A great catcher can make all the difference.
That’s what the Toronto Blue Jays are finding with Russell Martin. And the 1996-1997 Toronto Blue Jays could also attest to the very same thing.
For this week’s Flashback Friday, we take a look back at one of the most underrated catchers in Blue Jays Franchise history; none other than Charlie O’Brien.
This feature will mostly focus on O’Brien’s history as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, but through his recently published book, he’s now known as “The Cy Young Catcher“. O’Brien caught 13 Cy Young Award winners over the course of his 15 year career.
Four of those Cy Young Awards were consecutive; Greg Maddux in 1994 and 1995, then Pat Hentgen in 1996 and Roger Clemens in 1997. Through Baseball Prospectus, we know that Charlie O’Brien ranks among the Top 10 catchers in runs value (Russell Martin ranks fifth on that list).
In just two seasons with the Blue Jays, O’Brien managed to amass 3.9 WAR; good enough for seventh in Blue Jays franchise history for catchers. Charlie O’Brien still has the single highest DEF ranking for a Blue Jays catcher; in 1997 he posted 20.1 DEF.
Most of his overall worth came from O’Brien’s spectacular defensive play. Much like Russell Martin, Charlie O’Brien was revered for his pitch framing and his ability to steal strikes.
So how did O’Brien hone his craft and gain a reputation as a strike-stealer around the league? Charlie provides explains in this great quote from Catching Maddux:
“I wouldn’t move. I tried to sit there and be still. Some catchers are kind of herky-jerky and stab for the ball. Lunge their bodies. All of this jostling can make the umpire think that the pitcher is off target. That the catcher is reaching for the ball outside of the strike zone.
But, if the umpire doesn’t perceive any movement, he may think that the pitcher hit his target. You improve your chances of him calling it a strike.”
Charlie O’Brien was also tremendous at holding runners, as he nailed 55 of 120 would-be basestealers in two seasons with the Blue Jays, which translated to a 46% caught stealing percentage.
O’Brien may have been instrumental in Pat Hentgen’s two best seasons. O’Brien served as Hentgen’s personal catcher during the 1996 and 1997 campaigns. Coincidentally, Hentgen enjoyed two of the best seasons of his career, culminating with a Cy Young Award in 1996.
Aside from his stellar work behind the plate, Charlie O’Brien was famous for introducing the hockey mask style of helmets for catchers, which is still widely adopted today.
O’Brien had to overcome several hurdles in the design and implementation of the new mask, but close to season’s end in 1996, he was using the new mask in official MLB games. Popular Mechanics chronicles the design of the mask.