Only one catcher in the history of baseball (Hall of Famer Yogi Berra) has more RBI. Only one catcher in MLB history (Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez) has more hits. These are facts. It’s also a fact that the man in 2nd place on the all-time list of hits and RBI for catchers, Ted Simmons, has never gotten one iota of respect from the various institutions voting for the Hall of Fame.
Cooperstown Cred: Ted Simmons
- Career: .285 BA, 248 HR, 1,389 RBI, 2,472 hits
- 1,389 RBI & 2,472 hits are each 2nd most all-time for MLB catchers
- Career: 118 OPS+, 50.1 WAR
- 8 different seasons with 90 or more RBI
- Hit over .300 7 times in his career
- 8-time All-Star
(cover photo: Underdog Sports)
Career Highlights (played from 1968-1988 for 3 different teams)
Ted Simmons, a baseball and football star in suburban Detroit for Southfield High School, was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals with the 10th overall pick in the 1967 amateur player draft. Despite signing for a $50,000 bonus, Simmons still enrolled at the University of Michigan in the fall of ’67.
Shortly after his 19th birthday, in September 1968, he made his debut with the Redbirds, playing only on weekends so that he could attend classes at Michigan during the weekdays. On Memorial Day weekend of 1970, he supplanted Joe Torre as the Cardinals starting catcher, moving the future Hall of Fame manager to third base, a move that worked out well; Torre, as a full-time third-sacker in 1971, was the N.L. MVP.
Simmons was an unusual fit in conservative St. Louis. In 1972 he rebelled against baseball’s reserve clause by refusing to sign his $25,000 contract, feeling he deserved a bigger raise. He was an anti-war activist, criticized the Nixon administration and wore his hair so long that he was given the nickname “Simba.” He also was anything but a typical baseball player. Influenced by his wife Maryanne, a fine arts major at Michigan, Simmons wound up becoming an antique collector and a trustee at the St. Louis Art Museum.
On the field, Simmons earned MVP votes in his five first full-time seasons as the Cardinals backstop, based on his prodigious bat. From 1971 to 1980 (his last year in St. Louis), Simmons hit over .300 six times, hit over 20 home runs five times and drove in over 90 runs six times. He made six All-Star teams between 1972 and ’80, including a start in 1978 when he supplanted long-time N.L. starting catcher Johnny Bench.
For ten years, among full-time backstops (which I’ve generously defined as players who logged over 60% of their starts at the position), only Bench (widely considered the best catcher in the history of the game) was better. If you look solely at their offensive numbers, Simmons, for ten years, was arguably Bench’s equal.
OPS+ calculates on-base% + slugging% and adjusts for ballpark effects and the relative ease of difficulty of hitting in each distinct MLB season. OPS+ is displayed on a scale in which 100 is average.
WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is an approximate value that measures offense, defense, and base-running with an adjustment for the relative importance of each player’s position. “Offensive WAR” (oWAR) measures each player strictly for their offensive contribution. You can see the Glossary for more details.
I deliberately chose oWAR in order to demonstrate how excellent Simmons was with the bat. If you take the full measure of WAR (which includes defensive metrics), Bench’s 54.7 mark from 1971-80 dwarfs Simmons’ 44.6, but the Cardinals catcher still has the second best number for that metric over this ten-year period. In fairness, by choosing these particular ten years, we’re excluding Bench’s 1970 MVP season in which he let the majors with 45 home runs and 148 RBI. The point here is not to say that Simmons was the great Bench’s equal as a Hall of Fame candidate; the point is simply that he was equally as great a batsman over a significant period of time.
Defensively, Simmons was not in the league of the 10-time Gold Glove winner in Cincinnati but the reputation that he never shook, that he was a disaster defensively, was exaggerated. It’s true that he averaged 19 passed balls per season between 1970 and 1975 (he was first or second in the N.L. in that dubious category every season) but he improved in the years that followed.
Due to his reputation, opposing teams ran a lot against Simmons but, in his career, he gunned down 34% of all base stealers, not in the league of Bench’s 43% rate but still good enough to be league average.
A couple of quotes from the fascinating Rom Fimrite profile in Sports Illustrated, “He’s Some Piece of Work,” published in June 1978:
“Teddy has really worked on his catching the last few years… A couple of seasons ago there might have been some question about his catching, but he has completely erased that now. Trouble is, he hits the ball so well that you overlook his defense; you forget he’s an all-round player. He has taken the time to study his pitchers. He understands what we can and can’t do, and he uses what we have. He wants to win so badly that his intensity out there picks you up.”
— John Denny (Cardinals starting pitcher 1974-79)
“He’s the toughest guy behind the plate since John Roseboro, and he has terrific stamina. Sometimes I think the Cardinals are trying to kill him, catching him in all those games in that St. Louis heat. If they caught him 130 games instead of 150, he’d hit .360. What can you say about a man who switch-hits and has no weaknesses at the plate? If he played in Cincinnati, where the ball really carries, he’d hit from 30 to 35 home runs, the way Bench does. He plays in Death Valley and still hits more than 20.”
— Tim McCarver (Cardinals backup catcher in 1974 & ’75)
“I suppose there was a time when I didn’t feel properly recognized,” Simmons concedes. “All I heard was Bench, Fisk and Munson. But I have rationalized that rather conveniently, I think. If you find yourself playing in front of millions of people on television for a couple of weeks in the playoffs and the World Series, then you are going to be noticed a lot more. People in Montana who never see a major league game in person are going to know who you are. That’s easy for me to understand, and I’m not bitter in the least. If I were to play under those circumstances, I think I’d be pretty well known, too… I know full well that you can hit .330 and still feel very empty.”
— Ted Simmons
In 1980, the Cardinals went through four different managers, the third of whom (Whitey Herzog) became the team’s General Manager in August. Herzog, who had skippered the Kansas City Royals to three A.L. East Division crowns from 1976-78, was a man who believed in the running game and he saw Simmons as a liability. Opposing teams ran like crazy against Simmons in 1980, swiping 116 bases. Although Simmons threw out 46 runners (for a 28% rate), the White Rat wanted a more defensive oriented backstop. Considering that backup Terry Kennedy only threw out 11 out of 61 runners, perhaps it’s fair to lay some of the blame on the ability of the Cards’ pitchers to hold runners on.
Anyway, in the off-season, Herzog signed his former Royals’ catcher (Darrell Porter) as a free agent. Simmons was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. In the strike-shortened 1981 season, Simmons had by far the worst year of his career, hitting just .216 with a 87 OPS+. In his previous ten years in St. Louis, Simmons never hit below .283 and never had an OPS+ below 114 (remember that league average is 100). Ironically, Simmons’ real or perceived deficiencies behind the dish didn’t manifest in Milwaukee. In the home run oriented American League, teams only attempted 74 stolen bases against Simmons; he gunned down 25 of those would-be thieves.
The Brewers made the ’81 post-season in the expanded playoffs but lost to the New York Yankees in the 1981 A.L. Division Series.
Simmons returned to his normal hitting form in 1982, swatting 23 home runs with 97 RBI. The Brew Crew returned to the playoffs and made it to their first and only World Series, where they were matched up against Simmons’ former teammates in St. Louis. Simba returned home in style, getting a warm welcome from the Cardinals fans while hitting home runs in Games 1 and 2 (which were split between the teams). In the final five games, however, Simmons slumped, going 1-for-15 with just one RBI. In the meantime, Simmons’ replacement in St. Louis (Porter) was the Series MVP as the Redbirds prevailed in 7 games.
Simmons, starting 44% of his games as the team’s designated hitter, had one more solid season in Milwaukee (1983); he hit .308 with 13 home runs and 108 RBI with a 126 OPS+. Simmons followed up that All-Star season (his age 33 season) with a miserable one in 1984; he hit .221 with just 4 home runs and a OPS+ of 61. He spent the last three seasons of his 21-year career as a part-time player with the Atlanta Braves. After the 1988 season, at the age of 39, his career was finished.
The Cooperstown Case for Simmons
To make the case for Ted Simmons, you don’t have to go much further than the chart comparing his offensive prowess to Bench’s over a ten-year period or the fact that he has the second most RBI and hits among all catchers in history but I’m going to do it anyway.
On the Modern Game ballot, the Cooperstown case for Dale Murphy rests with his dominance during an eight-year peak (1980-1987). The case for Don Mattingly rests with his six-year peak (1984-89). The case for Dave Parker rests on his five-year peak (1975-79).
Ted Simmons had a 10-year peak (1971-80).
For ten years in a row, Simmons played at least 123 games (logging over 150 games in 7 of those ten seasons). Although he occasionally got a rest by playing first base or left field, most of Simmons’ starts were behind the plate, including dozens of games a year in the stifling heat and humidity at Busch Stadium, with the artificial turf seemingly raising the temperature by over 10 degrees.
For ten years in a row, Simmons had a park-adjusted OPS+ of at least 110 (which is 10% above league average). The only other catchers to log a streak like that are Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Mike Piazza.
For ten years in a row, Simmons had a WAR of 3 or better. The only other catchers with a streak like that are Hall of Famers Bench, Carter and Rodriguez.
But Simmons ten-year run of excellence with the bat wasn’t just good “for a catcher.” His numbers compared favorably to all other players throughout Major League Baseball.
The only catcher from 1971 to 1980 who shows up in any of these categories above either Simmons or Bench is Gene Tenace, who bested Simmons in home runs and OPS+. Tenace, however, was a catcher in only 58% of his games played; in 84% of Simba’s games, he was manning the tools of ignorance.
Another way to look at whether a player is compiling a Hall of Fame career is to look at each season individually, rather than looking at a leader board over a longer period of time, in which other players don’t appear simply because their careers started or ended at times inconvenient to that ten-year window.
How did the switch-hitting star stack up against the other catchers in MLB on a year-to-year basis? If you’re considering offense only, the conclusion is fairly easy. By looking at the year by year leaders among all catchers on Baseball Reference, the eye can discern a player’s worth, using either traditional or advanced metrics. But let’s digress for a moment to the defensive side of the game.
Is Simmons’ Poor Defensive Reputation Legitimate?
Ranking players defensively is a little more difficult than it is with offense. For the casual fan, the context of defensive statistics can often be evasive. When looking at catchers year-by-year, I used dWAR (the defensive component of WAR). I don’t trust it implicitly but it’s the easiest approximation. If this gets a little dense, please try to hang in there for the next several paragraphs or skip to the next section.
Let’s start by acknowledging that any case for Simmons for Cooperstown rests with his offensive prowess. If we can conclude that Simmons was at least average defensively then we can eliminate that as a reason for exclusion. I was surprised to see that Simmons, in his first two seasons as a full-time starter, was in the middle of the pack with dWAR. In 1973, he was actually fourth best; he only allowed 64 stolen bases while gunning down 43 runners. In 1975, when he had 28 passed balls, his caught stealing percentage was only 26%; his dWAR was 18th out of 20 catchers with at least 81 games behind the dish.
Simmons rebounded in 1976, finishing 7th in dWAR with 41 runners thrown out and only 61 steals allowed. But, his numbers from 1978-80 were not great. He mostly fixed the passed ball problem but his caught stealing percentage dipped. He was consistently in the bottom tier of dWAR.
Let’s put the stolen bases allowed into context for a moment. It’s true that he was in the top 3 in his league in SB allowed 11 times in his career. His 1,188 stolen bases allowed is 17th most in MLB history.
However, the 1970’s and early 1980’s were the golden age of base thievery. Carter allowed 1,498 steals in his career, 5th most all-time. His career CS% of 35% is nearly identical to Simmons’ 34%. Carlton Fisk, 9th on the SB allowed list, also had a career CS% of 34%.
What separates Carter and Fisk from Simmons is in the totality of their defensive games.
There are two defensive statistics that you can research on Baseball Reference’s Play Index, which easily allows you to compare multiple players. One is dWAR, which we’ve discussed. The other is “WAR runs from fielding.” This may be a little “next level” for some but allow me to briefly explain the difference. The dWAR statistic is meant to compare players not only against others at their position but also against all other position players. Therefore, dWAR contains a significant adjustment for the importance of one’s position. For this reason, Simmons’ career 4.7 dWAR is better than the 0.6 career dWAR for his Cardinals teammate Keith Hernandez. Intuitively, this is insane; Hernandez is arguably the best defensive first basemen of all-time. It’s the added value of showing up wearing the tools of ignorance that puts Simmons’ dWAR ahead. Just showing up for work helps a catcher’s dWAR.
The other sortable stat on Baseball Reference is WAR “runs from fielding.” This number (which is often in negative numbers) is meant to tell us how many runs better or worse than average a player’s fielding contributions were. In this case, volume can work against a player. If you’re sub-par defensively, showing up for work can mean that you’re costing your team runs.
Anyway, I took a look at 70 catchers in MLB history with at least 4,800 plate appearances and 50% of their games played behind the plate:
- Using dWAR (where just showing up helps), Simmons is 58th out of 70. There are three Hall of Famers ranked lower, Mickey Cochrane, Ernie Lombardi and Mike Piazza.
- Using WAR Runs Fielding, Simmons is 65th out of 70, with -33.6 runs from fielding. Piazza (who is last on the list) is the only Hall of Famer lower. (Incidentally, Jorge Posada, who is often compared to Simmons, is 2nd to last).
The conclusion that Simmons was a below average defensive catcher, which was the perception in the industry at the time, is backed up by the numbers and it’s a legitimate argument against his Hall of Fame case.
Is Simmons’ Offense Sufficient for a Cooperstown Plaque?
Going back to the year-by-year analysis of Simba’s offensive contributions, one has to remember the context of the era in which he played. His contemporaries were Bench, Fisk and Carter, who (by WAR) are three of the four greatest catchers in the history of the game. Add in the fact that, in the 1970’s, there was also another star backstop (Munson) who appeared in multiple post-seasons, it’s easy to see why Simmons got lost in the shuffle.
However, given that we’ve established that his defensive game was indeed below average, a truly great career with the bat is required in order to entertain a Hall of Fame case. We’ve already seen that, over ten years, he was Bench’s equal at the plate. We’ve also seen that he held his own among all MLB hitters, ranking 4th in RBI, 5th in hits, and 15th in OPS+.
Using a year-by-year analysis, here is how Simmons fared among all MLB catchers, even considering the quality of the competition:
- He was in the top 3 among catchers in RBI in 11 different seasons, but never #1. For 9 different seasons, he was 2nd among all backstops in RBI.
- He led all catchers in OPS+ on 3 different occasions (1977, 1978 and 1980). Two other times he finished 2nd.
- He led all catchers in oWAR just once (1980) and was the runner-up on 4 other occasions.
There’s not much to conclude here. Simmons is one of those guys who had a lot of very good seasons but never one of MVP caliber (his highest finish was 6th place in 1975).
So, without a defensive case and without a MVP seasons case, we’re left with the cumulative power of his consistent offensive production at a key position on the defensive spectrum.
Let’s remember, first of all, that catcher is a position that is under-represented in the Hall of Fame. Only 15 catchers are enshrined in Cooperstown, the fewest for any position other than 3rd base. 8 of those 15 backstops played mostly before World War II. There are only 7 Hall of Fame catchers who debuted in 1946 or later: Berra, Roy Campanella, Bench, Fisk, Carter, Piazza and Rodriguez. Even though 3 of these 7 were contemporaries to Simmons, there’s certainly room for another.
So, first of all, let’s look at how Simmons stacks up at the plate with his contemporaries, the five other catchers with a career WAR of 45 or above between 1967 and 1993:
I’ve thrown a bit of a monkey wrench in here by including Tenace, who is credited with the more WAR runs from batting than all but four catchers in MLB history (Piazza, Mickey Cochrane, Bench and Bill Dickey). Because he was an on-base machine (his 984 career walks lead all catchers), Tenace is credited with a 136 OPS+. We should remember though, that Tenace only played 57% of his career games behind the plate so it’s not quite apples-to-apples.
What’s notable here is that Simmons’ offensive numbers are comparable to both Carter and Fisk. Though the latter two had more home runs, Simmons had many more doubles and thus a comparable slugging percentage. He had more hits and RBI than both; the reason why his overall WAR is so much lower is because of defense. For that reason Carter and Fisk were obvious Hall of Fame choices while Simmons was not.
Now, there’s one other key point to make here. Most Baseball Reference leaderboards are done by setting a minimum standard of starts at a given position; I used 50% as a minimum for most searches. But this wonderful website also has splits for every MLB player, where you can see what a player did at a given position. It’s how we can quickly see that Ernie Banks hit 267 of his 512 career home runs while playing shortstop.
One of the cases for Ted Simmons for the Hall of Fame is that he has the second most hits and RBI among all MLB catchers. However, Simmons played first base 196 times, played 40 games in the outfield, 29 at third base, and was the Brewers’ DH 279 times while in Milwaukee. When you take this into consideration, Simmons is 7th on the all-time list for catcher RBI (not 2nd). With respect to hits, he drops from 2nd to 5th (behind Rodriguez, Jason Kendall, Fisk and A.J. Pierzynski).
The “2nd best all-time RBI and hits” tag loses a little bit of luster when applied to the standard of the position each player was actually playing during each event.
Let me finish with a comparison that is germane but also will not help make the case, a comparison with another switch-hitting catcher, Jorge Posada:
Posada was not a regular player until he was 26 years old and thus, had vastly fewer plate appearances in his career than Simmons. But he also has something Simba can only wish for: 4 World Series rings.
Unfortunately, Posada and Simmons have a dubious distinction in common: they each received less than 4% of the vote in their one and only turn on the BBWAA ballot.
Why has Ted Simmons gotten so little Hall of Fame respect?
Having retired after the ’88 season, Simmons debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1994. Forgetting those split comments for a moment, at the time, Simmons had the 6th most home runs for any major league catcher in baseball history. His 1,389 career RBI were second best all-time to Berra. His 2,472 career hits and 483 career doubles were, at the time, the most for any catcher ever. His 1,074 runs scored were the fourth most ever (behind Fisk, Berra and Bench). While that might not sound like the stuff of a first-ballot Hall of Famer, it still seems like the resume of a strong candidate.
The collective body of baseball writers decided that Simba was not a strong candidate. Of the 34 players who received at least one vote, Simmons finished 26th, gaining just 17 out of a possible 456 votes, a total of 3.7%. Since he had fallen 6 votes short of the minimum 5% threshold, the ’94 vote permanently ended his chances at the Hall of Fame through the BBWAA.
Why did Simmons get so little support from the writers? I can think of a couple of other reasons although it’s all speculative. When it came time to cast votes for Simmons, the careers of Fisk and Carter had just come to an end. Both players had more career home runs and were two-way players, great behind the plate as well as at it. At the same time, a young Ivan Rodriguez was showing the world what a first-class defensive backstop looked like. In the meantime, a young rookie named Mike Piazza was showing what a premium hitting catcher looked like; Piazza hit .318 with 35 home runs and 112 RBI in his inaugural campaign, completed just months before the Hall of Fame vote.
It’s also true that the ’94 Hall of Fame ballot, like this year’s, was packed with talented newcomers. 300-game winners Steve Carlton and Don Sutton were first-timers on that ballot, as was 300-saver Bruce Sutter. Other newcomers included Graig Nettles, Ron Guidry and Dave Concepcion, who had the fame and pedigree of having won two World Series championships each. Among the holdover candidates, the ballot also contained future inductees Phil Niekro, Tony Perez, Ron Santo and Orlando Cepeda (who was in his final year of eligibility via the BBWAA).
There were other solid candidates to vote for: Steve Garvey and Luis Tiant were on that ballot (and they’re on the Modern Game ballot right now with Simmons). There was also Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat, Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Joe Torre, Vada Pinson, Minnie Minoso, Curt Flood, Bobby Bonds, Rusty Staub, George Foster, Mickey Lolich and Vida Blue. Pete Rose got 19 votes as a write-in candidate.
And there was Munson, the Yankees’ backstop who died tragically in 1979 and was on the ballot for the 14th time. As we’ve seen, in part because of his untimely death, Munson’s counting stats weren’t close to Simmons’ but, when they played, Munson was a star and Simmons wasn’t. For 13 years, Munson got nowhere close to the Hall of Fame. Is it possible that voters felt, “well, I haven’t been voting for Munson and he was a better all-around player than Simmons”?
The bottom line is that this ballot was stacked with talent. There were at least 20 players for whom a reasonable Hall of Fame argument could be made. Not that anyone knew about this statistic at the time but, if you count Rose, there were 26 players who received votes who had a career WAR of 40 or above; 18 (including Simmons) had a WAR of 50 or better. The tally of 18 players with a 50+ WAR was the most on any ballot in 32 years.
And there’s this: for whatever reason, possibly the feeling that the Veterans Committees had for decades been inducting second-tier members like drunken sailors, the BBWAA was especially stingy when it came to conferring Hall of Fame votes in the 1990’s. The 456 writers cast 2,903 votes, an average of 6.37 per voter (out of a maximum of 10 each). At the time, the total of 6.37 votes per writer was the third lowest in the history of the voting, better than only the 1992 and 1993 votes, the two years prior.
Out of all of these players, only the 329-game-winner and 4-time Cy Young Award winner Carlton was granted a Cooperstown plaque. The stinginess continued in 1995, when the BBWAA elected only the obvious choice Mike Schmidt. In 1996, the writers pitched a shutout, not conferring 75% of the vote on anyone.
Anyway, even though he was off the BBWAA ballot, the Hall of Fame’s rules stipulated that players had to wait the full 15 years before being considered by the Veterans Committee. Simmons is now on his 3rd “2nd chance” ballot (the Veterans Committee is now called the Eras Committee). In 2011, the Veterans Committee inducted longtime General Manager Pat Gillick; the long-time Executive Director of the Players Association Marvin Miller (also on this year’s Modern Game ballot) finished one vote shy. He died at 95 less than two years later. Only one of the eight players on that ballot (Concepcion) got as many as 8 votes (out of the 12 needed). Simmons, Garvey (also on the ballot this year) and five other players got less than 8 votes, with the actual total not announced.
In his book The Cooperstown Casebook, Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe has postulated that the presence of Herzog on the committee considering Simmons’ candidacy certainly didn’t help his cause. Regardless, these committees have been particularly stingy towards players in recent years, not having inducted a living ex-player in 16 years.
In 2014, Simmons was on the Expansion Committee ballot, again with Garvey and Concepcion and also with Dave Parker (again, also on this year’s Modern Game ballot). Unfortunately for the players, the ballot was rigged against them because they were being judged at the same time as three all-time great managers (Torre, Bobby Cox, and Tony La Russa), who gobbled up all the votes.
In his book, Jaffe shared the nugget that Simmons’ poor performance on the BBWAA ballot is hurting him with the Eras Committees. Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has said that “the first question these Hall of Famers ask you is, ‘How many ballots was he on for the writers’ election? One? They must not have liked him very much.'”
If that feeling permeates the Modern Baseball Committee that meets in two weeks, Simmons is in trouble.
Considering that the other 8 players on this ballot all achieved at least 23% of the vote and Simmons never even got 4%, he’s going to suffer in comparison and thus has to be considered a long shot in the Modern Baseball voting. Murphy, for one, a teammate of Simmons in the final three years of his career, thinks that Simba deserves a plaque:
“He wasn’t just a good-hitting catcher. He was a guy that understood pitching as well. I saw him help pitchers enormously.”
— Dale Murphy (in the Sporting News, Feb. 2, 2016)
Ted Simmons had an excellent career and is arguably the best retired catcher who is not in the Hall of Fame. Considering that the catching position and the 1970’s generation are both underrepresented in Cooperstown, that means that Simmons deserves a spot. He has another chance in two weeks but my guess is that he will be disappointed once again.
Thanks for reading.