Bob Brenly: You Were a Good Hitter

“Without a mustache, a man must make a name for himself with a bat.”

Since time forever, Chicago Cubs broadcaster Bob Brenly has joked good-humor’dly about how terrible a hitter he was. For years, I had just taken him at his word, assumed that Bob Brenly was the worst worst hitter ever — a hitter whose home runs came on windy days, whose singles bounced ten times before leaving the infield, and whose walks came only on failed beanings.

But that is simply not true. Recently Mr. Brenly remarked he wanted to see an advanced stat that said he was a good hitter. I’ll give him three.

First, let us dispel the likely culprit for Brenly’s inferiority complex, the obsolete, so-called batting average:

Batting average says Brenly is one of the worst hitters of his era.

Mr. Brenly, batting average is a bigger liar than than the bathroom mirror. Infielder Jerry Remy hit .275 in his 10-year career; you hit .247 over 9 seasons. Batting average says Remy was a better hitter than you, but Remy hit a homer only 0.1% of the time — you cracked a donger in 3% of your plate appearances — Remy didn’t even hit doubles with such frequency. Remy got a two-bagger 2.8% of his PAs, while you doubled 4.0% of the time.

Batting average hides the fact that Remy rarely hit for extra bases; it just tells us he got hits. As F.C. Lane might say, Remy had a lot of coins, but they were all pennies.

If we look at, say weighted runs created plus (wRC+), we get a much more clear picture of Brenly’s hitting ability. The wRC+ stat looks at the real-world value of each hit type and then compares them to the league and the ballpark they we hit in. The net result is a simple scale, where 100 equals league average, and each point away from 100 is a percentage point moving away from the average.

In other words, Brenly career 104 wRC+ tells us that the league average was 4% worse than Brenly. Putting that in context with Brenly’s era, we see wRC+ ranks him above the middle of the pack, away from the bottom third:

But Brenly played catcher — the position where we expect the least offensive production. Comparing him to lumbering, limp-arm’d first basemen and designated hitters is like putting ketchup on a hot dog. Why do it when there is mustard, literally, everywhere?

Against the catchers of his era, Brenly ranks as the 13th best hitter:

Now, it is worth mentioning Brenly did not catch many base-stealers in his day. If that were all a catcher ever did, then Brenly was not a great defensive catcher. But since we know the world of catching stats is still woefully under-grown — especially in the 1980s — we can declare only that Brenly did not throw out runners very well, but that he could have excelled in other areas (blocking pitches, framing, game-calling, etc.) leaving his total defensive value a complete question mark.

So where does Brenly rank among all-time catchers? I’m glad you asked because I already made the chart for it:

As far as catchers go, Brenly’s hitting ranked in the top third of all time. That’s saying something. That’s 142 seasons and 541 catchers with Brenly ranking No. 87. The usual suspects are at the top: No. 2 Mike Piazza (140 wRC+), No. 4 King Kelly (134 wRC+), and No. 15 Johnny Bench (125 wRC+), but Brenly beats out No. 91 Russell Martin (103 wRC+), No. 94 Ryan Doumit (103 wRC+), and especially Brenly’s contemporary and four-time All-Star No. 318 Bob Boone (80 wRC+) — who had a better batting average, but worse production. However, Boone was a better defensive catcher in all likelihood.

If we want to consider career length — because if there is one thing that is difficult to do as a catcher, it is stay healthy — then we can look at weight runs created (wRC, not wRC+) which is a counting stat. Think of it as a proxy for RBI, except it does not care where you hit in the order or whether or not your teammates actually got on base in front of you.

By wRC, Brenly ranks No. 176 with 350 weighted runs created — well beneath No. 1 Ivan Rodriguez (1379 wRC) and No. 2 Carlton Fisk (1364 wRC):

But Brenly was the Giants’ primary catcher for only 4 seasons; he finished his career with just a shade under 3000 PA. In 1988, the Giants began shifting playing time to C Bob Melvin and C Kirt Manwaring. Why? I don’t know. I was literally one year old at the time, so I was probably just watching the Cubs, but maybe Brenly was injured or something — because his replacements were, offensively, terrible by comparison.

It is a shame, really, that Brenly’s career started so late (he reached the majors as a 27-year-old and didn’t become a starter until age 30). He average 2.2 WAR per 500 PA, and if we discount his below average (and woefully incomplete) fielding numbers, he ranks as 2.5 wins per season guy. Russell Martin — over the last few season at least — is a very apt comparison here.

I wish Brenly could have played more. Because he — you, Mr. Brenly — was a great hitter.

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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

34 Responses to “Bob Brenly: You Were a Good Hitter”

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  1. BDF says:

    I’ve always hated Bob Brenly for stealing Don Carman’s perfect game.

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  2. Mojotronica says:

    Great article – thanks for this!

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  3. steve-o says:

    I’m glad that I’m not the only Cubs fan looking for distractions this early on in the season. Good read, thanks.

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  4. msnyder says:

    A 104 wRC+ mean’s he’s 4% better than league average, not that league average is 4% worse than him.

    But it was a great post!

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  5. DJG says:

    Tough out in RBI Baseball, that’s for sure.

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  6. West says:

    Someone’s looking for cheap publicity from Len Casper

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  7. JFTimm says:

    As someone who is old enough to have seen Bob Brenly play, and he was a bad defensive catcher. That makes sense, since he was only converted to catching after three years in the minors as a way to stay in the game. It was either catch or look for another career. As you point out, in an era where the running game was everything, Brenly was poor at throwing out batters. He also looked awkward getting out of the crouch and fielding the position. Maybe he looked worse than he was. He wasn’t awful, but he wasn’t good.

    In “Win Shares,” Bill James ranks Brenly’s defense as a “C” which I thought was generous until I noticed that Mike Piazza got a “C+”. So I guess Brenly was just barely good enough behind the plate that you could live with him there. The Giants often played him at third, first and in the outfield to get his bat in the lineup, which is a pretty good indication that he wasn’t a very good defensive catcher.

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    • Excellent! Thanks for the insight.

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    • steex says:

      That would seem to be evidence not only that he wasn’t a very good defensive catcher, but also that he was a reasonably good hitter! Teams don’t typically search for ways to get mediocre or bad bats into the lineup.

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      • Jack Zduriencik says:

        “Teams don’t typically search for ways to get mediocre or bad bats into the lineup.”

        Nonsense! I do!

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    • magdalencollege says:

      I too saw Brenly play, and I agree that he was a below average defender. But he consistently threw out runners at a rate greater than the league average. And this was in spite of catching a staff of pitchers who relied primarily on breaking balls and splitters – not exactly the best pitches to handle when the likes of Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, and Eric Davis are running. Brenly’s arm was significantly better than Piazza’s or Posada’s.

      I have no idea how Bill James could rate Piazza a C+ defensively. I think even Bill James’s judgment was clouded by Piazza’s bat. Piazza was a travesty behind the plate.

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  8. baked mcbride says:

    Kal Daniels? How did that happen?

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    • reillocity says:

      A combo of mashing RHP and limiting his exposure to LHP. From 1986-9, 75% (1083/1444) of his PAs came against RHP, and he hit them to the tune of a .327/.426/.570 slash line. Conversely, his vs LHP slashline during that period was .227/.350/.317. He saw more action against LHP in 1988, and enough so to allow to him qualify and win the NL’s mythical OBP crown. Though knee problems ended his career at 28, he’d probably rank pretty high on the all-time OPS vs RHP list (.930).

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  9. Nice job, Brad. I trust Len will delve into this in tomorrow’s broadcast. (You will, won’t you, Len?)

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  10. eastsider says:

    Try and find a stat that shows he is a good announcer. Can’t be done. Should have stuck to catching.

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  11. Dealer A says:

    Now prove that Bob Uecker was a good hitter, lol.

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  12. BlackOps says:

    Nice article, thanks.

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  13. bstar says:

    Good write-up. Cool graphs too, bro. What I remember most about Brenly as a player was his fierce competitiveness.

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  14. yarly says:

    who is ghandi

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  15. mike1040 says:

    Thanks for a great article.
    I remember seeing Brenley play also. I remember him as an above mentioned “fierce competitor” in a day of blase veterans. He hates to lose. There were no sabermetrics then, at least not for the average fan, and I remember him as being an ok defensive catcher with average skills. I seem to remember him as being really good at calling a game. Was he Yogi, or Johnny Bench?? NOPE. but certainly a fine journeyman.
    As a broadcaster color man, I think he is excellent. He doesn’t talk too much, like some of his peers, and what he says is interesting and funny. He certainly is a great baseball man with his experience as a manager of a world champion team. A perfect partner of Len Kasper I might add.
    I admire him and respect him as a person and a man and I wish him every success and congratulate him on a great ongoing career.

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  16. Tom says:

    He was better behind the plate than Johnny Rabb. I know that much.

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  17. Anon says:

    Hmm, Brenly was signed by the Giants as a 22 yo undrafted free agent. How many undrafted American kids ever end up making the majors? It has to be a tiny, tiny number.

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  18. dxclancy says:

    Competitor Bob Brenly

    Commit 4 errors in one inning
    Win game with walk off homer

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  19. Dr van Nostrand says:

    Any article that references Barry Foote is alright in my book!

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