Several Reds players appeared on the most recent ESPN Hall of 100, the network’s list of the one hundred greatest players of all time. Here’s my general post on their rankings. I’ve previously covered Barry Larkin (#75), Ken Griffey Jr. (#35) Pete Rose (#38), and Tom Seaver (#22). The numbers in parentheses reflect the player ranking on the ESPN list.
Johnny Bench (#26) is likely the greatest catcher to ever play the game. His power and ability to stifle an opponent’s running game made him unique and gave the Reds a weapon at catcher that few teams (if any) have ever been able to match.
Bench has humble beginnings. He grew up in the small town of Binger, Oklahoma dreaming of a big league career. The Reds selected Bench in the second round of the 1965 draft as the eighth catcher taken in the draft. While scouting and analysis have gotten better since the 1960s, the idea that seven teams could pass on Bench for another catcher is staggering in hindsight.
Johnny Bench spent his entire illustrious career with the Reds. From 1967 to 1983, Bench hit .267/.342/.476 with 389 homeruns and 1376 RBIs. Bench’s 74.8 career WAR is the most among catchers in the history of Major League Baseball. Bench won the Rookie of the Year in 1968 and the MVP award in 1970 and 1972. He was a 14 time All Star.
Bench ranks second in homeruns and third in RBIs ever among catchers. Bench added ten more homeruns in 188 playoff appearances in the postseason including three homeruns in only seven games in 1976. He threw out 43% of baserunners trying to steal on him for his career. Bench once brashly proclaimed that he could “throw out any baserunner alive. It’s hard to argue against him. He had two seasons where he threw out more baserunners than he allowed steals.
In the postseason, Bench’s defense is unparalleled and leads to maybe my favorite Bench stat. From 1970-1979, the Reds played in 45 postseason games. During that time, opponents stole only six bases and were thrown out 13 times. Is that not amazing? He refused the other team extra bases, helping the Reds succeed in the postseason throughout the 1970s.
Bench won the rookie of the year award in 1968 with a .275/.311/.433 slash line. Amazingly, Bench caught 154 games that season, which is unheard of today. Salvador Perez of the Kansas City Royals caught 146 games last season, but that was the most games caught by a catcher since 2008.
Bench fully broke out in 1970 with a monster season that led to his first MVP award. Bench smacked 45 homeruns with 148 RBIs. He posted a career high .587 slugging percentage. His runs created score (wRC+) of 144 was the second highest of his career. Bench combined elite power and defense to produce 7.9 WAR, the third highest WAR in baseball.
As good as 1970 was, Bench’s 1972 season was likely his best. Bench set career highs in on-base percentage (.379), wRC+ (156), and WAR (9.2). Bench also received the highest defensive rating of his career in 1970 according to Fangraphs. He hit 40 homeruns and drove in 125 runs.
Obviously, Bench had a large role in the back-to-back World Series titles in 1975 and 1976. He had excellent seasons and hit two homeruns in the clinching game of the 1976 series.
The numbers don’t tell the entire Bench story. He commanded the pitching staff with unique authority. Reds great Jim Maloney said that Bench would “come out on the mound and treat me like a two-year old, but so help me, I like it.” Bench certainly lived up to his “Little General” moniker.
He knew each individual pitcher needed something different from him. Bench identified various types of personalities and characteristics in pitchers and dealt with them accordingly. He said of pitchers that “Some, you just have to tell what town they’re in, remind them where they are. Some, you remind them about mechanics, and some, you have to bust their tail. You have to make them your friend and have them trust you.”
According to Bench, he was once unhappy with a pitcher who continued to throw fastballs even though the pitcher didn’t have much velocity that day. To make a point, Bench caught one such fastball with his bare hand causing the entire visitor dugout to double over in laughter.
Bench gained the trust of pitchers through sustained excellence. His legendary manager, Sparky Anderson, also had extreme faith in Bench’s judgement as Anderson would often consult Bench about whether a pitcher should be taken out or not. Bench says that “I called every pitch and made most of the pitching changes. If I’d glance over at Sparky in a certain way, he’d know it was time to get somebody up in the bullpen. We’d go to the mound, and he’d look at me, and I’d tell him whether the guy was okay or not.”
Bench has the most career homeruns (389) and RBIs (1376) in a Reds uniform. Those records seem safe for the time being as the active Reds leaders in those categories, Jay Bruce (182 homeruns) and Brandon Phillips (717 RBIs), are a long way off.
He entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989. In 2011, the Reds honored Bench with a bronze statue outside of Great American Ballpark.
Sparky Anderson best summed up Bench’s career when he said the following: “I don’t want to embarrass any other catcher by comparing him to Johnny Bench.” Bench made the most difficult parts of the most difficult game look easy. Because of that, his career is the measuring stick by which all other catcher’s careers are measured.