How fitting that on the date Carlton Fisk, one of the best hitting catchers of all time, broke Bob Boone's record for most games caught in a career, catchers all over the major leagues had big nights at the plate. That day, June 22, 10 catchers had multihit games; Chris Hoiles of the Baltimore Orioles hit two homers and knocked in six runs; Tom Pagnozzi of the St. Louis Cardinals blasted a 436-foot homer; and Mickey Tettleton of the Detroit Tigers homered and drove in three runs to give him a share of the American League RBI lead, with 60. Detroit's regular catcher, Chad Kreuter, who was the Tigers' leading hitter, got the night off.
But this night of fireworks was not an anomaly for hitting catchers—an oxymoron in many other seasons, even eras, in baseball history. Not this year. At week's end four catchers were leading their teams in home runs: the Los Angeles Dodgers' Mike Piazza (15), the Philadelphia Phillies' Darren Daulton (15), Hoiles (14) and the Kansas City Royals' Mike Macfarlane (10). No more than five catchers have ever hit 20 or more homers in one season, but this year seven are on a pace to hit 20.
The catcher of the '90s, however, is more than a power hitter. Through Sunday nine of them were hitting above .290 (minimum 100 at bats), led by Piazza's .331, Kreuter's .330 and Minnesota Twin Brian Harper's .316. No longer automatically relegated to the seventh or eighth slot in the batting order, catchers commonly hit in run-producing spots. On June 4, for instance, catchers on eight teams batted third, fourth or fifth.
Daulton was most responsible for catchers getting new respect as hitters—he led his league in RBIs (109) last year, only the fourth catcher ever to do so. He also became only the sixth lefthanded-hitting catcher ever to hit 25 or more homers in a season (he had 27). Other notable batting feats by catchers in 1992: The Pittsburgh Pirates' Don Slaught hit .345 to raise his career average as a National Leaguer to .315 (highest in that league's history among catchers who have caught 200 or more games), and Harper's .307 average made him only the sixth catcher ever to hit .300 three times.
But all of that was just a tune-up for this season, when more catchers have gone on the offensive. Piazza, a rookie, is leading the Dodgers in batting average, home runs and RBIs. Rick Wilkins of the Chicago Cubs had 14 home runs in his career before this year, but he had 13 through Sunday. And before suffering a separated shoulder on June 19, Ron Karkovice of the Chicago White Sox had hit 11 home runs and had established himself, according to Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, "as the best catcher in our league."
Lately no catcher—heck, no hitter—has been hotter than Hoiles. In a six-game stretch from June 20 through last Saturday, he had six consecutive multihit games (16 for 26, raising his average to .298), six home runs and 12 RBIs. "I've been in grooves before," says Hoiles, 28, "but never a groove for homers like this."
This outburst of offense by catchers is due in part to a reduction in work load on defense. "Catchers are kept fresher—you don't have the guy who catches 140 games a year anymore," says Joe Torre, a former catcher and now manager of the Cardinals. "We moved Todd Zeile to third base two years ago because we felt that he would have a better chance to become an outstanding offensive player by not having to go through the rigors of catching every day."
But not everyone is convinced the gains that catchers have made on offense are offsetting another obvious trend: a falloff in defensive play behind the plate. "I can't think of one outstanding defensive catcher in our league—other than maybe Karkovice," says Anderson. "They're spending all of their time thinking about their hitting. You have to put total concentration into every pitch when you're catching. Guys today don't do that."
There are still some catchers who take pride mostly in their defense—Junior Ortiz of the Cleveland Indians, for one. He has lasted 12 years in the majors despite never having driven in more than 24 runs in a season. "When I die," Ortiz says, "my tombstone will say, 'He couldn't hit, but he could catch and throw, and he never priced himself out of the game.' "
Ortiz is a throwback. Today catchers are swinging for big money—and they're connecting.