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Johnny Bench: The Best Behind the Plate


photo by NTT72USA, 2012, CC 3.0

By any measure, Johnny Bench is one of the greatest catchers in Major League Baseball history. The Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer could hit, throw, handle pitchers and defend the position better than any catcher of his era.


The Oklahoma native was an immediate success at the Major League level, winning National League Rookie of the Year in 1968. The All-Star reserve hit .275 with 15 home runs, 82 RBIs and 40 doubles while catching a rookie record 154 games. His defensive skills were also on full display, as he became the first rookie catcher to win a Gold Glove.


Bench was even better in his sophomore season of 1969, hitting .293 with 26 home runs, 90 RBIs and 83 runs scored. The strong-armed catcher also led the NL by throwing out 57.1 percent of attempted base stealers. To top it all off, he had a home run and single in his first All-Star start. At 22 years old, Bench was the top catcher in baseball, and the best was still to come.


 

In 1970, he had one of the greatest seasons ever by a catcher. The National League MVP led the NL with 45 home runs, 148 RBIs and 94 extra base hits, while hitting .293 with a .587 slugging percentage and .932 OPS. Bench was also becoming one of the game’s elite catchers at handling pitchers. His influence helped the Reds’ staff place second in the NL in ERA.


The improvement in pitching, coupled with a lineup that included Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Lee May, resulted in a 102-win season for Cincinnati. The Reds swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Championship Series before losing to the 108-win Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.


Bench was once again an All-Star and Gold Glove winner in 1971, but the Reds and their young leader had a down year, winning only 79 games.


 

Cincinnati was back on top in 1972, winning 95 games and their second NL pennant in three years after beating the Pirates in the NLCS. The Reds also added a major cog to the “Big Red Machine” in second baseman Joe Morgan. Bench was still the team’s top dog, though, winning his second NL MVP after leading the league with 40 home runs, 125 RBIs and a 56.4 caught stealing percentage. The Reds lost to the Oakland A’s in the World Series in seven games, but the “Big Red Machine” was now a perennial contender.


Bench put up excellent numbers the next two seasons. In 1973, he had 25 home runs, 104 RBIs and an NL-leading 49.1 caught stealing percentage. In 1974, he led the league with 129 RBIs, 315 total bases and 73 extra base hits, while adding 33 home runs, 38 doubles and 108 runs. The Reds won 99 games in 1973 and 98 in 74, winning a third NL West title in four years before losing to the New York Mets in the 1973 NLCS.


 

It all came together in 1975 as the Reds won 108 games, the most in the NL since the Pirates won 110 in 1909. Cincinnati swept Pittsburgh in the NLCS before beating the Boston Red Sox in seven games in one of the most compelling World Series of all-time. Bench had another outstanding year, hitting .283 with 28 home runs, 110 RBIs, 39 doubles and a .519 slugging percentage. He also won his eighth straight Gold Glove.


Bench had an off year at the plate in 1976, hitting .234 with 16 home runs and 74 RBIs, but he had one of his best behind the plate. The All-Star catcher led the NL in putouts and fielding percentage while winning his ninth straight Gold Glove.


Despite his struggles offensively in the regular season, Bench had his best postseason in 1976. He hit .333 with a home run in the Reds’ three-game sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS, and hit .533 with two home runs and six RBIs en route to winning MVP in Cincinnati’s four-game sweep of the New York Yankees in the World Series. The Reds’ back-to-back World Series titles, and the domination with which they accomplished the feat, has the “Big Red Machine” on a short list for the greatest teams of all-time.


 

The Reds remained a contender for the next five years, but made only one more playoff appearance, losing to the Pirates in the NLCS in 1979. Bench had another big season offensively in 1977 with 31 home runs, 109 RBIs, a .540 slugging and .889 OPS. The year would also mark his 10th straight Gold Glove, the final of his career.


Bench averaged 23 home runs and 74 RBIs from 1978-80, and was named an All-Star each year. The future Hall of Famer was now an All-Star for his first 13 full seasons in the Major Leagues.


 

After playing 1,729 games at catcher his first 14 years in the big leagues, Bench played only 13 games at the position over his final three seasons. Instead, he played at first and third base. At the plate, the numbers were respectable but not at the level expected of an elite player. Bench played in his final All-Star game in 1983, his 14th, before retiring at the end of the season.


Bench was elected to the Hall of Fame with 96 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility in 1989. His career accomplishments speak for themselves: 14 All-Star selections, 10 Gold Gloves, two NL MVPs, two World Series titles, 389 home runs, 1,376 RBIs, 1,091 runs and 2,048 hits. Since 2000, the Johnny Bench Award is given to NCAA Division 1 Baseball’s top catcher, a fitting honor for arguably the greatest catcher to ever play the game.

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