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.
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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