On Wednesday, we lost one of Baseball’s great personalities when Yogi Berra passed away at the age of 90. Berra was a truly unique individual, but he was also one of baseball’s truly unique players as well.
Because Berra was so charming and charismatic, it’s easy to overlook just how good of a player he was on the field. His personality, plus the fact that he played in the shadow of both Joe Dimaggio and then Mickey Mantle, makes him about as underrated as a player could be that won three MVPs while playing for the Yankees.
Not only was Berra one of the greats, he was a player that was exceptional across all facets of the game in a way that few players (and even fewer catchers) ever have been. Berra ranks 5th all time among catcher in career WAR (in both bWARWins Above Replacement as calculated by Baseball Reference. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s contributions in all facets of the game and quantify how many more wins that player contributed than a “replacement level” player would have (a replacement level player being a hypothetical “AAAA player” every team has in its farm system. and fWARWins Above Replacement as calculated by FanGraphs. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s contributions in all facets of the game and quantify how many more wins that player contributed than a “replacement level” player would have (a replacement level player being a hypothetical “AAAA player” every team has in its farm system.). The four players ahead of him are Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez, and Carlton Fisk. Not bad company.
When compared to the four catchers ahead of him in WAR, only Bench equals Berra in wRC+Weighted Runs Created Plus: A comprehensive measure of offensive production relative to the league. 100 is average and each point above or below is a percentage better or worse than the average player. (Bench at 125 and Berra at 124), with Fisk in 3rd at 117, Carter at 116, and Rodriguez at 104. Of those five, only Bench and Fisk hit more career home runs and only Bench hit home runs at a higher rate than Berra (one HR every 22.3 plate appearances for Bench, one every 23.3 for Berra). In fact, of all catchers with at least 6000 plate appearances, only Bench and Mike Piazza (18.1 PA/HR) hit homers at a higher rate than Berra.
Berra was also good on the defensive side of the game. There are 15 catchers in MLB history with at least 6000 plate appearances and a wRC+ of at least 120, of those 15, only two have at least 100 defensive runs above average (DEFDefensive Runs Above Average. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s defensive contributions, including a positional adjustment (i.e., a shortstop is considered more defensively valuable than a LF). Roughly 9-10 DEF is equal to one Win Above Replacement.): Bench and Berra.
Moving beyond the catcher position, one of Berra’s truly incredible talents was putting the ball into play. In MLB history, 138 players have hit at least 300 career home runs. Of those 138 players, only one struck out at a lower rate than Berra: his teammate, Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio struck out in 4.8% of his plate appearances, Berra in 4.9%. The next best player is Stan Musial at 5.5%.
In fact, to find the next player who had a strikeout rate under 5%, we have to go all the way down the list to Bill Dickey (Berra’s predecessor as the Yankee’s catcher) with 202 career home runs and a 4.1% strikeout rate.
Looking from the other angle, only 37 players in MLB history have at least 7000 plate appearances and a strikeout rate under 5%. Of those 37, only 13 have 100 or more home runs and only Berra, DiMaggio, and Dickey have 200. Of those 37, only seven had a slugging of .475 or higher: Berra, Tris Speaker, Charlie Gehringer, Ty Cobb, Heinie Manush, Dickey, and DiMaggio.
Berra’s power/contact combination was almost unmatched. There have been 17 seasons in MLB history where a player hit 25 or more home runs while striking out 25 or fewer times; Berra owns four of those seasons, DiMaggio four, and Ted Williams and Bill Dickey two each (no other player has more than one). There are only 13 seasons in MLB history where a player hit 20 or more home runs while striking out 20 or fewer times; Berra owns three of those, DiMaggio two, and Lefty O’Doul has two (no other player has more than one).
This is all the more remarkable given Berra’s reputation for being a free swinger. While that reputation is somewhat overstated and probably shaped by anecdotal stories of Berra chasing – and hitting – pitches well out of the strike zone, it is true Berra loved to swing the lumber. His career walk rate of 8.4% was below the league average of 9.7%, and he was an especially aggressive hitter in his early years, not posting a walk rate over 5% until his fourth full season in the majors.
That season was his magical 1950 season, arguably the best season of his career (though 1954 and 1956 were at least close, if not better). In 1950, Berra posted a .322/.383/.533 slash line; the batting average and on base percentage were career highs, and the slugging percentage was 2nd highest in his career (his slugging was one point higher in 1956). He did all this while hitting 28 home runs, driving in 124 runs, and posting only 12 strikeouts against 55 walks.
Shockingly, that wasn’t one of Berra’s MVP seasons as he lost to his teammate, Phil Rizzuto (who had his career year and lead the AL in WAR). Berra also didn’t win the MVP in 1956 when he posted career bests in slugging and home runs, as well as wRC+ and WAR. Again he lost to a teammate, this time Mickey Mantle, who posted one of the all time great seasons in MLB history (Mantle topped 11 WAR in both 1956 and 1957, winning the MVP both times – 2 of only 20 position player seasons of 11+ WAR in MLB history).
Given Berra’s place among catchers (and players in general), that he made the Hall of Fame on his second ballot is actually a bit shocking (especially considering that no player was voted in by the BBWAA in his first year on the ballot in 1971).
At his retirement he ranked first among catchers in WAR (though the Hall Voters obviously didn’t yet have the stat), home runs (by a margin of more than 100 over second place), RBI (by more than 200), and was second all time in runs (to 19th century legend – and legendarily moustachioedLook at it. Glorious, just glorious. – King Kelly). Among all batters, Berra retired at 18th all time in home runs, 23rd all time in RBI, and 41st in fWAR.
Berra was one of the great figures in baseball history, both on and off the field. With his passing the game has lost one of its most memorable voices, and hopefully every fan realizes just how unique Berra was as a person and a player.