910)

Bemis had me at Cobb. While he was the primary backstop during the first stretch of the Naps, what I loved the most about the Indians hard-nosed 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, dropping the ball. Bemis responded to this with a fury, grabbing the ball, and pounded Cobb in the noggin until umpire Silk O'Laughlin pulled him off, then threw him out.

Imagine that. A player out-fights Cobb, 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 (the other was Hubert "Dutch" Leonard).

Defensively, he spent some of those early seasons as one of the better defenders in the league, but it was 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.

Steve O'Neill, C (1911-23)
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, but he did have a bit more offense than Hegan during his tenure with the Tribe, which 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. So yes, he played alongside Shoeless Joe Jackson and the great Nap Lajoie himself.
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%’s, 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 WAR with the Indians during his 13-year Tribe career was an impressive 20.7, with his best season coming in the 1920 World Series year, when it was 4.5.
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.
John Romano, C (1960-64)
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 homers 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 WAR with the Tribe in his five seasons was 13.9, with his best season coming in 1961, with a 4.4.
Luke Sewell, C (1921-32)
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.
Victor Martinez, C (2002-2009)
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 to say that he was anything but the primary catcher for the Indians are flat out wrong.
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 WAR in Cleveland was 17.4 during his eight-year tenure, with his best season coming in at 4.8 in 2005.
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. 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.

Frankie Pytlak, C (1932-1940)

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, and had broken fingers and stomach disorders not disrupted his career, would likely be right up there 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.

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, or even sulk. He was good, but the attitude likely kept him from being great. He was dealt in 1940, to the Boston Red Sox.

The Rankings
It’s actually one of the toughest positions to rank, in my opinion, 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.
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. 

Without further ado, here’s my top Tribe Catchers of all-time:
#10. 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.

#9. 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.
#8. Luke Sewell—The next four or five guys are pretty 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.
#7. 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.

#6. 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. Fosse represented what Indians fans felt back then…which really meshes with the mentaity today! With that said, 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.
#5. Johnny Romano—Before Sandy Alomar, 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. 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.
#2. 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.
#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 more potential, and really could have been something special (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 with regards to this week’s poll, and leave a comment below with regards to what you’d like me to cover with regards to the next EHC Power Poll. LEAVE YOUR COMMENTS BELOW!  There’s nothing like a debate on the best all time!

Share on Google Plus

About Jim Pete

Under Construction