The Tampa Bay Rays have never been known for their catchers. Approximately 36 different players have fielded the position for the Rays in the ballclub’s 21 years of existence, yet no one man stands out as the undeniable “best.” Conceding this point, I turned to Baseball-Reference.com for the numbers and to my own gut for the opinion to compile a list of the High-Five of Tampa Bay Catchers.
For the next five days, I will make my argument for each player’s spot on this highly unscientific ranking. Today, we start with the 5th place holder, a man, you could say, started it all for the Tampa Bay Rays begin the plate.
No. 5: John Flaherty
Home Runs: 35
John Flaherty will forever hold the distinction of being the first man to play catcher for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
On March 31, 1998, Flaherty batted seventh on Larry Rothschild’s inaugural lineup, going 2 for 4 with a double. The 30-year old, New York City native caught Wilson Alvarez that night as Tropicana Field first welcomed major league baseball home to its dome. While the Devil Rays ended up losing the game 11-6 to the Detroit Tigers, that night was the start of something special.
That said, John Flaherty did not earn the No. 5 spot on the High-Five simply for being first. No, it would take the young man 470 more long and grueling games behind the plate for one of baseball’s worst teams to claim this honor.
Make no mistake, the Devil Rays from 1998 through 2002 were not good.
During that five-year stretch, Tampa Bay never broke the 70-win mark. Being an expansion team, the tough times were not wholly unexpected, but that didn’t make them any easier to play through.
Yet that’s exactly what John Flaherty did. Putting in nearly 4,000 innings behind the plate for a bad ballclub and coming out of the other side with a positive WAR and an OPS over .600 is an accomplishment that can not be understated.
Along with this grit and determination, Flaherty brought solid skill to the position. In his best year with Tampa Bay, 1999, the catcher caught 52 men trying to steal. That’s a whopping 40% caught-stealing rate. Additionally, Flaherty conceded only four passed balls that season, a year in which the team ERA bloated up to 5.06. Control was not the name of the game on the Tampa Bay mound, but Flaherty kept his pitchers somewhat in check. Overall the starting staff completed six games and struck out 1,055 batters (4th in the AL).
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If all that doesn’t make Flaherty’s case for No. 5, let us not forget Aug. 29, 2000.
On that brawl-happy night against the Boston Red Sox, Flaherty broke up Pedro Martinez’s no-hitter with a lead-off single in the ninth inning. Sure, the Devil Rays ultimately lost that game, but Tampa Bay showed that summer evening there was a never-die attitude brewing in Tampa Bay. For that alone, John Flaherty should earn a spot in every Rays fan’s heart and a place on this High-Five.
Tomorrow, we’ll meet No. 4 on the list, a man whose team’s record was a lot easier on the eyes.