Any player/Any era: Gene Tenace

Editor’s note: Please welcome another “Any player/Any era” from Albert Lang.

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What He Did: You mean aside from being born Fury Gene Tenace?

Well, he finished his 15-year career with a .241/.388/.429 line with 201 HRs, playing primarily catcher and first base. He appeared in 846 games at catcher (.245/.396/.437) and 582 at first (.242/.382/.428).

His .388 career OBP is tied for the 33rd best by a right handed batter (min. 5,000 PA) in MLB history. He walked 984 times, the 41st most by a righty. He had six seasons of 100+ walks, the 20th most seasons of 100+ walks in baseball history. (The above from the SABR Baseball List & Record Book, 2007).

All of that and Tenace didn’t become a regular until he was 26 in 1973 (shades of Jorge Posada?). From 1969-1972 Tenace served primarily as Dave Duncan’s back-up (a no-hit, lead-the-staff kind of guy). However, with Duncan batting .163/.200/.302 in August of ‘72, Tenace was given the starting job down the stretch and throughout the play-offs.

While Tenace batted miserably in the ALCS, his one hit drove in the winning run in the deciding game. Then he hit .348/.400/.913 in the World Series, including homers in his first two World Series at bats (the first player to do so). He earned the MVP (and first of four World Series rings). Duncan was embroiled in a contract dispute during the following off-season and subsequently traded.

And that’s how you take over a starting catching job: brute force! Tenace did split time at catcher and first over the next few years, which would serve as his peak. From 1973-1980 (including four seasons in San Diego’s cavernous ballpark), Tenace averaged 147 games with a .241/.391/.434 line and 21 HRs per year. During that time, Tenace accumulated 39.9 WAR (Fangraphs), tied with Bobby Bonds for the 16th most among hitters during that stretch.

When it was all said and done, Tenace’s career looks somewhat similar to Adam Dunn. Dunn has 365 HRs (certainly more than Tenace) but a .243/.374/.503 line (surprisingly a worse OBP than Tenace). If you translate Dunn’s line to the 1975 Oakland Athletics, he would have 347 HRs and a .234/.362/.484 line. Tenace…just about Adam Dunn as a catcher.

In addition, Tenace’s 47.4 career WAR (Fangraphs) is 17th all time for a catcher (and that includes the likes of Brian Downing, Buck Ewing and others (who might not qualify at catcher) ahead of him). Certainly, his contemporaries, Ted Simmons and Johnny Bench, had better careers, but that shouldn’t take away from Tenace, much the same that Alan Trammell shouldn’t have been hurt by playing during the same era as Cal Ripken and Barry Larkin.

Era he might have thrived in: If ever there were a player from an older era that would have thrived in the “modern” game, it’s Tenace. For that reason, I’m putting him in the early part of the 2000s. If you place his numbers on the 2001 Oakland Athletics, his career line would be .270/.424/.475. His 1975 season, translated, would be a masterpiece: .269/.412/.486 with 31 HRs. Indeed, during his prime, he would have posted OBPs over .400 ever year but his translated 1974 season (his OBP on the 2001 A’s would have been a measly .398).

Why: The Oakland Athletics were perennial contenders from 2000-2006. However, they didn’t have a serviceable catcher until Ramon Hernandez blossomed in 2004. Tenace would have made Hernandez expendable (and trade-able) in a meaningful way.

Replacing Hernandez in 2001 (when Hernandez batted just .254/.316/.408) with Tenace would have improved an already lethal line-up. Could you imagine a team sending out: Johnny Damon/Gene Tenace/Jason Giambi/Eric Chavez/Miguel Tejada/Jermaine Dye/Jeremy Giambi/Terrence Long/Frank Menechino? That line-up would have no holes and include two players with .400+ OBPs.

Really, if you think about it, Tenace could have been the face of Moneyball.

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0 thoughts on “Any player/Any era: Gene Tenace”

  1. Here’s the thing.

    Tenace actually makes the Hall of wWAR. He’s not “holy crap I’m going to sacrifice Jack Morris if he’s not inducted”, but he’s damn close. The thing is, if his value was actually appreciated, there’s no doubt he would have been a Hall of Famer. Project his production out to a longer career and you simply can’t keep him out. That would have happened if he played in the last decade.

    Gene Tenace was screwed.

    Interesting what you say about Dave Duncan. Total Zone doesn’t support the defensive reputation, which is probably a problem. But maybe there’s something to his defensive reputation, since he has been leading pitching staffs as a coach (and is even being talked about as possibly the first Hall of Fame pitching coach).

  2. Great article!

    @Adam

    I don’t know that TZ not supporting a catcher really matters. For the most part, a “good defensive catcher” does things that TZ doesn’t even pretend to measure (i.e. calling the game, handling the pitcher, and pitch framing). TZ (and every other defensive system, for that matter) is woefully inadequate when it comes to catcher defense. We just haven’t figured out quite how to quantify some things yet. Either that, or we have, they’re all just noise, and you’re right. But I’m less inclined to that position. Overall, it can’t be more than probably 10-20 runs a season we’re talking about, and even those kind of numbers would be for extreme outliers. But still, there’s work to be done on catchers, so I’m not sure I’d just rule out the opinion of Duncan that was widely held at the time. And, as you pointed out, his expertise as a pitching coach may, in fact, support that theory.

    By my own WAR weighting system, I have Tenace well ahead of Brian Downing, and ahead of Buck Ewing, as well (although I give the caveat that I use The Baseball Gauge’s WAR, and not rWAR like Adam does). I have Tenace at (statistically) #12 overall, though if you include Josh Gibson and give Roy Campanella Negro League credit, I would move Tenace down. Still, I don’t think top-15 is unreasonable for him, and that’s pretty remarkable. I have him right below Joe Torre and Ted Simmons, and right ahead of Jorge Posada and Bill Freehan.

  3. Just for fun, run his numbers again with the 50 A’s in Philly, or the 56 A’s of Kansas City. Those would have been equally good times for him to have played in and with the numbers he projects, would have gotten him even more notice.

  4. Sorry for the delay in responding to the comments and thank you so much for reading and commenting. Was at my fiance’s house last night and her computer doesn’t work so well (specially, you cant really hit the numbers 1 or 5 or the letter p)

  5. @Adam – Yeah that Dave Duncan line was backed up by nothing by anecdotes from the time and his reputation as a hitting coach since then. I’m not overly in tune with all the defensive metrics (havent worked with them enough at all) and especially the catcher nuances.

    I did write a bit about contemporary catcher def for the Platoon Advantage (http://www.platoonadvantage.com/2011/12/matt-wieters-awesome-catcher.html), but that’s about as far as my knowledge goes.

  6. @Dave – thanks for the comment. I agree that you can make an argument for Tenace to be anywhere in the 12 – 17 range of best catchers all time, which is incredibly impressive. I must say I had no idea who he was until I participated in Graham’s 50 best players not in the Hall. Then I looked at his career and was shocked I had never heard of him.

    I hear he’s going to be at A’s fan fest, hopefully some younger fans will learn about him.

  7. @Vinnie – On the 1950 Athletics, Tencace would have had a .274/.428/.482 career line, for the ’56 KC A’s, he would have had a .266/.419/.473 career line.

    Not altogether different from his “contemporary” A’s line. I do think he would have been more suited for the previous decade in terms of attaining accolades. Certainly, his skill set plays in any era.

  8. Albert. Try running him on say the 50 Red Sox. His numbers would be staggering for a catcher and would have made him a certain hall of famer.

  9. David, yes… I probably wasn’t clear about the shortcomings of TZ (and defensive metrics as a whole) with some aspects of catching. I’m still trying to make sense of this data from Sean Smith’s Catcher Game calling runs (which are not yet included in rWAR).

    My system ranks catchers like:
    1. Bench
    2. Rodriguez
    3. Carter
    4. Fisk
    5. Piazza
    6. Berra
    7. Dickey
    8. Cochrane
    9. Ewing
    10. Simmons
    11. Torre
    12. Mauer (already)
    13. Munson
    14. Hartnett
    15. Tenace
    16. Posada
    17. Bennett
    18. Freehan
    19. Campanella (obviously, would be higher but this only includes MLB stats)
    20. Bresnahan

    So, you clearly are a bit more bullish on Tenace than I am (or, I should say, a combination of Rally and I are).

  10. @Adam – impressive list there. I’m a little surprised Tenace ends up on top of Posada. Guess they both are hampered by late starts to careers. I do see Tenace and Munson as incredibly similar players. With all the consideration that Munson gets for the Hall (and I understand a lot of that, rightly, has to do with sentiment), Tenace should be right along with him.

    @Vinne – Tenace on the 1950 red Sox: .290/.448/.513

  11. Munson gets an extra boost from me because he was pretty much exclusively a catcher.

    Catching does have a positional adjustment in WAR. That gives them an extra boost for the time spent ON the field. I add an adjustments to make up for the facts that:

    – catchers play in fewer games in a season
    – catchers play in fewer games in their careers

    Per season, I do this by having a lower WAE and WAM baseline for seasons spent primarily as a catcher. For the career, I have a lower Hall of wWAR induction level (that I then apply to the catcher based on the percentage of their games they played as a catcher).

    Munson caught 90% of his games. Tenace caught 57%. That’s basically where the difference comes from.

  12. That is a good point, comparing Munson’s and Tenace’s actually catching appearances does give Munson a nice and deserved nod.

    I forget that Tenace sort of split time…not sure why i forget given i wrote it in like the second paragraph! 🙂

  13. In case you’re curious, here are my catcher rankings:

    1. Bench
    2. Carter
    3. Berra
    4. Piazza
    5. Dickey
    6. Cochrane
    7. Fisk
    8. Hartnett
    9. Rodriguez
    10. Torre
    11. Simmons
    12. Tenace
    13. Posada
    14. Freehan
    15. Parrish
    16. Campanella
    17. Ewing
    18. Munson
    19. Porter
    20. Bresnahan

    I do not adjust for time spent at the position, which will make a big difference (especially for a guy like Munson). Second, these are my objective rankings. Some of them are so close, (i.e. Carter (52.5) and Berra (52.3)) that I’d be inclined to do some moving around were I to add subjective rankings into it. Third, I add the caveat that I used a different WAR system than Adam to do my rankings.

    Fourth and finally is by far the biggest difference. I rank peak extremely heavily. By BBGauge WAR, Carter’s top four seasons (8.2, 7.5, 7.1, 6.7) handily outrank Berra’s (7.1, 6.7, 6.6, 6.5). While Berra’s better the rest of the way, this different is large enough to cause Carter to be at the top. Additionally, this is what drops Carlton Fisk way down my rankings to #7, which is lower than I’ve seen anywhere else, and lower than I would have gone subjectively. But regardless, what I have so far.

    Actually, that leads me to add a fifth caveat. I just embarked on this system yesterday, and it could probably use some tweaking. So I’m not 100% sure about it yet, but I’m pretty pleased with what I have. Anyway, enjoy!

  14. Whoopsie…

    When I did this project, I only took 500 players to start, so there are a lot of players who aren’t included (also keep that in mind – theoretically, there are quite a few guys lower on the list who could be bumped by someone I didn’t include in my initial survey). I should have mentioned that above, as well.

    Oh, and by the way, I have Joe Mauer at #21, just missing the list.

  15. Two things, Graham…

    This is Porter’s ENTIRE career vs Mauer up to this point. On a rate basis, I bet both of us have Mauer as the best catcher ever.

    Second, Porter is pretty underrated. I have him as my #21.

  16. @Graham

    I agree. I wouldn’t take either of them over a Babe Ruth clone born in the 1980s, introduced to modern fitness techniques, taught to switch-hit, and raised to catch. But then again, we should probably limit the discussion to things that actually exist. 🙂

    Too harsh? Probably. But I lived in Minnesota for 6 baseball seasons (2005-2010), and I’m married to a pretty hardcore Twins fan, and they’re my second favorite team. Mauer’s best three seasons can hang with any catcher in the game’s history. Once you get beyond that, though, it’s a sad history of injury and disappointment. Frankly, I hope they move him full-time to 1B this year. It’ll be a loss for the catcher position, but it’ll only help Mauer and the Twins.

    Agree with Adam, though. Mauer only needs a couple more years to pass Bresnahan – actually, probably one would do it. When he’s all said and done, if Mauer rates as a catcher, he’ll go down as one of the top 10 ever. I just don’t think he’s there yet.

  17. Loving the Tenace Love!

    Shocked that I-Rod isn’t a consensus Top 5.

    (and I shall have to look at Bill Dickey and Gary Carter again…)

  18. FWIW, my top catchers would be:

    Bench
    Fisk
    Berra
    I-Rod
    iazza
    Carter
    Torre
    Simmons
    Dickey

    and so on, but i’d definitely defer to Adam’s amazingly in-depth analysis

  19. @Clark

    Actually, I was a little surprised at where I-Rod fell, too. But, according to the Baseball Gauge, Rodriguez’s best season was worth 5.8 WAR – tied with Buck Ewing for the worst top season among any of the top 20 catchers. And it has him with only 3 seasons of 5 or more WAR, which is tied with many catchers, but nowhere near the peaks of Bench, Carter, Berra, Dickey, etc. Basically, he rates as high as he does because he’s been a +WAR player every year, and he’s played for a long time. Subjectively, I agree with you – I would have put him in my top 5 for sure, probably top 3. But it’s not like any of the guys he’s ranked behind here are slouches, so I’m not altogether unhappy with the way things have turned out. Again, if I WERE to use any subjective factor, I would probably bump him up at least one spot (the margin between him and Hartnett is fairly thin as it is) – possibly more than one. But #6 is probably as high as I could comfortably move him, without feeling like my objective rankings were a complete sham.

    @Albert

    Looks like a pretty solid list. I mean, I would definitely encourage you to give Mickey Cochrane a more serious second look, but your list is solid. Also it looks like there may be a bit more emphasis on overall career value than on peak (otherwise I don’t see how Fisk gets so high) than I would use, but it’s a solid list. The top 10 or say catchers are ALWAYS going to include at least 6 or 7 of the same guys, so there’s not really too much to argue about. Question, though: are these just subjective rankings? Or do you have a system in place which gives you a mathematical ranking? It doesn’t matter either way, but I would be curious to see what you do if you use a system.

  20. @David – that was just a quick subjective rundown of guys. It is by no means scientific, just a short hand from my viewpoint.

    That said, i do value longevity and believe it is a skill. it’s incredibly hard to be good at baseball, i cant fathom how hard it is to remain at a superior level while aging — i’m also a huge Cal Ripken fan, so there’s that. So, i dont tend to value peak as much as others, it’s great to be dominant, and awe-inspiring, but i just think of guys like Dale Murphy, I’d prefer a steady brilliance, personally.

    But it’s incredibly hard to fault either of your lists, you are more the experts on that subject than I.

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