I was actually planning to post this over a month ago, but then I tried to get into contact with Chris to maybe line up an interview. It didn't happen, so I'm just going ahead with this now. Oddly, I was also going to post it last night but decided to hold off until today, and Javy Lopez broke his hand in the meantime.
My biggest reason for choosing Chris Hoiles (outside of the fact that he existed in my lifetime; I don't think I'll do one of these on Boog Powell or anything) is that I, and I've found several others, share the same somewhat odd opinion: Chris Hoiles is the greatest Orioles catcher of all-time. It's not odd in that there's not a very good argument for it, but think about that. Chris Hoiles? Really?
Yeah, really, Chris Hoiles. Hoiles spent his entire major league career with Baltimore after being drafted by the Tigers out of Eastern Michigan University in 1986 (19th round). He was traded in '88 with players to be named in exchange for a pretty worn-out Fred Lynn. The players included later were Cesar Mejia and Robinson Garces, neither of whom ever made the majors. So, for all intents and purposes, Hoiles was traded straight up for Lynn.
Now Fred Lynn was a damn good ballplayer for a number of years, but by the time he got to Baltimore he was 33. He did give us some OK ball, but he was old, beaten up, and hurt frequently. His best Baltimore season, 1986, saw him hit .287/.371/.499 in 112 games. Lynn was of no use to the dreadful O's in '88, so off he went.
Hoiles played for Bristol of the Appalachian League in '86, hitting .320/.395/.565 over 253 at-bats, showing some pretty decent plate discipline and a lot of power. He jumped to Glen Falls (Double-A Eastern League) in '88 and did fair enough at .276/.342/.411. He started 1988 with Glen Falls again and tore the league up before a late-season move to Toledo, where he struggled.
His Oriole career began with Rochester in 1989, and he was pretty disappointing. He had a cup of coffee with the O's that same season. In 1990, he destroyed the International League at a .348/.449/.656 clip over 247 at-bats. He was 25 and seemed ready. He had another brief taste of the bigs, and then starting in 1991 he was up full-time.
From there, Hoiles was generally the No. 1 catcher on the club for the next eight seasons. Injuries caused him to never play 130 games in a season, and only four times did he play over 100, though the rest of the seasons were 96, 99, 99 and 97 games. In '91, he hit .243/.304/.384 with 11 homers in 107 games, and jumped to .274/.384/.506 with 20 homers in 1992, when he played just 96 games.
Hoiles' best season, without any question, was 1993. At age 28, Hoiles hit .310, with a .416 on-base percentage, and slugged .585 with 29 homers and 82 RBI. 1993 set his career high for everything, basically. It was one of the great catcher seasons offensively of all time, really.
The rest of his career, he was a fine power-hitting catcher who got on base and did his part in the lineup, every single year. He was hurt a lot, and he was never considered a strong defensive catcher, but Hoiles did his job and did it well. For his major league career, he hit .262/.366/.467 with 151 homers and 449 RBI.
Now about being the best Oriole catcher ever. There are arguments to be made for both Rick Dempsey and Gus Triandos. Frankly, Javy Lopez may well be the best catcher overall (probably is), but I'm just taking into account Oriole careers here.
Triandos, like Hoiles, was a power-hitting catcher, but Hoiles was a better hitter. Triandos was also called "the slowest player of the 1950s" by Bill James. Triandos' career was also slowed greatly by being stuck in the Yankee system for too long.
Dempsey was a great defensive catcher and all-around good guy, but the man couldn't hit. Ideally, you have Dempsey around to back up a guy like Hoiles.
There aren't a whole lot of other worthwhile candidates throughout Oriole history. Tettleton played only three years with the O's, and really reached his peak in Detroit anyway.
So you're down to Dempsey, Triandos and Hoiles. Who do you take? I take Hoiles for the offensive production he's capable of. Hoiles and Dempsey both had 113 career Win Shares (by James) as Orioles. Their WARP-3 (by Clay Davenport of Baseball Prospectus) sees Dempsey with a minor advantage, 51 to 48, but Dempsey also played in a ton more games. Dempsey was also the 1983 World Series MVP, which would win him (deserved) nostalgia points, but I'm trying to ignore that sort of thing. Triandos, for what it's worth, is at 107/37 in WS and WARP-3.
I've always found it strange that Hoiles was not mentioned in the latest James Abstract among the top 100 (or even 125) catchers. Dempsey, for what it's worth, is ranked 43rd, and Triandos 56th. Hoiles is never mentioned, while such luminaries as Mike Heath, Tom Pagnozzi and Ron Karkovice, all listed in the 101-125 notes at the end of the catcher chapter. Why? Hoiles couldn't possibly have been that bad defensively, could he? He was so much better than any of those three as a hitter (frankly, better than all three combined) that it just seems puzzling to me. Even Brian Harper is listed at No. 99, and really Hoiles was a much better player than Harper, too. James notes Harper's poor throwing arm to boot, and basically makes it clear that all Harper could do in his major league career was hit .300. Harper has 30 points on Hoiles in career average, but that's it.
Was he disqualified simply for not having enough playing time? That would seem odd, because time or not, Hoiles was better than a lot of the catchers listed, at least in my estimation.
Anyway, here's a salute to Chris Hoiles, who gave us a lot of good years and unfortunately retired early, while he was still an offensive contributor. Better health may have seen Hoiles hit 300 or more homers, but we'll never know.