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Catcher’s Week: Thurman Munson

This past Thursday, catcher Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants announced his retirement from the MLB after one of the best seasons in his 12-year career.

That brought about “Catcher’s Week”, a time I’m taking to evaluate 7 catchers’ cases for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In today’s edition, let’s talk about New York Yankees lifer, Thurman Munson.

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See here for the introductory post for this series.

 

Thurman Munson’s Career and Stats:

Most of us hardcore Yankees fans know just about everything there is to know about Thurman Munson. His story ranks up there with one of the most heart-breaking in the history of the MLB as he died far too young and with many more years to give to the game of baseball. However, in case you’re new to the background of Thurman Munson, here we go:

Thurman Munson was a 3-sport athlete in high school, earning all-state honors in football, basketball, and baseball though he was originally a shortstop. However, Munson would move to play catcher in his senior year to make room for Jerome Pruett (who got drafted but never made the MLB). Munson would take his catching talents to Kent State University after unsuccessfully trying out for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Munson played varsity baseball at Kent State in 1967 and 1968 and played in the collegiate Cape Cod League in 1967. His talents for his ability to catch and hit were noticed as the New York Yankees selected Thurman Munson with the 4th Overall pick in the 1968 MLB First-Year Player Draft.

Munson would spend the rest of his draft season in the minor leagues and would quickly play his way up the ranks before earning a spot in the MLB in 1969 after hitting .363 for the Syracuse Chiefs (Triple-A). On August 8th, 1969 Thurman Munson would make his MLB debut while going 2-3 with 2 RBI’s and a walk against the Oakland Athletics in a 5-0 Yankees win. That would begin an 11-year MLB career.

Tragically, however, his career was cut short after the events of August 2nd, 1979. While practicing touch-and-go landings in his Cessna airplane, an accident occurred during a 4th landing causing his plane to clip a tree, miss the runway, and burst into flames, ultimately taking Munson’s life. As told by his flight instructor (who was in the plane with Munson) “Thurman flew that airplane to the last nanosecond. He kept it under control and brought us down. He never panicked. He saved our lives.”

Over his 11-year career, Thurman Munson was an MVP (1976), Rookie of the Year (1970), a 2-time World Champion (1977, 1978), a 7-time All-Star, and 3-time Gold Glove winner.

Statistics wise, Munson put up a .292/.346/.410 triple-slash (.756 OPS/116 OPS+/116 wRC+). Over 1423 games in his career (5905 PA’s and 5344 AB’s), Munson collected 1558 hits, 113 Home Runs, 701 RBI’s, and had a walk-to-strikeout rate of 438:571. Defensively, Munson played 1278 games at catcher, 24 in right field, 3 in left field, 5 at first base, and 1 at third base. In his 11108.1 innings at catcher, Munson had a .982 fielding percentage and a total zone of +34. (Metrics for DRS and Framing were not kept in the 1960’s and 70’s.)

Combined over the course of his career, Thurman Munson has a +46.1 bWAR (Baseball Reference), a +40.9 fWAR (Fangraphs), a +43.1 WARP (Baseball Prospectus), and a +41.5 JAWS (Jay Jaffe). While all these career summation metrics fall short of the average for a Hall of Fame catcher, it should be remembered that Munson did so over just 11 seasons and likely lost an additional +10 WAR over what should have been the remainder of his career. Munson also has 0 Black Ink (leading his league in a statistic; average HOF ~27) and 46 Gray Ink (top-10 in a league in a statistic; average HOF ~144), though he has a 90 in Hall of Fame Monitor (average HOF = 100), and a 29 in Hall of Fame Standard (average HOF = 50).

Is Munson a worthy future Hall of Famer?

 

The Case For Thurman Munson’s Induction into the BBHOF:

Where there is tragedy, there should also come remembrance. In the Baseball Hall of Fame this has been done many other times. Lou Gehrig’s Hall of Fame case was considered (and voted for election) the year of his retirement in 1939, pardoning the required 5-year wait. Roberto Clemente’s case was also accelerated after his tragic plane crash in 1972 while preparing to aid the people of Puerto Rico, and he was elected in 1973. Addie Joss was inducted into the BBHOF (and given a pass about not reaching the 10-season requirement) after his career was taken early from him due to illness. His case was evaluated and given a special resolution in 1977 for induction via a veterans committee in 1978.

Exceptions have been made for great players in baseball history who didn’t get to end their careers in the proper way. Exceptions were made twice for players in the 1970’s. Why an exception wasn’t made for Thurman Munson I’ll never know. It’s beyond the proper time to right this wrong.

Now, just because there is a tragedy that happened to a player who was great doesn’t mean they should immediately go into the Hall of Fame. As much as it pains me to say so, Jose Fernandez is one of those types of players. As much as he may have been one the best pitchers in the 2010’s/2020’s, he only played 4 years in the MLB before his tragic death in 2016. He didn’t have the career notoriety at that point.

Ross Young is another member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and while his induction may have been largely due to “cronyism” from teammates Bill Terry and Frankie Frisch who were on the veterans committee, his case is an interesting one. Baseball historians Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig included Young in their 1981 book “The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time”. They argued that his career was worthy under what they called “Smoky Joe Wood” syndrome, stating that an exceptional player whose career was cut short due to illness/death shouldn’t be discredited when considering their case for greatness. (Thanks to Wikipedia for this information.) Was Thurman Munson an exceptional player in his time? I’d think so.

Munson is one of 12 catchers in MLB history to win an MVP award, he has more career hits than Buster Posey, every catcher ranked above him in WAR7 and JAWS (outside of Joe Mauer) is in the Baseball Hall of Fame (Munson ranks 12th all-time), and he’s 15th in bWAR (only 3 catchers are ahead of him are not in the Hall of Fame).

Thurman Munson played in an era of great catchers. During his career, the likes of Jonny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, and Ted Simmons (all Hall of Famers) played. This shouldn’t play against him as it has in history. Instead, we should recognize that Munson’s career- in so many fewer years- stayed on par with his peers in the pinnacle era of catching in the MLB.

The modern baseball committee meets again in December, 2023 to evaluate the players in Thurman Munson’s era (1970-1987). To not let him in again would be a shame.Embed from Getty Images

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