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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.