Mike Piazza’s Greatness

Mike Piazza didn’t cross the 75% threshold required for election into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Still, at 62.2% in his second year on the ballot, he’s probably close enough that his election is eventually assured. And that’s good, because he was the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history.

His greatness is both old- and new-school. To wit, here are his rankings in some of the key offensive stats of both genres, all-time, among catchers:

Home Runs:
RBI: 4th
Batting Average: 9th
On-Base Percentage: 13th
Weighted Runs Created Plus: 1st
Offensive Runs: 1st
Number of 35+ HR seasons: six, first (Johnny Bench had two, and was the only other catcher with multiple 35+ homer seasons.)
Number of 100+ RBI seasons: six, first (Tied with Johnny Bench.)
Number of 140+ wRC+ seasons: six, first (Johnny Bench second with four.)

Looks like Johnny Bench is his No. 1 contender for the title of best offensive catcher of all-time. Though Piazza played about a season-and-a-half less, he managed more home runs — and his weighted offense was better. wRC+ does a great job leveling the playing fields between different eras. Still, it’s fun to put these two greats up against each other with their rate stats adjusted against the players of their time.

BB%+ K%+ ISO+
Mike Piazza 111 87 151
Johnny Bench 121 108 173

Bench may have had more patience and power with respect to his time, but he gave back a good portion of that by striking out more than his peers. It’s possible to look at this and go with Bench, but the ability to make contact leads to all those gaudy batting average and RBI stats that make Piazza’s case.

The biggest part of Piazza’s greatness was this ability to make contact while hitting for power. It’s something you might have heard with respect to Frank Thomas, whose strikeout rate was mere decimals better than Piazza’s. Both were in an elite class for their time. Notice that we’re beginning to leave his position behind. Here’s the list of players who stepped to the plate at least 3,000 times after 1990 and showed an isolated slugging percentage above .220, along with a strikeout rate under 15%. Basically, the decade’s best hitters.

Barry Bonds 10218 678 1863 1773 397 22.3% 11.5% 0.337 184 143
Albert Pujols 8546 492 1425 1498 93 12.5% 9.8% 0.278 161 87.4
Chipper Jones 10614 468 1619 1623 150 14.2% 13.3% 0.226 141 85.1
Frank Thomas 10075 521 1494 1704 32 16.5% 13.9% 0.254 154 72.4
Rafael Palmeiro 10463 536 1471 1676 78 11.7% 11.8% 0.240 132 64.7
Mike Piazza 7745 427 1048 1335 17 9.8% 14.4% 0.237 140 63.6
Gary Sheffield 10453 500 1590 1632 240 13.8% 10.8% 0.228 144 62.9
Vladimir Guerrero 9059 449 1328 1496 181 8.1% 10.9% 0.235 136 56.5
Todd Helton 9453 369 1401 1406 37 14.1% 12.4% 0.223 132 55.7
Albert Belle 6442 374 952 1202 86 10.4% 14.1% 0.273 141 40.9

Piazza carved out a place in Mets’ fans hearts with seminal performances against the New York Yankees and standout performances like his three-homer game to cap a comeback win on fireworks night. His home run in the post-9/11 game gives many New Yorkers chills to this day. He was a heavy-metal-loving, Playboy-bunny-marrying dude with great hair; the “fame” part isn’t a problem.

Despite back-acne-related suspicions, he’s never been officially tied to steroid use. In his book, he flatly denied using. His aging curve certainly doesn’t have the eye-popping right tail of some of the users among the popular consensus — he peaked at 29 and was merely average after he turned 35. Ironically, the catcher admitted, among the steroid denials, to the use of amphetamines and anti-inflammatory drugs. Those admissions, as well as his strikeout rate, almost make him a throw-back to another era. Perhaps he should be judged against the greenie-popping players of the ’70s, then. (He’d be even more of a shoo-in Hall-of-Famer.)

Some point to his “power from nowhere,” as Jeff Pearlman quoted an anonymous major leaguer as telling him in his book The Rocket That Fell to Earth. But that’s overstating the case. Dan Lewis at AmazinAvenue went back through two scouting reports filed by the same scout on Matt Merrullo and Mike Piazza that suggested that Piazza was at least a 10th-rounder to him. That trained eye put a “6” on his future power grade and lauded his “excellent body.” The scout also felt Piazza was worth a selection on “bat and power.” And as soon as Piazza hit the minor leagues, he showed power. He bested his Low-A league’s average isolated power by 100 points and then hit 29 homers in High-A at 22. Power from nowhere?

Concerns about his defense are legitimate in that his defense wasn’t as good as his offense. But the fact that he made it to 36 before being asked to log more than an inning per season at first base — all while putting up numbers that would have made him useful at first — suggests teams made the same decisions as the numbers on our leaderboards. He was good enough to provide more value behind the plate than he would have at first base.

And maybe all of this will soon be history. Judging from these four BBWAA voters, he’ll be gaining steam as more players get in and make some room at the back end of the ballot. According to Jay Jaffe, no player has cracked 50% without being elected other than the unfortunate Gil Hodges (Jack Morris may yet make it as a Veteran Committee selection). Of course, the 10-player limit never seemed as big of a deal before, either.

But Mike Piazza? Surely he’s a Hall-of-Famer. His greatness is right there in the numbers. Offensive numbers, maybe, but the Hall just elected Frank Thomas — probably the worst defensive first baseman of all-time. Piazza’s bat would have played anywhere — after all, no other catcher has lead the entire league in offense as Mike Piazza did in 1997.

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63 Responses to “Mike Piazza’s Greatness”

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  1. DrBGiantsfan says:

    Bonds before Piazza. Just sayin’, BBWAA.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Not really relevant.

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    • Hurtlockertwo says:

      Very relevent, include Clemens too, he was never tested positive either. Piazza is a HOF, so are a lot of the other guys that didn’t get in, all relevent.

      -30 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Bill says:

        Clemens may not have ever tested positive, but the amount of evidence indicating he was a user is vast, while there is really nothing but conjecture when it comes to Piazza. The two can’t be compared. I’m really not sure how anyone can think, at this point, that Clemens was clean. I think Lance Armstrong has effectively shown how weak the “never tested positive” argument really is.

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        • Hurtlockertwo says:

          I agree with you, just making the point that all the evidence is relevent to the discussion. If not, then just vote everyone in on the stats alone. (which I favor)

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    • DrBGiantsfan says:

      I just don’t like the cut of Mike Piazza’s jib. And that fruity stache.

      -21 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Dan LeBatard says:

      Bonds AND Piazza before Craig Biggio.

      Just sayin’ BBWAA

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  2. DrBGiantsfan says:

    O-V-E-R-R-A-T-E-D by New York jockhuggers.

    -58 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Eno Sarris says:

      Well-argued with the evidence and all that.

      +62 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • vivalajeter says:

      When Posey puts up his 5th 6+ WAR season, please come back here and gloat.

      +6 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Buck Turgidson says:

        You mean without the juice and back-acne?

        -28 Vote -1 Vote +1

        • TKDC says:

          So if you had a vote, you’d ask all the eligible players to line up with their shirts off so you could examine their backs, eliminating all that did not have skin that was smooth and supple enough for your liking?

          +9 Vote -1 Vote +1

        • Nickname Damur says:

          Aesthetics count. That’s why so many people compare baseball to Olympic skate dancing!

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        • Buck Turgidson says:

          Don’t forget the shrunken testicles, too.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Since your name is viva-la-jeter, it’s safe to say that you are one of the New York jockhuggers I speak of?

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    • Book_Worm says:

      Hmm, usually DrBGiantsfan shows up in threads that are specifically related to the Giants (though he makes a Bonds reference in one comment here). And usually his name is hyperlinked to a website.

      Which is to say that these comments could be from an impersonator. Either way, the comments are totally vapid. I’d also mention that the Giants franchise definitely benefited for decades (if it doesn’t still benefit) from its New York roots in the minds of sportswriters.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Best offensive catcher of all time. By WAR, 6th best catcher overall.

      Why does his Hall of Fame candidacy need to be debated beyond that? The BBWAA is a joke.

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    • chaz says:

      Please stop making Giants fans look so dumb.

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    • I guess math is hard huh? Not surprising coming from someone on the left coast.

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  3. That Guy says:

    At this point, there’s no reason to believe that either of Piazza or Bagwell (and Biggio of course) won’t make it into the HOF at some point. That they get passed over at this point is just part of the process.

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  4. laurence fisherman says:

    I think the article should be named “The Greatness of Mike Piazza“.

    +8 Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. Tim says:

    What about Belle-and-Sebastian-related suspicions?

    +10 Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. Tim says:

    On a more serious note, having a discussion of best offensive catchers and leaving out Mickey Cochrane is a shame and a half.

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  7. vivalajeter says:

    Not that he was anywhere near Piazza with the bat, but I’m interested to see how Pudge does in the voting when he’s eligible. When he came up, I remember thinking he was an all-glove, no-hit catcher. In the late 90’s I started to think “hmm, maybe he can actually hit too”. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that he started hitting when he bulked up and looked like a tank, and I vaguely recall allegations against him – maybe in Canseco’s book?

    Like Piazza, he’s an easy HOFer based on production, but I guess he’ll have to wait a few years too? Or will he get the Palmeiro/McGwire treatment?

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    • Ian R. says:

      I think Pudge has taken more flack as a perceived PED guy than Piazza, but Pudge also has no weaknesses in his case. Piazza is remembered as a historically great hitter and a bad fielder – somewhat of a rich man’s Ted Simmons. Rodriguez is remembered as a historically great fielder who was also a great hitter, especially given his position.

      Odds are that I-Rod will have to wait a year or three, but that’s par for the course for catchers. Bench is still the only one to make it on the first ballot.

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  8. IZZY2112 says:

    RE: ISO+

    I’d like to argue against the use of that statistic. If you ever look at old sluggers, they had more more power relative to the average hitter than the best power hitters today. That had more to do with the fact that most hitters didn’t try to hit for power than their natural skillset relative to their peers. When comparing Bench to Piazza, you get a similar issue, albeit to a lesser extent. Also, were park factors used for ISO+?

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      ISO+ was not park adjusted, no, so that’s a point I’d take — but wRC+ is park-adjusted, which probably does a better job comparing the two batters. Don’t know about the other bit, I think they all try to hit for power.

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  9. JJ says:

    I saw the following catchers play (live) multiple times:

    Mike Piazza
    Gary Carter
    Johnny Bench
    Jerry Grote

    Without question the best defensively was Jerry Grote. The best hitter was Piazza. The best all-around was Gary Carter.
    Johnny Bench played on the best teams and was surrounded by deep lineups.

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    • JKB says:

      From that list (with three Mets catchers) it sounds like you might have seen Bench play the Mets at Shea mostly.

      Shea suppressed Bench’s offense more than any other stadium where he played fifty or more games. in 78 games at Shea, Bench hit .229(BA), .287(OBP), .392(SLG) for an OPS of .679 and a tOPS+ (from Baseball-Reference) of 66.

      Shea suppressed offense for Piazza, Carter, and Grote as well, but all three were still around league average at Shea.

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    • brendan says:

      it’s funny how carter and pudge fit between piazza and bench in the WAR graphs.

      grote not really fitting in here

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  10. MrKnowNothing says:

    Always funny how writers will ignore the terrible defense of Thomas, and likely eventually of Piazza, (rightfully so) but somehow Edgar gets penalized for being “only” a DH. Does anyone doubt he couldn’t have played 1B as well as Thomas if it were needed?

    Amazing how year after year, MVP voting generally seems to come down to only offensive numbers – but as soon as the HOF is brought up the same voters who would choose Miggy over Trout now want “complete” players.

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    • DNA+ says:

      I don’t think they want complete players. Frank Thomas was clearly never a complete player. They seem to want players who were not DHs. Or, if they were DHs, to be clear offensive HOFers evidenced by some of the famous counting stats perhaps (i.e. Thomas 500 HR, Molitor 3000 hits).

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      • dls says:

        …just would like to note that Molitor was far more than “just a DH” for more than half of his (long, illustrious) career. He played a respectable 2b, 3b, and OF prior top becoming a full time DH in his age 34 season. He also stole bases, and hit for average and had moderate power. I would definitely call him a “complete” player.

        In no way should he be paired with Frank Thomas defensively.

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        • DNA+ says:

          That is an excellent point, and I agree fully. I only mentioned him because I think he is the HOF player other than Thomas with the most AB as DH.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      What I think is funny is how we have conversations every year about how a guy was “robbed” in the MVP/Cy Young voting, but then rely on those same awards in deciding who deserves to be in the HoF.

      I mean, the SAME writers who are now finally realizing that pitcher wins are a joke in Cy Young award voting, are now relying on old Cy Young voting in marking their HoF ballots for guys like Jack Morris.

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      • DNA+ says:

        This is a fair point, but it is also not unreasonable to evaluate players for the HOF relative to the standards of the time in which they were playing.

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    • tz says:

      Just for kicks, look at the net defensive value of Piazza vs. Jeter (defensive runs vs. average + positional scarcity adjustment).

      Unless Piazza was a Ryan Doumit caliber pitch framer, there’s no way his defensive weakness should outweigh his offensive greatness.

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    • james wilson says:

      Piazza was a better catcher that Thomas was a first baseman, and Thomas was even a bad first baseman only in the youthful half of his career.

      One wonders, what would Piazza have done playing his entire career in Boston as the DH?

      I’ll relate what breaks down a sport writers huffy resistance to PED users getting their Hall vote, because I contributed to one Boston writer’s abandoning the steroid crusade. Pick a player they love who they believe is clean, and make your case he ain’t. In Boston, they love, love, love Pedro. So do I, but if there is a Dominican of that era who didn’t roid, I still am open to suggestions for who he is.

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    • gabriel syme says:

      Piazza consistently put up better cERAs than his backups; perhaps not a super-reliable statistic, but given what we now know about catcher defence all we can really say is that Piazza didn’t control the running game well, and that he was pretty decent at preventing pitches getting past him.

      My impression was that Piazza was pretty good at the things we can’t or couldn’t measure well- managing pitchers, making the plays around the plate and pitch framing.

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  11. Los says:

    Am I the only one who thinks he should go to the HOF as a Dodger?

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  12. ms says:

    Mickey Tettleton is the Bob Grich/Lou Whitaker of offensive catchers. He would have been much more appreciated today. Not necessarily that he was a HOF’er but that he was better than people thought.

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  13. db says:

    Depending on your feeling of cERA as a stat, there is an argument that Piazza is the greatest catcher ever (not counting Josh Gibson). For most of his career, he had a better cERA than his team overall. The back-up catcher presumably was a defensive specialist, so that probably means something. I just think in terms of game calling, pitch framing, avoiding WP (Piazza ranks very well in this), there are too many intangibles in catcher defense to trust numbers much. The only defensive stat that is easy to see is that Piazza was not a great thrower, but I don’t recall pitchers having an issue throwing to him like Javy Lopez or Jorge Posada had.

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  14. BranchRickey11937 says:

    It doesn’t seem like there’s much of a real debate here–Piazza is at least a second-tier HOFer, if not first tier. As to his defense, db is right on the money. I was a fan of Piazza from his minor-league days, and watched him play regularly when he was with the Mets. He obviously had a defensive weakness–his arm–but in all other respects, he was probably above-average defensively. You always got the feeling that he was working with his pitchers, not against them.

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  15. blue says:

    Simple question: Was Piazza one of the best 10 to 15 players of the Steroid Era? Answer is clearly yes, he should be in HOF this year.

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  16. pounder says:

    Media bias,gay rumors and suspicions of being a roider has done damage to his HOF chances.

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  17. Wow, you’d think this was the comment section over at Yahoo or ESPN with the first handful of comments.

    Enjoyed the piece, Eno. Great job.

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  18. Bomok says:

    Piazza was one of the all time best pitch framers. he saved about 200 runs. bench saved about 2. Bench was league average with his 2. If one WAR is say(guess) 10 runs, thats 20 more WAR you can put on Piazza’s resume. He also posted an above average career defense. not nearly bench but he wasn’t a liability.
    Don’t believe me about the pitch framing? copy and paste this http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=16199
    (sorry i don’t know how to post a link on this site).

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    • Grandy Johndux says:

      that’s not pitch framing per se, it’s overall effect on pitcher ERA. It probably also has to do with game calling, mound visits, and who knows what else though. Good link though, very cool.

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  19. DSC says:

    Kind of proves, again, how useless advanced stats are. And why mention speed and try to say steroid cheats are great players??? How many amphetamine guys popped 50 homers at the age of 38??? Why the pove for steroid cheaters?

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  20. gc says:

    Don’t think that in the Thomas/Piazza comps that anyone noted that after Thomas resurrected his career in Oakland and earned his way out of the bargain bin, that the A’s tried to replace him with…Piazza, who got hurt.

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  21. walt526 says:

    It took The Kid 6 ballots before getting elected (only 33% voted for him in 1999, his second year of eligibility?!?). And as a previous poster said, Carter was possibly the best overall catcher (although I’d still give the edge to Bench with strong consideration to Rodriguez), although Piazza was undeniably the best offensive catcher.

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  22. Word says:

    This is needless nitpicking, but Mike Piazza probably was NOT the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history. Josh Gibson.

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