Without question, catcher is the toughest position to play in baseball. Catchers take jarring foul tips off their face masks; base-runners try to take them out with slides; and they do all of this while squatting for three hours. The gritty co-pilot of a Major League battery knows the game better than anyone. That’s why catchers usually seem to make pretty good managers. In fact, one player on this list of the Pirates’ top 10 catchers of the past 50 years was once voted manager of the year. Unlike other positions, the Pirates don’t have a distinct, unquestioned best catcher of all time, so the winner of this award is probably the best catcher in franchise history.
10. In the 140-year history of Major League Baseball, only three guys have been named “Ronny,” and the Pirates had two of them at the same time. One is forgettable shortstop Ronny Cedeno. The other is catcher Ronny Paulino, a surprise entrant on this list, barely beating out Milt May and Duffy Dyer. He’s still getting paid to play professionally as a member of the delicious- and spicy-sounding Olmecas de Tobasco, of the Mexican League.
9. OK, Francisco Cervelli, we get it, you’re Italian (even if you were born in Venezuela). Cervelli has been behind the dish in a pleasant continuance of competency since Russell Martin left. Cervelli’s hitting .280 as a Pirate as he starts his third year here. Not a bad average in an era of offensively limited catchers. Cervelli is the only one on this list who can still move up.
8. Ed Ott doesn’t want to hear any of your nonsense. The 195-pound catcher (that was big in the pre-roids era) once ended the career of a player nicknamed “The Kitten”; that’s how mean he was. After infielder Felix Millan hit Ott with a ball, Ott slammed him to the brutally hard green concrete of Three Rivers Stadium, injuring Millan’s shoulder and taking the ninth life of the Kitten’s baseball career. Ott also hit .333 in the 1979 World Series in addition to his fighting skills.
7. When the Pirates got Russell Martin, we fell in love with him. After years of tawdry one-year stints with guys like Rod Barajas, Chris Snyder, Jason Jaramillo and Robinson Diaz, we finally found a catcher to love. Plus, he was a big-league catcher who had won a Gold Glove with the Dodgers the year before. In his two seasons here, Martin had the fourth highest OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) and the fourth most stolen bases of all Buccos backstops.
6. Mike LaValliere looked like the quiet guy on your dad’s bowling team who could crush beers all day long. He looked like one of us and we liked it. Spanky threw out almost 40 percent of the runners who even dared to test his deadly accurate, stubby arm. He ranks highest among Pirates catchers in wins above replacement level (WAR), where he was fifth; he was the fourth-best defensively; and was fifth in RBI.
5. Ryan Doumit. What? Ahead of Lavalliere? Yes. Doumit bettered Spanky in almost every single category. In fact, in the history of Pirates baseball, no catcher has hit more home runs than Ryan Doumit. His 67 dingers ties Jason Kendall. Sure, a Ryan Doumit bobblehead will get you 35 cents at a second-rate thrift store, but if it weren’t for injuries he really could’ve been something. But while Doumit was good ...
4. … Sluggo was better. Don Slaught played six years with the Pirates and put up batting averages of .300, .295, .345, .300, .288 and .304. That’s good enough for the second-highest average in Pirates catching history. Sluggo teamed with Spanky to provide maybe the best catching duo in team history, producing three straight NL East division titles.
3. I wonder if there ever was a background check on Tony Pena’s gun. Pena could pick runners off base by firing a ball with his wrists while sitting on the ground with his leg fully extended. Pena could also hit, finishing third in almost every category. Not only that, he could manage; Pena won Manager of the Year in 2003 with the Kansas City Royals.
2. and 1. Picking the top spot was a close call between Manny Sanguillen and Jason Kendall. But Kendall had the highest batting average, the highest WAR, highest OPS, the most runs and the most stolen bases (by far), and tied Doumit for most round-trippers. Sanguillen finishes second, or you could argue 1A. Sanguillen drove in a few more runs and had a higher defensive rating than Kendall, but more numbers fell the other way. A unique ballplayer in that he was a catcher and a leadoff hitter, Kendall has the most stolen bases of any catcher in modern history. Still, Sanguillen was clutch and a two-time World Series champ, and I would rather buy barbecue from him than Kendall any day.