Inside the career that earned Mike Piazza a spot in Cooperstown

The following piece originated as part of my annual JAWS series evaluating the Hall of Fame candidates for It was initially expanded for inclusion in my forthcoming book, The Cooperstown Casebook, due in 2017 from Thomas Dunne Books. With Piazza’s election to the Hall of Fame on the 2016 ballot, I chose to cut it due to space considerations, and to re-adapt it for publication here in celebration of Piazza’s induction.

‘‘Mike hits it harder than I did when I was 16 … I guarantee you, this kid will hit the ball. I never saw anybody who looked better at his age.’ Ted Williams

Ted Williams could see it in 1984. The Splendid Splinter was a friend of a friend of Vince Piazza, a Philadelphia-area used car dealer who five years earlier had built a makeshift batting cage for his son Mike in the backyard of their Phoenixville home. At 16 years old, Piazza, who had memorized Williams’ book The Science of Hitting, spent one Saturday afternoon taking swings in the cage while being evaluated by The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived. Williams provided some pointers to the nervous teen, and came away impressed.

Despite that evaluation, Piazza went undrafted out of high school, and he didn’t last long at the University of Miami, going 1 for 9 as a backup first baseman during his freshman year. It took a couple more twists of fate, surrounded by a fair bit of controversy, but from those unlikely beginnings, Mike Piazza developed into a Hall of Famer with a solid claim as the best-hitting catcher of all time—and a better backstop than he was sometimes given credited for.

The Career

Dodgers 1992–1998, Marlins 1998, Mets 1998–2005, Padres 2006, A’s 2007

Piazza was drafted by the Dodgers in the 62nd round in 1988 as a favor to his father, a childhood friend of longtime Los Angeles skipper Tommy Lasorda, godfather to Piazza’s older brother Tommy. At that point, he was playing first base for Miami-Dade Community College, having left the University of Miami after playing sparingly during his freshman season. While he had demonstrated that he could swing the bat, the Dodgers agreed to take him only on the condition—mandated by scouting director Ben Wade—that he learn to catch. At the time he was chosen with the 1,390th pick, only six other teams were still drafting.

After signing for a $15,000 bonus, Piazza struggled to learn his new position. “I was running back to the screen like a Labrador three times a game,”he later said of his time in the low minors. Even so, he was so willing to learn that after his first professional season, he did something unprecedented for a non-Latino player: he requested assignment to Campo Las Palmas, the Dodgers’ baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, where only the instructor spoke English. He spent three months there.

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For all of his troubles picking up the position, Piazza’s bat carried him up the organizational ladder; he hit a combined 52 homers with a .564 slugging percentage at hitter-friendly stops in High A, Double A and Triple A before debuting in the majors on September 1, 1992, a rise that earned him the No. 38 ranking on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list the following spring.

With Mike Scioscia having departed via free agency after the 1992 season, the Dodgers went into 1993 with the 24-year-old Piazza as their starting catcher. He quickly found success, batting .318/.370/.561 with 35 homers, numbers all the more impressive given that Dodger Stadium rated among the game’s top pitchers’ parks (via B-Ref, its three-year park factor in 1993 was 94, meaning that it reduced scoring by 6%). Indeed, he would spend his entire career in comparatively difficult parks for hitters, making his offensive contributions all the more valuable. His two homers on the final day of the season helped the Dodgers not only clinch an 81–81 season (up from 63–99 the year before) but leave the hated Giants stuck on 103 wins, one short of the NL West flag.

Piazza finished his rookie year ranked second in OPS+ (152) as well as fourth in slugging percentage and seventh in batting average. His 7.0 WAR ranked second in the NL among position players behind only Barry Bonds (9.9), and even today, only two rookies since 1975 have outdone that total: Mike Trout (10.8 in 2012) and Ichiro Suzuki (7.7 in 2001). His performance earned him unanimous NL Rookie of the Year honors, the second of five consecutive Dodgers to win the award.

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Piazza approximated or improved upon those numbers the next few years. His .346/.400/.606 with 32 homers in the strike-shortened 1995 season helped the Dodgers return to the playoffs for the first time since 1988; he led the NL in OPS+ (172), ranked second in batting average, third in WAR (6.2), fourth in slugging percentage and sixth in on-base percentage. With pitchers according him additional respect in the form of 21 intentional walks, he hit .336/.422/.563 in 1996 and placed second in the NL MVP voting behind Ken Caminiti, then set across-the-board career bests in 1997 (.362/.431/.638, 185 OPS+, 40 homers, 8.7 WAR). He ranked second in slugging, third in the other slash categories and WAR. For his troubles, he again placed second in the MVP voting, this time behind Larry Walker, whose stats received a considerable lift from Coors Field; while Walker had the higher OPS of the two by 102 points (1.172 to 1.070), his OPS+ was seven points lower.

Photo: Brian Bahr/Getty Images

By that point, the Dodgers were a team in transition, and owner Peter O’Malley’s search for a buyer for the franchise collided with Piazza’s quest for big dollars. Long story short: in January 1997, agent Dan Lozano was rebuffed in his attempt to get his client a six-year, $60 million deal on the grounds that such a decision should be left to the new owners; Piazza instead signed a two-year, $15 million deal to cover the remainder of his pre-free agency years. After his big 1997, Lozano floated the possibility of the sport’s first $100 million contract—spread over seven years—and gave the team until February 15 to hammer out a long-term deal, without which Piazza would test free agency following the season.

At the time, the Dodgers were in the process of being sold to News Corporation (the parent company of Fox), so the deadline passed without a deal. When Piazza complained about feeling “underappreciated” despite his team-record $8 million salary, fans booed him on Opening Day; soon afterwards, he rejected a six-year, $80 million offer. Such was the desire to run him out of town that Fox television chairman/CEO Chase Carey and team president Bob Graziano went over the head of longtime general manager Fred Claire to engineer a seven-player blockbuster with the Marlins. The deal went down on May 14, and brought back Gary Sheffield and Bobby Bonilla as the key returns, but after just five games in teal, Piazza was flipped to the Mets for a three-player package.

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Piazza took to the Big Apple and became the centerpiece of the Mets lineup. After hitting .348/.417/.607 for the remainder of the 1998 season, he signed a seven-year, $91 million deal—the largest in baseball history to that point—in October 1998. His .303/.361/.575 with 40 homers the following year helped the Mets to 97 wins and the NL wild card, their first playoff appearance since 1988, and his .324/.398/.614 with 38 homers in 2000 helped them to their first NL pennant since 1986.

The 1999 season was the first since 1993 in which Piazza failed to lead NL catchers—if not those in both leagues—with at least 400 plate appearances in OPS+, but he was back on top in 2000 (155). During that 2000 season, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci wrote:

“Piazza is not a smooth receiver, but his efforts behind the plate, considering his enormous offensive production, recall what Samuel Johnson remarked about a dog’s walking on two legs: The wonder is not that he does it well, but that he does it at all. ‘It’s incredible to think what he would do [offensively] if he weren’t crouching every night,’ says Mets catching instructor John Stearns.

Though they reached the 2000 World Series and faced the Yankees in a “Subway Series” throwback to the time in the 1940s and ‘50s when New York ruled the baseball world, the Mets lost to the Yankees in a five-game series whose most memorable moment was a bizarre one centered around Piazza and Roger Clemens. After homering off Clemens in three straight regular season games in 1999–2000, Piazza was beaned by the burly hurler on July 8, 2000, causing a concussion that forced him to forgo the All-Star Game. In his first plate appearance of Game 2 of the World Series, Piazza splintered his bat on a foul ball; a jacked-up Clemens fired the broken barrel across Piazza’s path as he ran to first base, leading to an exchange of words, the emptying of benches, and a banner day for Big Apple tabloids.

Photo: Don Emmert/Getty Images

Inevitably, Piazza’s production began to tail off as he crossed into his thirties. Where he had averaged 5.8 WAR per year from 1993–2000, topping 5.0 in all but two of those years, he would never again deliver so much value. He declined to 4.4 WAR in 2001, then to 3.0 and 2.1 in the next two years; a groin strain, his first major injury, cost him nearly three months in 2003, limiting him to just 68 games. By that point, whispers of moving Piazza to first base grew into talk show decibel-level shouts, and in characteristic fashion, the Mets botched the job when manager Art Howe detailed the team’s plans to the media before approaching him. For all of the sturm und drang, he played just one inning there, that in the second-to-last game of the season.

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The Mets persisted with the plan, but it didn’t take; in 68 games at first in 2004, Piazza was 10 runs below average according to Defensive Runs Saved. While the experiment was abandoned, allowing him to return to catching, a hairline fracture in his left hand cost him time in 2005. He departed the Mets for the Padres after the season, signing a one-year, $2 million deal. Despite playing half his games in Petco Park, he hit .283/.342/.501 with 22 homers, his best numbers since 2003. The Padres turned down his $8 million option for 2007, but Piazza received $8.5 million from the A’s, though a separated shoulder cost him nearly half the season. While teams expressed interest in his services in 2008, he announced his retirement in May.

The Case

Piazza has a strong case as the best-hitting catcher of all time. His 396 homers as a catcher (the other 31 came as a DH, first baseman or pinch-hitter) are a record. Among players who spent the majority of their careers as catchers, his 418 batting runs—that’s runs above average—are 146 more than runner-up Mickey Cochrane. Among such players with at least 5,000 plate appearances, his .308 batting average ranks fourth behind Cochrane (.320), Bill Dickey (.313) and Joe Mauer (.310), the first two of whom played in an even more offense-friendly era, and the third of whom is in his third straight year below .280; he could slop back below Piazza. Meanwhile, Piazza’s .377 OBP ranks eighth and his .545 SLG first, 54 points ahead of the number two man in that category, Javy Lopez. Adjusting for era and environment, Piazza’s 142 OPS+ tops the field, six points ahead of Gene Tenace and 13 ahead of Cochrane, and in far more playing time. At the 7,000 PA level, the next closest is Dickey at 127, with Johnny Bench and Gabby Hartnett in a virtual tie at 126.

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On the other side of the ball, Piazza’s defense was routinely dismissed as bad, or at least substandard, and on the basis of the stats easily available at the time, his critics had a point. He led NL catchers in errors four times in his first 10 full seasons, and in passed balls twice, with plenty of other top five finishes in both categories. Most glaring was his inability to control the running game. He yielded more stolen bases than any catcher in the league a whopping 10 times, allowing more than 100 in eight separate seasons; meanwhile, he threw out just 23 percent of would-be base thieves, seven percentage points below the league average during that time. By his own admission, Piazza’s problems weren’t so much with arm strength but with his grip. “I have very small hands for a catcher… a lot of times I don’t get a good grip on the ball because my hands are so small,” he told Verducci in 2000.

Those numbers are damning, but at least on the counting side, they’re a product of Piazza’s longevity and durability in a time when the stolen base had diminished in importance. Piazza’s career 1,400 steals allowed ranks eighth all-time, but they’re still 98 fewer than the defensively superior Gary Carter, the only post-World War II catcher with more allowed. Piazza’s worst single-season total, 155 in 1996, is the highest since 1917, but tied for just 49th highest overall. Prorated to 1,350 innings (150 nine-inning games per year), Carter allowed 116 steals with 63 kills per year, Piazza 139 steals with 42 kills per year. Roughly speaking, a caught stealing is twice as valuable in the wrong direction (-0.5 runs) as a successful steal (+0.25 runs), but the per-year difference between the two (about 16 runs in Carter’s favor) is still less than that of their per-year difference at the plate (about 22 runs per 600 PA in Piazza’s favor).

More recent research suggests that Piazza was very good at some of the less easily measured aspects of catching. In an award-winning presentation at the 2006 Society for American Baseball Research conference, Sean Forman (of fame) showed that Piazza was actually one of the game’s best in terms of pitch blocking (defined as wild pitches and passed balls combined, given that the two are somewhat arbitrarily distinguished by official scorers)—fourth among qualified catchers from 1957–2005. Furthermore, Baseball Prospectus’ Max Marchi placed him among the top 10 catchers of the RetroSheet era—pre-PITCHf/x—in two studies, one on pitcher handling and the other on pitch framing, that similarly cast him in a new light.

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Published in March 2012, the pitcher handling one was designed to measure the overall effect a catcher has on his batterymates in terms of run prevention, an effect that in theory incorporates pitch blocking and pitch framing. Marchi measured the expected-versus-actual run value for each plate appearance based on pitcher, hitter, handedness, ballpark and defense in what’s called a “With Or Without You” (WOWY) model (more technically a cross-classified multilevel mixed model), assigning the catcher the cumulative difference in value for each of tens of thousands of plate appearances over the course of careers dating back to 1948, the earliest bound of RetroSheet play-by-play data at the time of the study. Obviously, not all of the difference in a given batter-pitcher outcome is owed to the catcher due to things like what happens on balls in play (including those that the catcher fields), but over a large enough sample size in this type of study, the trends became clear. Teams and pitchers did better at preventing runs with certain catchers behind the plate than without them, whether that meant on days when the backups played, or when either player had moved on to a new team.

In that study, Piazza cracked the top five, just ahead of Carlton Fisk, the only one among the top 10 already enshrined in Cooperstown:

For some context, Marchi noted elsewhere in the article his findings for other enshrined catchers with sufficient data: Johnny Bench (+2), Yogi Berra (+57, despite lacking data for his first two seasons), Roy Campanella (+123) and Gary Carter (+94). Pulling from his publicly released data a handful of other renowned catchers with relevant cases for Cooperstown: Mauer (+61), Ivan Rodriguez (+40), Thurman Munson (+16), and Ted Simmons (+12) and Bill Freehan (-18).

In May 2013, Marchi introduced a methodology he called RetroFraming that used Retrosheet’s pitch-by-pitch data (which goes back to 1988) to measure the percentage of strikes on pitches not swung at while controlling for the presences of the pitcher, catcher, umpire and batter in another WOWY model. Though the values produced for individual seasons were more conservative than f/x-based models, the two methodologies correlated well for those with both types of data available. Marchi noted that without f/x-based location data (which only goes back to 2007), the numbers could be capturing some amount of pitch sequencing effect—when a batter was too fooled to swing—that would also be attributable to the catcher, still valuable information if not quite apples-to-apples with the more recent data.

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For the 1988–2012 period combined, Piazza ranked as the ninth-best catcher, above average by a value of 78 runs. Marchi further observed that only in 2003–2004—when Piazza caught a combined 114 games due to injury and the first base experiment—was he below average. The rankings:

For the players whose careers crossed into the PITCHf/x era, those numbers jibe reasonably well with estimates based on fuller data. Jose Molina, Martin and Yadier Molina ranked first, second and fifth in terms of cumulative runs saved via Mike Fast’s f/x-based measures.

At this writing, pitch blocking data has been incorporated into the most popular defensive metrics, including the Total Zone and Defensive Runs Saved data that goes into the Baseball-Reference version of WAR that fuels JAWS. That information is part of the overall body of defensive work that rates Piazza as 61 runs below average behind the plate, including 15 runs below average via the more sophisticated DRS in his final four years of catching (2003–2006). Since analysts still haven’t quite figured out how to incorporate staff handling and pitch framing data into those metrics, his numbers don’t include that—but they may have outweighed the rest of his defensive performance.

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Relative to the excellence of Piazza’s hitting, even the worst of those estimates regarding his defense doesn’t cost him much. His 59.4 career WAR ranks sixth all-time among catchers, behind only Bench, Carter, Rodriguez, Fisk and Berra, while his 43.1 peak score ranks third behind only Carter (48.2) and Bench (47.2), more than a win per year above the standard (34.2). He’s fifth overall in catcher JAWS behind Bench, Carter, Rodriguez and Fisk. That’s not a borderline Hall of Famer, that’s an inner circle one.

The PED Question

Piazza’s election once he became eligible on the 2013 ballot should have been a formality, but his candidacy was preceded by a considerable volume of writers who voiced suspicions that the catcher had used performance-enhancing drugs. He never failed a drug test, and while random testing wasn’t introduced until 2004, near the tail end of his career, he was a controversial enough figure that he might have been fingered had he flunked the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey test, as David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa eventually were. Additionally, he wasn’t named in the 2007 Mitchell Report or any other investigation, notable because Mets clubhouse employee Kirk Radomski was at the epicenter of the report’s allegations; of the 89 players implicated in that document, 17 played for the Mets at some point, but Piazza’s name was not among them.

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In 2009, four years before Piazza became eligible, BBWAA voters such as former New York Times columnist Murray Chass, former Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman and the New York Post’s Joel Sherman wrote articles detailing their suspicions that Piazza had used PEDs, with more than one mentioning his back acne, a common side effect of such use. Writing for his personal blog a year after he “retired” from the Times, Chass—whose work as a reporter covering the game’s labor issues in the 1970s and ‘80s helped him win the Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award in recognition for his career—detailed his frustration in attempting to report his observation of Piazza’s condition:

When steroids became a daily subject in newspaper articles I wanted to write about Piazza’s acne-covered back. I was prepared to describe it in disgusting living color. But two or three times my editors at The New York Times would not allow it. Piazza, they said, had never been accused of using steroids so I couldn’t write about it.

But wait, I said, if I write about it, I will in effect be accusing Piazza of using steroids and then someone will have accused him of using steroids. No can do, I was told. I always took the veto to stem from the Times ultra conservative ways, but I also wondered if it maybe was the baseball editor, a big Mets’ fan, protecting the Mets.

Yeesh. According to Chass, by the time testing was in place in 2004, Piazza’s acne had cleared up; his back was “as smooth as a baby’s bottom.”

In The Rocket Who Fell to Earth, his 2009 biography of Roger Clemens, Pearlman detailed Piazza’s strategy of disarming reporters with off-the-record conversations on the topic:

As the hundreds of major league ballplayers who turned to performance-enhancing drugs throughout the 1990s did their absolute best to keep the media at arm’s length, Piazza took the opposite approach. According to several sources, when the subject of performance enhancing was broached with reporters he especially trusted, Piazza ‘fessed up. “Sure, I use,” he told one. “But in limited doses, and not all that often.” (Piazza has denied using performance-enhancing drugs, but there has always been speculation.) Whether or not it was Piazza’s intent, the tactic was brilliant: By letting the media know, off the record, Piazza made the information that much harder to report. Writers saw his bulging muscles, his acne-covered back. They certainly heard the under-the-breath comments from other major league players, some who considered Piazza’s success to be 100% chemically delivered. “He’s a guy who did it, and everybody knows it,” says Reggie Jefferson, the longtime major league first baseman. “It’s amazing how all these names, like Roger Clemens, are brought up, yet Mike Piazza goes untouched.”

For all of their frustrations in attempting to find a “gotcha” moment, those otherwise astute reporters missed that Piazza had already come clean—to a point. In the wake of Caminiti’s admission that he had used steroids via a June 3, 2002 Sports Illustrated cover story, Piazza discussed his own past usage of androstenedione, a testosterone precursor that was thrust into the spotlight by Mark McGwire during the Great Home Run Chase of 1998. In the New York Times, Rafael Hermoso and Tyler Kepner reported, Piazza has said he briefly used androstenedione early in his career, stopping when he did not see a drastic change in his muscle mass. He said he had never used steroids because ‘I hit the ball as far in high school as I do now.’”

It’s important to note that even at the time Piazza said that, “andro” remained legal under both United States law and MLB policy, though it had been banned by the International Olympic Committee—which classified it as an androgenic-anabolic steroid—as far back as 1997. It wasn’t banned by baseball until June 2004, when it was added to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act, for drugs that have less potential for abuse than narcotics as well as some accepted medical use, but that nonetheless carry the risk of psychological or physical dependence when abused.

What Piazza admitted to doing wasn’t out of bounds at the time he said it, and was quite possibly widespread among the player population. The timing should matter, as there’s no credible evidence to connect Piazza to using PEDs once they were banned by baseball. To penalize him for what came prior to the ban—a time when MLB had no mechanism to test or punish players—is to apply a retroactive morality, one that’s inappropriate coming from the same writers who underreported the story of PEDs’ encroachment on the game in the first place. To penalize him based on mere suspicion of wrongdoing without evidence is even lower.

The election

The 2013 ballot on which Piazza debuted was chockfull of controversial candidates with better-documented ties to PEDs, including first-year candidates Bonds, Clemens and Sosa as well as holdovers McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro. Of the 37 total candidates, not a single one received the requisite 75% needed for election—the first time that had happened since 1996. Even so, Piazza received 57.8% of the vote, a strong debut that suggests eventual enshrinement in Cooperstown. He climbed to 62.2% in 2014 then 69.9% in 2015, and finally 83.0% in 2016—a significant jump.

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In light of the PED allegations, it will be interesting to see whether Piazza’s election marks a turning point in how the BBWAA voters handle players with similarly tenuous connections. Jeff Bagwell, who similarly admitted to andro use during the time that it was legal, received 71.6% on the 2016 ballot, making him a near-certainty for election. Ivan Rodriguez, who was connected to PEDs only via Jose Canseco’s Juiced, will become eligible in 2017, and while he has overwhelming numbers—he’s third in JAWS, as noted—he’ll likely take a few years, as Piazza did.

As Piazza takes the Cooperstown podium, not everybody will be able to put such matters aside; Chass is still flogging the same horse last week. But for those who can acknowledge that the era in which Piazza played was an impure one itself, full of gray areas and transgressions whose extent will never be known, the point stands that he was one of the greatest players of his time, an elite hitter whose work behind the plate we’re only now coming to appreciate. In the same class where Ken Griffey Jr. will become the first No. 1 draft pick to be inducted, to have pick number 1,390 of the 1988 draft alongside him, the one who beat the longest of odds, is a testament to baseball’s range of possibilities.

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