Can’t Catch a Break: Hall of Fame Catchers

Jorge Posada was a victim of the Hall of Fame voting 5 percent rule. (via Keith Allison)

As I watched the 2018 Hall of Fame induction ceremony recently, as former Detroit Tigers Jack Morris and Alan Trammell graciously took their places among the pantheon of baseball’s all-time best in Cooperstown, I had a sense of something (or someone) missing: Lou Whitaker, Trammell’s double-play partner. It feels wrong to see Trammell make the Hall, and have his number retired, while Sweet Lou has still been left out. But it’s not a 1984 “Bless You Boys” era Tiger whose exclusion has rankled me for so long.

Whitaker will have his chance again this offseason at the 2018 Winter Meetings, when the Modern Era Committee meets again, and if all the think-pieces about him being overlooked are an indicator, this could be his year at last.

Bill Freehan, on the other hand, is a name rarely mentioned in these discussions, and one could argue he has just as much claim to a place in Cooperstown as Trammell, Morris or Whitaker. The catcher was an integral part of the Tigers 1968 World Series team, and has more than enough of the on-paper credibility to warrant him a vote. So why has he been left out in the cold for so long?

There is, among baseball fans, a perception that catchers are overlooked by the Hall of Fame, as their defensive work isn’t as dazzling in the highlight reels, and their contribution to a pitcher’s success has not historically been easy to quantify. Of the 255 men in the Hall of Fame, 18 are catchers. The only position with worse absolute representation is third base, with 17 having been inducted. Pitchers, of course, represent the abundance of the inductees at 79.

Bill Freehan was a life-long Tiger. He was born in Detroit, and played for the home team from when he was 19 right through until his retirement season in 1976. Over those 15 seasons he was all All-Star 11 times and won five Gold Gloves.

Beyond the batting lines, World Series titles and awards, there are other means of measuring the true value a player brought to his team. Jay Jaffe has quite literally written the book on assessing those players who have been overlooked by the voting committees, in The Cooperstown Casebook. He also establishing a scoring metric known as JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score system) which measures the career WAR of a player averaged with his seven-year top WAR.

Of the 18 Hall of Fame catchers, we can first eliminate three from statistical comparison because, to the detriment of history, the seasonal scorekeeping in the Negro Leagues was dismal, meaning there is no easy way to determine the true stats of Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Biz Mackey and Louis Santop. Here are the statistics for the remaining 15.

Hall of Fame Catchers
Player JAWS wRC+ All-Star MVP World Series Gold Glove RoY Silver Slugger
Johnny Bench 61.2 125 14 2 2 10 Yes 0
Gary Carter 59.3 116 11 0 1 3 No 5
Ivan Rodriguez 54.3 104 14 1 1 13 No 7
Carlton Fisk 53.0 117 11 0 0 1 Yes 3
Mike Piazza 51.4 140 12 0 0 0 Yes 10
Yogi Berra 48.2 124 18 3 10 0 No 0
Bill Dickey 45.0 126 11 0 7 0 No 0
Mickey Cochrane 44.5 132 2 2 3 0 No 0
Gabby Hartnett 41.9 127 6 1 0 0 No 0
Ernie Lombardi 39.9 125 8 1 1 0 No 0
Buck Ewing 39.1 123 0 0 2 0 No 0
Roger Bresnahan 34.9 128 0 0 1 0 No 0
Roy Campanella 33.5 123 8 3 1 0 No 0
Rick Ferrell 24.8 98 8 0 0 0 No 0
Ray Schalk 25.3 88 0 0 1 0 No 0

Of the 15, only nine have a JAWS score higher than Bill Freehan, whose score is 39.3. The average for those 15 catchers in the Hall is 44, and six of them are well below Freehan.

He deserves to be there, and he’s not the only one. While my love for the Tigers would naturally lead me to single out Freehan, there are a half dozen other catchers just as deserving of attention. There’s still hope for all of them, in the form of the Eras Committee.

The Eras Committee (actually three, which consider players from various time periods) is the last bastion for players hoping to be selected to the Hall of Fame. It functions as a safety net of sorts, catching those who missed induction during the initial BBWAA voting window. The Eras Committee has considerably more impact on who goes into the Hall than one might suspect.

Since 1937, it (and what formerly was called the Veterans Committee) have elected 165 players to the Hall, which is well over half of the inductees. According to the Hall of Fame, the players are voted on based on “the individual’s record, ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the game.” It’s difficult to know precisely how the Eras Committee assesses the individual merits of a player, but it certainly has  been making an effort to correct the oversights of the past.

Here are the catchers who, according to their JAWS record and their contributions to the game, are deserving of a second look at Cooperstown.

Early Baseball (1871-1949)

Next selection – Winter Meetings 2020

Charlie Bennett (1878-1893): This one is tough, because the metrics we might use today to determine a player’s worthiness for Hall of Fame selection didn’t exist in the late 1800s. Bennett, who played primarily for the Detroit Wolverines, had three seasons in which he hit over .300. His JAWS is 34.7, just under that of Roger Bresnahan, who is in the Hall of Fame, and from the same era.

Bennett was considered one of the greatest defensive players of his time, leading the NL in defensive WAR 10 times. He is also the man modern catchers can thank for having a chest protector, as he’s credited with inventing the first one: a cork-lined vest. His career ended quite tragically as he lost both his legs in 1894 in a train accident. But for his career stats, defensive work, and contributions to modern safety equipment, Bennett deserves to be in the Hall.

Golden Days (1950-1969)

Next selection – Winter Meetings 2020

Bill Freehan (1961-1976): Timelines are tricky here, since technically Freehan’s career spans the Golden Days era and the Modern Baseball era. However, since the bulk of his awards, as well as his World Series title, fall in the Golden Days time period, this would likely be his best shot. Freehan won five Gold Gloves for his defensive work, and was selected to 11 All-Star teams. Of the catchers currently in the Hall of Fame, only two have more Gold Gloves than Freehan: Ivan Rodriguez and Johnny Bench.

Offensively, his final career line isn’t awe-inspiring at .262/.340/.412, but it puts him in close company with Hall of Famers like Bench (.267), Gary Carter (.262) and Carlton Fisk (.269). He posted seven seasons with a wRC+ about 120, with a peak of 149 in 1968. It’s hard to imagine a catcher in his era more deserving of election.

His impact continues to be felt today. Freehan, who is still living in Michigan, is suffering from Alzheimer’s. His grandson Blaise Salter recently retired from baseball at age 25, after two concussions, citing his grandfather’s neurological condition, which the family believes is a direct result of his many in-game collisions and injuries.

Elston Howard (1955-1968): Howard’s career began in 1948 with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. With Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier only the year before, integration was slow, but by 1955, Howard was in the majors, becoming the Yankees’ first black player and the first black player to win the AL MVP. Beyond those incredible firsts, he was a four-time World Series winner, a two-time Gold Glove winner, and a 12-time All-Star. Howard ranks 36th among catchers in JAWS scores, at 26.7, but two Hall of Famers are below him: Ray Schalk (41st) and Rick Farrell (46th).

When he retired, Howard became the first black coach in the AL, serving as first-base coach for the Yankees for 10 seasons. He also has is credited with inventing the weighted “doughnut” that players use  to take practice swings in the on-deck circle. He died at age 51 from an unexpected heart disease. Howard’s number 32 has been retired by the Yankees since 1984.

Modern Baseball (1970-1987)

Next selection – Winter Meetings 2018

Ted Simmons (1968-1988): Few players are mentioned more in the category of overlooked catchers than Ted Simmons. He ranks 10th all-time on the JAWS list, with 42.6. The only player with better numbers who is not already in the Hall of Fame is still-active Joe Mauer. Over his 21 seasons in the game, Simmons was an eight-time All-Star and won a Silver Slugger. He batted over .300 in seven seasons, and finished his career with a .285/.348/.437 line. He had a career 116 wRC+.

Many believe that Simmons has been so long overlooked because he played at the same time as Johnny Bench. Others might suggest he was simply too busy worrying about hitting to be a very good catcher. Tim McCarver once said of him, “I think he was concentrating on his hitting while he was catching. An outfielder can afford to do that. A catcher can’t.” Then again, long-time baseball manager Chuck Tanner said of Simmons, “You talk about Bench, Fisk and Munson. Well, he belongs with them. And he is one of the best switch hitters ever.”

Thurman Munson (1969-1979): He ranks two spaces below Simmons as 12th in all-time in JAWS for catchers at 41.6. You want an award? He’s probably won it. 1970 Rookie of the Year, 1976 MVP, seven-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner and two World Series rings. He spent all 11 seasons of his career with the Yankees, and in five of those seasons he hit over .300. His final career line was .292/.346/.410.

What’s most frustrating about Munson is how much farther he could have gone. He died during an off day in 1979 when he was landing his Cessna and crashed. Munson was only 32 at the time. The Yankees  subsequently retired his number 15.

Gene Tenace (1969-1983): Tenace is a hard sell for inclusion, but it’s difficult to overlook his JAWS, which is 13th at 40.9, placing him directly between Munson and Freehan. Tenace lacks some of the checkmarks his contemporaries have on their resumes, appearing in only one All-Star Game. His career average is the lowest of any player mentioned here at .241/.388/.429. But he was a four-time World Series winner, and was World Series MVP for the Athletics in 1972.

Another issue for Tenace is that he wasn’t solely a catcher; he bounced around various positions his whole career. He played 892 games as a catcher and 625 as first baseman, and it wasn’t just a late-career shift like Mauer’s, he played a mix of the two positions his whole career. While Tenace might not be an obvious selection for the Hall of Fame, there are certainly those out there who would champion seeing him inducted.

Today’s Game (1988-Present)

Next selection – Winter Meetings 2018

Jorge Posada (1995-2011): Another life-long Yankee, Posada was never an attention-stealing player. He was in the difficult position of playing alongside the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. When you’re surrounded by that much talent, standing out is nearly impossible, which might be why Posada fell off the ballot in his first year of eligibility in 2017.

After failing to get the minimum five percent of votes, Posada echoed the sentiment about catchers being overlooked. “I think catchers should get a lot more votes. I’m very comparable to a guy like Ted Simmons. He’s not on the ballot. He’s not even in the Hall, and we should take into consideration catchers a little bit more.”

Posada is indeed comparable to Simmons in some ways. Posada was a five-time All-Star, a five-time Silver Slugger winner, and a four-time World Series champion. He’s also 17th of all-time in JAWS with 37.7, better than several current Hall of Famers. He may not seem like an obvious choice as an overlooked player, but he has the hallmarks of a catcher who should be considered for a second chance.

Some of these men are more obvious selections for the Hall of Fame than others, and more obviously deserving. Charlie Bennett and Elston Howard both deserve long looks in their eras. Bill Freehan, Ted Simmons, and Thurman Munson definitely have strong arguments for inclusion.

What it comes down to now is how the Eras Committees perceive the contributions of these catchers made to the game, and how big a Hall they are interested in having. As we better quantify catchers’ defensive contributions, particularly their pitch framing, we may have to further refine our own understanding of who merits induction in Cooperstown.

References and Resources


Ashley MacLennan is a writer and editor for the Detroit Tigers blog Bless You Boys, and deputy manager for the Tampa Bay Rays blog DRaysBay. Her writing has been featured at FanGraphs, and the Hardball Times, as well as on her own website 90 Feet From Home. Find her on Twitter @90feetfromhome
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Paul G.
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Paul G.
Interesting article. These days, I do not think anyone takes Rick Ferrell or Ray Schalk seriously as Hall of Famers. Ray is probably in only because he was one of the “clean” Black Sox. How Rick got in still remains a mystery to me. His brother Wes was a significantly better player but seems to have generated little interest. Ranking higher than just those two essentially means the player does not belong in the Hall of Fame, though in Elston Howard’s case the color barrier and the fact that he got stuck behind Yogi Berra do provide some mitigation. If… Read more »
jgrub7
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jgrub7
Elston Howard is a strange case because his career numbers are really not HOF worthy but his trophy shelf certainly is and then some. It is hard to imagine a player with 12 all star game appearances, an MVP winner, 4x World Series champion, and 2x gold glove winner not being a Hall of Famer (in fact Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez are the only other players who have been to at least 12 ASGs and won an MVP award and are not in the HOF). This, in addition, to the difficulties in being the first black player… Read more »
Cyril Morong
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Cyril Morong

Should about one eighth of position players in the Hall be catchers? (I think it should be something in that neighborhood) What fraction do they currently make up?

Kenny
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Kenny
Article says 255 total, 79 pitchers – that leaves 176 position players, or 22 per position. 18 is low but not ridiculously so. It strikes me that with 79/255, pitchers do not “represent the abundance.” That’s 30%. Even 100 years ago pitchers were 30% of rosters, and in my four decades of baseball watching they’ve never been less than 40% of rosters. Now they are 50%. So catchers and third basemen are underrepresented, and of course corner outfielders and first basement are overrepresented, but pitchers are at best in the middle, possibly also among the underrepresented. I think the general… Read more »
Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

A team’s entire roster can’t be counted for potential Hall of Fame players, though. You can only count 8 starting position players (plus the DH to make 9 in the AL) and 6 pitchers (5 starters plus the closer) when making those calculations. Earlier in baseball history, it would be 8 position players in both leagues and just 4 pitchers.

That would still come to more than 30% pitchers at all times, so the pitchers are still underrepresented, but it’s not nearly as badly as you claim.

frangipard
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frangipard

“I think the general rule is that the hall overrepresents offense because offense is memorable and visible in a way defense mostly isn’t.”

More importantly, offense is much easier to quantify.

Cyril Morong
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Cyril Morong

Thanks

PC1970
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PC1970
I think 3B is best explained by Bill James years ago. It’s 1/2 an offensive position like the corner OF spots & 1B & 1/2 a defensive position like SS/2B, so they’re kind of caught halfway. The position is very tough to play well, but,, voters don’t give quite the notoriety (other than Brooks Robinson) to great defensive 3B that they give to great defensive SS or 2B (See Rolen, Scott)..so inevitably, it falls back on offense, but, very few players have the offensive profile & can attain the round #’s the HOF voters like while also being able to… Read more »
Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Rolen’s case would be better if he hadn’t suffured from a number of serious injuries in the latter half of his career, but I agree that a healthy Rolen in his prime was one of the best combination offensive/defensive 3B the game has ever seen.

frangipard
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frangipard

Add Sal Bando to that list. Stats are right up there, and core player on 3 WS winners.

carlgoetz5
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carlgoetz5

Don’t forget Wally Schang (the Schalk contemporary who should be in instead). 35.1 JAWs by Baseball-Reference (32.1 Fangraphs) and that’s without adjusting for the shorter schedule. He’s also probably losing out on the lack of baserunning, DP avoidance and defensive metrics from his period. 120 career wRC+ is pretty good for a catcher. Was a key performer on 7 pennant winners . Would have been a good choice for WS MVP in 1913 & 1918 had the award existed.

ackbar7
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ackbar7

Joe Torre seems like he should be included here as well.

carlgoetz5
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carlgoetz5

Agreed, but he’s already in as a manager so he can’t get in as a player. I’d argue he was more qualified for the Hall as a player though.

ackbar7
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ackbar7

He can’t get in as a player now? I figured that they could double up his plaques.

carlgoetz5
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carlgoetz5

Correct, you can only get in once.

GoNYGoNYGoGo
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GoNYGoNYGoGo

I’m a Small Hall fan and while these are all the “close but no cigar” or “very good but not great” types that you do a great job representing Ashley, I don’t believe any of them deserve a plaque.

As far as being underrepresented, several active (Molina, Mauer, Posey) are on the right track towards correcting the slight under representation. Does the 17th best catcher by JAWS deserve to get in? As a Small Hall guy, no.

carlgoetz5
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carlgoetz5

So how big would your Hall be?

GoNYGoNYGoGo
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GoNYGoNYGoGo

Top 1% of players. Given 19k players in MLB history, about 190.

carlgoetz5
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carlgoetz5

Ok, that’s not a lot smaller than current Hall for players anyway. And there’s many players on the outside of Top 190 already in. Are you saying that we have too many in already, so even if you are a Top 190 player ever, tough luck? Or are you saying you’d support anyone you think is top 190 even if the actual Hall is larger due to all the poor choices previously?

GoNYGoNYGoGo
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GoNYGoNYGoGo

I’d prefer if the player’s stats are top 1% all time. Top 190 ish. I would gladly support someone I think is top 1% even if the Hall is larger due to poor previous choices.

carlgoetz5
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carlgoetz5
Fair enough. That implies top 15-18 roughly at each position plus 55-60 pitchers. I’d argue Bennett is easily better than that and that Munson, Schang and Simmons are right at the borderline for that sized Hall. Guys like Freehan, Tenace, and Posada would definitely be out of that sized Hall for me. At the Hall of Merit, we have 267 elected currently and will elect 3 more in 2019. I’m pretty happy with that sized Hall (I keep my personal Hall at the same size as HoM) but that is purely personal preference. There’s no objective reason my Hall-size is… Read more »
Joey Butts
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Joey Butts

Is there an adjustment out there that takes into account how much of a player’s career was spent at catcher? I would consider a player with 40 JAWS who spent his entire career at catcher much more impressive than a 40 JAWS player who moved to 1B halfway through.

carlgoetz5
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carlgoetz5

I bump WAR by 20% for time actually caught. ie 80% of games caught in year x would bump his WAR by 16% (20 * .8) for that year. This helps me compare a guy like Tenace who did a lot of not catching to a guy like Munson. Its arbitrary, but better than nothing. And I haven’t heard of a better way.

Jon L.
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Hey, thanks for the article! I was a bit confused by the table at the top. The article says of the 15 HOF catchers with JAWS data, only nine have a higher score than Bill Freehan, and six are well below him. However, from the table (and Freehan’s 39.3 mentioned in the article), it looks like 10 of 15 have higher scores than Freehan, and only 4 are well below him.

Personally, he looks to me like a borderline candidate, certainly worthy of consideration, and definitely a guy whose numbers were hurt by playing in a low offensive era.

steelehere
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steelehere

Gene Tenace seems like a weird inclusion on this list. His WAR was clearly aided by time played at first base. There are a lot of catchers more deserving than him for this list if we’re looking at overlooked Catchers.

I’m not saying they’re all Hall-Worthy but Darrell Porter, Jim Sundberg, Lance Parrish, Joe Torre, Jason Kendall and one day even Russell Martin deserve another look.

frangipard
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frangipard

WAR includes a positional adjustment, so while playing 1B got Tenace in the lineup more often, the WAR formula penalizes him for not being a catcher in those games.

You’d have to do a deep dive to figure out whether it helped or hurt him. The difference would likely be small either way.

marchandman34
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marchandman34

Some aspects of catcher value aren’t currently captured or ever will be reliably in the current WAR being referenced, including framing, staff handling, etc. After considering these and other areas, full-time catchers would benefit significantly compared with a part time catcher like Tenace, an underrated excellent player that is close but probably a bit shy of HOF quality.

jamesnewburg
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jamesnewburg

A note about Elston Howard: MLB held two All-Star Games each season from 1959-1962. While Howard played in 12 ASGs, seven of those were during that period. I think it would be more accurate to say Howard had nine All-Star seasons.

Ivan_Grushenko
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Ivan_Grushenko

No love for Cal McVey?

Vash
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Vash

Just looking at Jorge Posada’s numbers…..those are pretty good numbers imo.

Las Vegas Wildcards
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Las Vegas Wildcards
I always cringe when younger fans use highly subjective stats like JAWS and WAR to help make judgments players they didn’t see in action, or place too much emphasis on OPS. Any discussion of the elite catchers of the 70s is incomplete without mentioning Manny Sanguillen. Still has an impressive .296 lifetime batting average, which was one of the highest for catchers at the time of his retirement. If pitch framing stats had been available during the 70s, Sanguillen’s value would have been better appreciated. Enjoyed a strong 1971 World Series, as the Pirates toppled the favored Orioles, and as… Read more »
carlgoetz5
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carlgoetz5
OPS has a much higher correlation to runs scored than Avg. does. OPS is not a perfect stat but tells a much more complete picture of a hitters contribution than Avg. does. As for WAR, I assume you are referring to the fact that it is an estimate of player value while batting average is an objective number (ignoring the subjective nature of umpire calls and official scorers’ decisions of course) drawn from a scoresheet. Taking 1973 for example, Thurman Munson’s WAR was 7.2 vs 2.9 for Sanguillen. While it is incorrect to say that Munson was worth exactly 7.2… Read more »
Las Vegas Wildcards
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Las Vegas Wildcards
You’re 100% correct about OPS not being a perfect stat, Hank Aaron ranks 228th all time in this category. Another problem is the fact it takes more skill to get a hit than draw a walk. So while a drawn walk can lead to a run scored, a single could have caused more damage. Plate disciple is nice, but there’s no cookie-cutter method for success. The 70s Pirates were extremely successful because their hitters were often unpredictable. Clemente, Sanguillen, etc. would swing at anything, and Stargell is near the top of the all time strikeout list. From a pitching perspective,… Read more »
carlgoetz5
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carlgoetz5
Yes but you’re referencing a far less perfect stat in Avg. And no one is saying a walk is as valuable as a single. In fact, a walk only counts once in OPS (in OBP) while a single counts twice (both OBP and Slg.). If anything, OPS undercounts walks. And according to Baseball-Reference, Hank Aaron had a career OPS of .928 which is 40th all-time and he played a lot of his career in a low scoring era. His OPS+ (which adjusts for park and league) of 155 ranks 25th all time. Even this doesn’t include baserunning and several of… Read more »