The National League's long MVP drought at catcher wasn't the result of an absence of good seasons; in many cases even the best backstops were simply unable to surpass the limitations of the position to put up better numbers than their competitors at other positions.
It became a non-story, what with the huge Miguel Cabrera/Mike Trout showdown and the attendant fallout, but you may have noticed that Buster Posey was named the National League MVP on Thursday. No doubt it was a big deal for him, and it was probably a big deal for the voters, in that they probably got one right -- you could reasonably argue for several other guys, but then, you almost always can -- but though the relative rarity of a National League catcher winning an MVP award was observed in the coverage, the degree to which voters had ignored extraordinary seasons by Senior Circuit backstops over the years went unremarked. It wasn't that there were no good seasons by catchers since 1972, but rather a series of unfortunate coincidences at work.
Thirty-nine seasons passed before Johnny Bench lost the title of last NL catcher to win the MVP. Thanks to the 1979 tie, there were forty different MVPs named during that span: nine first basemen, four second basemen, six third basemen, two shortstops, 12 left fielders, three center fielders, and four right fielders, but zero catchers. In the same period, there have been three catchers named MVP in the American League (and five pitchers versus none in the NL).
Was it just a long fallow period for NL catchers, just bad timing, or is it another case (like the Hall of Fame, in which there aren't nearly enough catchers, and certainly far too few deserving ones) where catchers got a raw deal? Here are what I see as the five best seasons by catchers (skipping repeats) between 1973 and 2011 and a possible rationale for why each failed to take home the hardware:
5. Rick Wilkins, 1993: .303/.376/.561, 150 OPS+/144 wRC+, 30 HR, 6.5 WAR.
What he did: He had one of the all-time great fluke seasons. Wilkins hit those 30 home runs in just 500 plate appearances, adding 23 doubles, and gets credited (on both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs) with a brilliant, +14-run defensive performance, having thrown out 46% of attempted basestealers. Following what felt like his breakout season at age 26, Wilkins' "best" remaining season was his .243/.344/.399 (102 OPS+) performance in 489 plate appearances in 1996.
Why he didn't win: You can pick a reason. He only played in 137 games; he's Rick Wilkins; he collected only 73 RBI despite those 30 homers. The biggest reason was probably that Barry Bonds was alive; he won his third MVP that year. Wilkins was clustered in a group of six players who finished between 6.1 and 6.8 WAR, the best of them nearly three wins behind Bonds.
4. Javy Lopez, 2003: .328/.378/.687, 169 OPS+/170 wRC+, 43 HR, 6.6 WAR.
What he did: It wasn't a Wilkins-level fluke, but it was an outlier in Lopez's career; he set career bests in almost every category at age 33. He'd been a good hitter before that year, especially for a catcher, but had topped out at a 129 OPS+ (with a career OPS+ through 2002 of 106). He exploded in 2003, signed a decent-sized contract with Baltimore, had one more very good year, and was out of the league completely two years later.
Why he didn't win: He faced the same pesky problem: as Wilkins -- Barry Bonds existed, and was in his last year of just being better than everyone else in the world. Albert Pujols was right up there with him, and then Lopez was in a pack of others that could've competed for the Most Valuable (fully human) Player award, along with teammates Marcus Giles and Gary Sheffield.
3. Johnny Bench, 1974: .280/.353/.507, 143 OPS+/142 wRC+, 7.7 WAR.
What he did: Just two years after winning the last NL MVP by a prior to this year, Bench was back at it again with an excellent batting line for the period and his usual otherworldly defense. He played an incredible 160 games, starting at catcher for 129 of them and playing third base in most of the rest.
Why he didn't win: Because Steve Garvey was handsome and batted .312 as the Dodgers finished with 102 wins to the Reds' 98. There's absolutely nothing to recommend Garvey (who hit less well, came to the plate less often, and played an infinitely less-challenging position with less skill), though Joe Morgan and Mike Schmidt, who would win five of the next 12 years' awards between them, probably did have even better claims on the award than Bench did. What probably hurt Bench more than anything, though, was that he'd already won the award two years earlier, and had won it again two years before that. He did lead the NL in RBI, so there's a good chance he'd have won the award if his ‘74 season had happened within the past 20 years or so -- the love affair with RBI is a relatively new thing).
2. Gary Carter, 1982: .283/.381/.510, 146 OPS+/149 wRC+, 8.3 WAR.
What he did: Man, was Gary Carter good. The Kid actually had four of the top 10 catcher seasons by WAR in this time period and seven of the top 20. This one was the best. He was sixth in the league in OPS+, and won what appears to be a well-deserved Gold Glove. He's the only NL catcher within this time-period to lead his league in WAR.
Why he didn't win: Carter's Expos were a third-place team, and worse, one that played in Canada. Then there's the eye-candy problem: none of his raw numbers jump out at you, as catchers' statistics so rarely do: 29 home runs, 91 runs, 97 RBI, and that .283 batting average. In addition, Carter wasn't even the biggest name on the Expos; outfielders Andre Dawson and Tim Raines were the bigger names even if Carter outplayed both that year. The award went to Dale Murphy, the golden boy who led the league in RBI. Sure, he had an otherwise very impressive stat line, but not as impressive as Carter's and with much less apparent defensive value. Murphy led the Braves to a West Division title, albeit with only three wins more than the Expos had in the East.
1. Mike Piazza, 1997: .362/.431/.638, 185 OPS+/183 wRC+, 40 HR, 8.5 WAR.
What he did: Piazza has four of the top 20 seasons on this list, but this was easily the best. Some think it's the best season by a catcher of all time. It happened during an era when offense was inflated, but there isn't a time in history when those numbers from a catcher aren't simply incredible. Piazza led the league in OPS+ and wRC+. He slipped behind Craig Biggio and winner Larry Walker in WAR, though it's noteworthy that both received huge boosts from their defense and both have numbers for that season (+10 for Walker, +19 for Biggio) that are wildly out of line with the numbers in the years surrounding them.
Why he didn't win: Well, the Dodgers finished second in the NL West, but the Rockies finished third, and and voters usually shy away from Coors hitters. I suppose they made an exception here just because Walker's raw numbers (a .366 batting average as well as a league-leading 49 home runs and leads in on-base percentage and slugging) plus his flashy defense and rifle arm wowed the voters, or they were scared off by questions about Piazza's defense; throughout his career, there were grumbles that he was just a designated hitter with pads on. Of course, the voters didn't consult WAR or defensive ratings in 1997; this is the one vote cited here that is just a clear miss without any real rationale except something as vague as hard to pin down as defense.
I don't see any evidence of systemic bias. The voters like catchers just fine, it's just that they almost always play fewer games than other regulars. Players with the talent to catch usually also don't have the talent to be top-of-the-line hitters; they're two very different skills. Given those two handicaps it's hard for catchers to put up enough value to join the MVP discussion -- the position can only generate so many candidates per year as opposed to the outfield or first base. Piazza probably should have won the 1997 MVP, and Carter certainly had a very strong case in 1982, but there are certainly no slam dunks that were missed and probably only one, Piazza, with a case as strong as Posey's in 2012.
It has, in a lot of ways, been a pretty dry nearly-40 years for catchers in the Senior Circuit, Piazza and Carter notwithstanding. At just 26 years old at the start of next season, though, Posey should have several more chances to turn that around.