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Mike Piazza Was More Than A Big Bat

It took four tries, but Mike Piazza looks like a likely candidate for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame when voting results are announced on Wednesday. According to Ryan Thibodaux’s BBWAA ballot tracker, Piazza has been named on 86.5 percent of public ballots this voting season, with an estimated 34.7 percent of precincts writers reporting. Last year Piazza was named on 75.1 percent of public ballots but only 62.1 percent of private ballots, so we should expect his combined total to come in well under that 86.5 percent figure. But even if that split persists, Piazza — perhaps aided by this year’s more selective voter pool — should clear the 75 percent threshold and join Ken Griffey Jr. in the Cooperstown class of 2016.

Piazza’s bat makes his best case for enshrinement. The slugger, who played primarily for the Mets and Dodgers during his 16-year major league career, retired after the 2007 season with a career .308/.377/.545 slash line and 427 home runs, including a record 396 hit as a catcher. Even after adjusting for MLB’s high-offense environment during his years behind the plate (1992–2006), Piazza is the best hitter ever to play the position. Among catchers with at least 2,000 career plate appearances, only Buster Posey has hit better than Piazza on a per-plate-appearance basis, and the 28-year-old Posey hasn’t yet had his decline phase. Piazza’s career offensive value dwarfs any other catcher’s: His batting-runs total tops the second-ranked catcher’s by 35 percent, and the gap between him and the next-best backstop is greater than the gap between No. 2 and No. 15.

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But Piazza was more than just his majestic home runs, and any accounting that dismisses his defense underrates his overall value.

Since his retirement, Piazza’s reputation has suffered from unproven insinuations about steroid use, but it was also dinged during his playing days by his obvious shortcomings in controlling the running game. Piazza, who barely caught in college and had to learn the position almost from scratch after the Dodgers selected him in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft, threw out only 23 percent of attempted base-stealers, compared to the league average of 31 percent over the same span. His weak arm overshadowed everything else he did on defense. As New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz wrote upon Piazza’s retirement, “Piazza was consistently criticized for his defense throughout his career.” Piazza put it less politely in his 2013 autobiography, “Long Shot,” where he wrote that critics implied he was an “imposter behind the plate” and claimed that he was “clinging to the catcher position” toward the end of his career in order to set offensive records at a position where elite hitting is rare.

Pitchers who worked with Piazza had much nicer things to say. “He did a lot of things well behind the plate,” Tom Glavine told NJ Advanced Media in 2014. Glavine added:

Yeah, he wasn’t the greatest thrower. That unfortunately translated into people thinking that some of [his] other game wasn’t as good as it was. He called a good game. He received the ball fine. He blocked balls fine. But so often catchers are defined defensively on how well they throw and there’s much more that goes into just being a good defensive catcher than being able to throw.

In the years since Piazza retired, our understanding of catcher value has evolved. We know now that a strong throwing arm isn’t as vital as it was once believed to be. And we also have a better handle on how to quantify catchers’ other contributions, which allows us to put Glavine’s contention to the test.

In a 2006 study, Baseball-Reference founder Sean Forman found that Piazza was a whiz at preventing passed balls and wild pitches. And in an essay for the “Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2009” (which is now available online), Craig Wright — who pushed for playing time for a young Piazza during his time as a statistical analyst for the Dodgers — showed that with Piazza behind the plate pitchers allowed an OPS 25 points lower, and an unintentional walk rate 10 percent lower, than they did while throwing to different catchers in the same seasons. Subsequent work by Baseball Prospectus analyst Max Marchi in 2012 and Baseball Info Solutions founder John Dewan in 2013 also supported the idea that Piazza’s presence improved his pitchers’ results, as Piazza was pleased to point out in his book. The more sophisticated our statistical tools become, the better Piazza appears, and the more accurate Glavine’s statement seems.

Next week, Baseball Prospectus will release its latest catcher defense ratings, derived from a mixed model that apportions credit for certain outcomes — called strikes, passed balls, stolen bases — to all the participants in a play, controlling for factors like count and batter/pitcher handedness. These stats will allow previously off-limits assessments to be mined from pre-PITCHf/x eras. BP’s new arm ratings, for example, go back to 1950, while estimated blocking and framing ratings, based on ball and called-strike rates, extend to the dawn of pitch-by-pitch record-keeping in 1988 — well before the advent of PITCHf/x data made the first wave of pitch-framing estimates possible. Piazza’s revamped ratings paint him as a net-positive fielder, despite his poor throwing and middling ability to field batted balls.

PLAY TYPE RUNS
Throwing -42.0
Ball-in-play -4.9
Blocking +11.0
Framing +99.2
Total 63.8

Cumulatively, Piazza is by far the least-valuable throwing catcher since 1950, trailing the second-worst, Todd Hundley, by more than 16 runs. (Coincidentally, Hundley is the catcher Piazza displaced when he was traded to the Mets.) Per opportunity, Piazza ranks in the fifth percentile as a thrower among regular catchers. But he also places in the 74th percentile as a pitch-framer, and the 89th percentile as a pitch-blocker. His arm was just as bad as the naysayers believed, but that weakness wasn’t crippling, and he more than made up for it by blocking balls in the dirt and eking out extra strikes. All of that context is lost to Wins Above Replacement models that aren’t built to account for Piazza’s receiving, and future frameworks that quantify game-calling might put an even more positive spin on his prowess behind the plate.1

There’s no BBWAA bylaw that says a strong Hall of Fame candidate has to have been great at every aspect of the game. Even if Piazza had been a below-average defensive catcher, he’d be a deserving Hall of Famer on the strength of his offense alone. But Piazza was a more complete player than contemporary writers realized, which makes his 62nd-round-to-riches story all the more remarkable. Although Griffey will get louder accolades during induction week, in part because he’s steered clear of PED suspicion, Piazza’s credentials according to the most modern statistical vocabulary put him in a similar place in the Cooperstown pantheon.

Read More:

Griffey In His Prime Was The Second Coming Of Willie Mays

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Footnotes

  1. Marchi’s method, which aimed to include game-calling, yielded the rosiest Piazza appraisal of all.

Ben Lindbergh is a former staff writer at FiveThirtyEight.

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