Piazza, Hall of Fame Catcher

Editor’s Note: This article has been reprinted from The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2009. You can purchase a copy at our Bookstore.

Mike Piazza’s career has “Hall of Fame” written all over it. He is a no-doubter, a sure-fire bet to go in on his first ballot. The great Negro League slugger Josh Gibson is likely the greatest offensive catcher of all time, but fair or not, there will always be a question about how great Gibson really was because of the difficulty in assessing the quality of Negro League seasons compared to major league seasons. With Piazza, we can say with certainty that he is the greatest offensive catcher in the history of the major leagues. No one else is remotely close.

Piazza’s raw numbers are so impressive that it is easy to overlook that every season of his career his home field was one that favored the pitcher. During his years in LA, he was performing in the toughest park in the league for hitters, especially in hitting for batting average. Yet one could just throw out the park factors, and his offensive numbers remain mind-boggling for a catcher.

There have been 18 seasons in which a major league catcher hit 35 or more homers and Piazza has a third of them (six). Johnny Bench is next with two, the only other catcher to do it more than once. If you prorate the strike seasons of 1994-95, Piazza would have a seventh such season and come close to an eighth. Piazza’s .362 batting average in 1997 is the highest ever by a catcher qualifying for the batting title, and his relative career batting average is comfortably the highest of any catcher in history (“relative” means compared to other non-pitchers in his league).

As a catcher, minimum 5000 PA BA Avg Non P in lg Relative PA
Mike Piazza 0.313 0.27 +42 points
Thurman Munson 0.292 0.259 +33 points
Ivan Rodriguez 0.301 0.27 +31 points
Ernie Lombardi 0.306 0.275 +31 points
Mickey Cochrane 0.32 0.29 +30 points

This combination of high average and power made Piazza unique among catchers. He holds the record for the highest slugging percentage by a catcher in a season (.638 in 1997), and he has three of the top five seasons, as well as eight of the top 18 seasons. To put it another way, Piazza’s sixth-best season in slugging percentage (.570) is better than the best season of every Hall of Fame catcher except Gabby Hartnett, Roy Campanella
and Bench. That’s right: His sixth-best slugging season is higher than anything Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Lombardi, Gary Carter or Carlton Fisk ever posted. And Mike’s eighth-best slugging season of “only” .561 tops the best of future Hall of Famer Pudge Rodriguez (.558).

Piazza’s career slugging percentage as a catcher (.560) is more than 50 points higher than any other catcher in history. In relative slugging percentage as a catcher, the gap between Piazza and the No. 2 man, Bench, is larger than the gap between Bench and No. 10, Bill Dickey. (See chart.) And remember, none of these numbers has been park-adjusted. None of these other great offensive catchers played with home fields as tough as Piazza’s.

As a catcher, minimum 5000 PA BA Avg Non P in lg Relative PA
Mike Piazza 0.313 0.27 +42 points
Thurman Munson 0.292 0.259 +33 points
Ivan Rodriguez 0.301 0.27 +31 points
Ernie Lombardi 0.306 0.275 +31 points
Mickey Cochrane 0.32 0.29 +30 points

(About the chart: Actual plate appearances as a catcher are not available before 1956, and for those seasons I simply use the overall numbers for the seasons in which a player’s primary position was catcher. I usually use 5,000 plate appearances as the minimum for a chart like this, but because catchers miss so many games and Campanella was able to make the Hall of Fame with only 4,816 plate appearances, I made that the minimum.

In the very early days of baseball, catching equipment was so primitive that catchers routinely missed large chunks of the season and had short careers. None of those early catchers would come close to the minimum plate appearances for this chart. When the great Buck Ewing (first catcher in the Hall of Fame) finished his last season as a catcher in 1890, he had the third most plate appearances ever as a catcher but it was barely over 3,000. If we allowed him on the list, he would rank all the way up at No. 2 (+.103), and another catcher from the 1800s, Jack Clement, would be between Cochrane and Rodriguez.

During my 21 years working full-time with major league teams, I was asked to make evaluations or recommendations involving several future Hall of Famers. It was fun to see their careers fulfill their promise, but I rarely felt like I had done anything to help their careers along. Players with Hall of Fame talent are generally so obvious that they rarely need any help in getting their careers on track. Mike Piazza was a very different case, perhaps the most unusual in the history of great players.

Unlike most Hall of Famers, Piazza was far from a scout’s dream. No one drafted him out of high school; no one considered signing him as an undrafted player. He didn’t throw or run well, and he played first base, a position where you had to hit like Ted Williams to get noticed.

And there was always something about Piazza’s stance and swing that bothered a lot of visual scouts. He was abnormally upright in his swing, with little bend in his knees, and his swing seemed a tad long. His hands were way down on the bottom of the bat, with the pinky over the knob, and he would stand a little far off the plate. While other hitters with that stance would dive into the plate to compensate on certain pitches, Piazza seemed to be just reaching out to cover the plate, almost flicking at the outer pitch, though with surprising pop.

It was different, and it was easy to be concerned that he might eventually hit a wall—that he would start to be overwhelmed by power pitchers, that against good pitchers he’d have a big hole low and away, and that he wouldn’t be able generate power on quality pitches away.

I remember having two distinct thoughts the first time I saw Piazza hit. One was that he must be incredibly strong in his wrists and forearms to make that swing work, and, two, that this guy wasn’t going to get hit by too many pitches. (He ended up never being hit more than three times in a season, and his overall hit by-pitch rate during his career was less than half the normal rate.)

Piazza did get a chance to play with a top college team at the University of Miami, but that program didn’t see his potential either, and rather than play as a reserve he transferred to a community college (Miami Dade) to get more playing time. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda was a friend of Mike’s father, the godfather to Mike’s brother Tom, and he had known Mike since he was a baby. Tommy asked the Dodgers to draft Mike—not to sign him, but simply to help pad his resume in hopes he could get a tryout with another Division I school.

Piazza is destined to be the Hall of Famer selected in the lowest round of the amateur draft. In 1988, he was selected in the 62nd round. No one is going to beat that because now there are just 50 rounds. Sometimes writers erroneously say Piazza was the last player taken in the 1988 draft. Not quite, though he was the last taken by the Dodgers, and 13 teams had stopped drafting players at that point. Piazza—the player who would prove to be the best of the entire 1988 draft—was the 1,389th player selected. To put it another way, it would take about four pages to list every player selected in front of him.

None of the big college programs were interested in Piazza, and two months after the draft the Dodgers brought him in for a tryout. They decided that if he were willing to convert to catching, they’d give him a token signing bonus and give him a shot on the lowest rung in the minors. His catching experience at that point was next to nothing. He had been primarily a first baseman, but apparently had caught a few games in his brief college career, as he was listed in the 1988 draft as “1B-C.”

To start working immediately on his catching skills, Piazza went to the Dodgers’ baseball academy in the Dominican League. The Academy was meant for local players; he was the first American ever sent there. He didn’t speak Spanish and hardly anyone there spoke any English. His hard work in that difficult situation was our first sign of how dedicated he was to becoming a big leaguer.

When he made his pro debut in the Northwest League in 1989, he was not considered even good enough to be the club’s No. 1 catcher (that honor went to a lad named Hector Ortiz, who can have fun telling folks that the great Mike Piazza was once his backup). Piazza did show surprising pop with the bat that first year. His home field in Salem was a huge park; his eight homers led the team, and he hit them in less than 200 at-bats.

I started to get excited about Piazza’s big league prospects during his 1991 season in the California League. He made gigantic strides in his command of the strike zone and led the league in slugging percentage. When I park-adjusted his numbers, he really stood out as the best power hitter in the 10-team league—and he was doing this while playing the most physically demanding position on the field (fifth in the league in games

When I expressed my excitement about Piazza that offseason to Dodgers general manager Fred Claire, I was surprised to hear that the assessments of Piazza by our scouts and player development people were very mixed, and the consensus was, at best, lukewarm about his prospect status. Some felt he would never be more than a “minor league hitter,” and some also thought he would never make it as a catcher and would have to move back to first base.

(Reporter Ken Gurnick cites Lasorda as his source in a story that says that during Piazza’s 1991 season in A-ball “some club officials pushed for Piazza’s release.” That surprised me; Fred Claire never mentioned anyone having that negative a view. The idea of someone “pushing” for a player’s release in midseason suggests there may have been some side issues involved rather than just an assessment of the player’s potential.)

Also working against Piazza was that the team had two good prospects ahead of him at both catcher and first base. Carlos Hernandez was a good defensive catcher hitting .345 at Triple-A. Baseball America ranked Hernandez as the second-best position player in the Dodgers system, behind Raul Mondesi and even ahead of Eric Karros. And Karros had just had a big year at Triple-A and was slated to be given a solid shot as the Dodgers’ starting first baseman in 1992. (Karros would end up as the league’s Rookie of the Year.)

Claire indicated that he was encouraged by Piazza’s 1991 season, but with so many conflicting views, and with the prospects the team had in front of Piazza, the Dodgers could not be making any plans around him. That disappointed me. I had nothing against Carlos Hernandez as a prospect, but our team had too many positions without power, and in my eyes, Piazza was our best power-hitting prospect, especially valuable because he could do it as a catcher.

I thought the concerns about Piazza’s defense were way overblown. Piazza hadn’t gotten in the way of the Bakersfield team having the league’s second best ERA. The team’s pitchers had thrown strikes (lowest walk rate in the league) and stayed away from the long ball, allowing a paltry 43 homers in the 136-game season, and it wasn’t the ballpark holding down the homer total. The Bakersfield Dodgers hit more than 100 homers that year.

This is a good spot to discuss my views of the scouting and developing of catchers. In a study of the amateur draft, I had shown that among position players, the ones most often misranked by the visual scouts were the catchers. Looking at more than 25 years of draft data I saw the problem as similar to why pitchers so often fool us. There is nothing like the workload of a professional pitcher in the amateur ranks. You are essentially flying blind when trying to estimate whether an amateur pitcher’s arm will be able to handle a professional workload.

Catching is like that, too. You don’t see amateur catchers going through a summer catching five games a week. A lot of catchers can look good working on a high school or college schedule, but then wilt on a professional schedule. With most position players, you expect progress in hitting ability simply with the gain in experience from playing nearly every day. But a lot of highly drafted catchers actually regress offensively because the defensive workload is so draining.

Sure, I love a catcher with the raw talents you can’t teach, the great arm and the quick feet, but those gifts aren’t worth much if you can’t hit enough to play. Once a catcher has shown he has the minimal physical skills for the position, what I most want to know is whether he can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. The ability to catch a lot without having your hitting skills go in the toilet is a huge advantage in a catching prospect. I would rather know that than how fast he gets out from behind the plate or how strong or quick his throws are.

And if you really stop to think about it, isn’t there a lot to catching that isn’t driven by raw physical talent? Is there another position where the combination of experience, memory, intelligence and personal interaction skills are worth more? Teaching can take you only so far in turning someone into a good defensive player, but you can “teach” catching far more than you can “teach” defense at any other position.

It’s a small thing, but—as with pitchers—there is a long-term durability risk in acquiring catchers who have caught a lot of games at a young age. If you check, you will find many of our best, most durable catchers were converted from other positions, or for some other reason did not catch much in their formative years.

So, with my approach on finding and developing catchers—plus my belief that the concept “minor-league hitter” is largely a myth resulting from improper performance analysis—you can see why I tended to be well ahead of the curve in valuing Piazza and working to see that he got the opportunities he deserved. His arm was always going to be a liability, but on the positive side:

  1. Mike certainly hadn’t been abused as a young catcher. It did not become his primary position until he was 21 and he would be 23 before he ever caught 100 games in a season.
  2. He was incredibly driven to learn how to catch. He understood this was his ticket into professional baseball, and he latched onto it like a junkyard dog onto a bone.
  3. Most important was his ability to shrug off the pain and fatigue of catching and knock the snot out of the ball. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the privileged son of a multi-millionaire, but he was tough as nails.

Shortly after the 1992 All-Star break, just a half-season further in Piazza’s development, Claire asked me to recommend what we should do with the rest our season. I wrote:

I cannot see any reason to bring back (Mike) Sciosica [who would be a free agent at end of the year] at age 34.

… we have been given a golden opportunity to gamble on a catcher with exactly what this team is crying for, power. I know when I have asked about Piazza, you have shown little interest in making him part of the mix, but I’d be doing you a grave disservice if I didn’t fight and fight hard on
this point.

In 1991, he belted 29 homers which is amazing enough for a catcher, but it was also the most by any Dodger in the whole system. Here we are in
1992, and despite being jumped up 2 leagues, he continues to hit about 100 points higher than he did in A-ball, has cut his [relative] strikeout rate dramatically, and is again leading the organization in HR (21 in 338 AB). We are desperate for power, and he had no trouble adjusting to AA or
AAA pitching for the first time this year.

… You are looking for recommendations of what we should be doing with the remainder of the 1992 season. My absolute No. 1 recommendation is that we promote Piazza and play him.”

We weren’t ready to do that—or at least it was explained to me that the field staff wasn’t ready to do that. Tommy Lasorda genuinely loved Mike as a person and was plenty willing to help him along up to a point, but contrary to legend, Lasorda was far from fighting to pave the way for him to be a big league regular. Scioscia remained the No. 1 catcher, and Piazza was not brought up until September, when the minor league season was over and the major league roster expanded.

A month after my recommendation, the Pittsburgh Pirates sought to make a trade with us that would include Scioscia. As part of the deal, the Dodgers would get catcher Mike LaValliere, whose contract had gotten too expensive for the small-market Pirates. On the surface it was a very good deal, but when asked to analyze it I concluded:

… [at this stage of their careers] I personally consider LaValliere a … better catcher than Scioscia. Yet I can see refusing to make this deal if we have to take on LaValliere.

We don’t need what LaValliere can offer us as a catcher; what we need is what Mike Piazza can offer us as a catcher. And if Piazza were a bust
– which would surprise the hell out of me – Carlos Hernandez has a better chance of giving us what we need from our catcher.

I’ve played with this in my mind for hour upon hour now. I am in favor of anything that will clear the deck for Piazza, and I find I can’t endorse any move that will make it harder for him to establish himself in the majors. I cannot see a manager taking a veteran catcher making $2,000,000 a
year and making it a fair competition with a couple kids where the veteran might come out as the No. 3 catcher.”

Fred Claire was steadily becoming more enamored with Piazza as he continued to play well, and he declined the Pittsburgh deal. I ended up repeating my theme in my season review in September, which included my response to a recent conversation with Fred in which he indicated that he was leaning toward offering Scioscia a 1993 contract because the field staff was reluctant to be solely dependent on a couple of young catchers. They wanted a veteran presence among our catching corps.

That scared me. Lasorda was 66, and he already had shown signs of a common affliction that creeps up on older managers, a tendency to overplay veterans at the expense of young players. Scioscia was a Dodger institution and very popular with the field staff, who had demonstrated in 1992 that they were willing to play him as a No. 1 catcher even though he had nothing left. Lasorda had given him 389 plate appearances in 1992 even though his on-base average and slugging percentage were both under .287! I wrote:

The best thing we have going for us is Mike Piazza (boy, that sounds like a broken record). The chance to put this kind of bat in our lineup and to do it at the catching position is just a tremendous break.

… [This is] what I disagree the most with in the notes I took from our conversation. As far as I can see, we don’t need a veteran catcher, and if we do, it better not be Mike Scioscia. … As sure as the Dodgers wearing blue, if Mike Scioscia is on the 1993 team, he will be taking playing time away from Piazza … [and putting] unnecessary pressure on Piazza.

If you really feel we need a veteran No. 3 catcher, make sure it is someone who won’t – even in the best of light – be mistaken for a No. 1 catcher. Hey, we have 29-year-old Wakamatsu at AAA who has experience with the knuckleball. I’d rather have him than pay serious bucks to Sciosica just to take away playing time from the player we need most.

Claire found this logic persuasive, and he ultimately declined the recommendations to re-sign Scioscia. Instead he signed the veteran catcher Lance Parrish to a minor league contract. (Parrish was on the last legs of his distinguished career and would make close to the minimum salary.)

In retrospect this obviously the right move, but I think it was remarkably courageous on the part of the Dodgers, and particularly by Claire, who would bear the responsibility if things didn’t work out. I think the norm for most GMs in the same situation would have been to bring back Scioscia for a year to help with the transition. And a lot of folks would have been tempted to say yes to the Pittsburgh deal, which would have given the Dodgers a clear catching upgrade with LaValliere, as well as protection if Piazza were not ready.

Remember, this is just a year removed from a time when Piazza was a questionable prospect and when the Dodgers were not willing to make any plans around him. Yes, Piazza did have a great minor league season, but it was his first season with a single plate appearance above A-ball and he had not hit well in his briefSeptember call-up: a .232 batting average with little power (.319 slugging percentage).

After that 1992 season, analyst Bill James wrote that he saw Piazza as a prospect but cautioned he did not like him as much as guys like Willie Greene, Melvin Nieves or Chipper Jones. (Greene and Nieves were decent prospects who had weak careers and were retired by age 28.)

And while Baseball America now included Piazza among its 100 top prospects, it still rated 37 minor leaguers ahead of him, and once you get past the top 30, the number of misses and so-so players far out-number the successes. Here are the players who were listed just ahead of Piazza: Tyler Green, Jim Pittsley, Calvin Murray, Mike Kelly, Kevin Young, John Roper and Nigel Wilson. That was hardly a grouping to encourage
the absolute commitment the Dodgers were making.

The next spring Piazza was the talk of the spring camp. He led the team in batting average (.478) and tied for the team lead in homers and extra-base hits. The Dodgers broke camp with just two catchers, Piazza and Hernandez, and on May 7 Lance Parrish was released at Triple-A. I remember the date because it was my birthday, and I considered this final commitment to Piazza as a pretty nice birthday gift. (Parrish was immediately signed by Cleveland as a backup catcher.) That ended the “veteran” threat to Piazza’s rookie season. The organization’s No. 3 catcher was now John Wakamatsu, as I had recommended the preceding September.

With that kind of unfettered opportunity, Piazza would either blossom or leave us with egg on our faces. He blossomed, and you know what? The slugging catcher turned out to be a pretty decent defensive catcher.

It is pure speculation on my part, but I believe his obviously below-average throwing arm actually helped his development as a catcher. I’ve seen more than a few catchers with good throwing arms who put too much focus on the aspect of defense they are good at: stopping the running game. In steal situations, they’ll tend to call a good pitch to throw on rather than a good pitch to get the batter out. Some will let the finer nuances of catching slide because they already are perceived as being good catchers simply because they throw well.

Piazza knew he didn’t throw well and would always be limited in his ability to contain the running game. I believe that drove him to learn the skills of catching that have nothing to do with arm strength. It paid off. He knew what he was doing back there. Pitchers liked working with him; they were successful, and Piazza was a part of it.

Take a look at this table:

Dodgers Team’s No. 1 Catcher Rank of Staff ERA
1992 Mike Scioscia  6th
1993 Mike Piazza  3rd
1994 Mike Piazza  9th
1995 Mike Piazza  2nd
1996 Mike Piazza  1st
1997 Mike Piazza  2nd
1998 Charles Johnson  5th
1997 Todd Hundley  6th
1998 Mike Piazza  4th
1999 Mike Piazza  5th
2000 Mike Piazza  3rd
2001 Mike Piazza  5th
2002 Mike Piazza  5th
2003 Vance Wilson 10th
2004 Jason Phillips  7th
2005 Mike Piazza  3rd
2005 Ramon Hernandez  7th
2006 Mike Piazza  1st
2007 Josh Bard  1st
  1. Piazza was the No. 1 catcher for 11 pitching staffs and 10 of the 11 finished in the top five in ERA (average rank of 3.9).
  2. When Piazza became the Dodgers’ No. 1 catcher, the staff ERA improved from sixth to third.
  3. When Piazza was traded away from the Dodgers, the staff ERA declined from second to fifth.
  4. When Piazza became the No. 1 catcher for the Mets, their staff ERA improved from sixth to fourth.
  5. When a groin injury to Piazza made Vance Wilson the No. 1 catcher in 2003, the staff ERA fell from fifth to 10th, and when Piazza came back, playing mostly first base in 2004, the staff ERA was seventh.
  6. When Piazza again became the No. 1 catcher in 2005, the staff ERA improved from seventh to third.
  7. When Piazza became the No. 1 catcher of the Padres (his last year as a catcher), their staff ERA improved from seventh to first.

In 2003, if you took the Mets’ staff ERA just when they were pitching to Piazza (532.1 innings) that ERA would have ranked third in the league. In 2004, the staff ERA when pitching to Piazza (388.1 innings) would have ranked fourth in the league. In the context of the above chart, that’s rather fascinating, isn’t it?

In 1987 I began writing about my study of the impact of a catcher on the pitcher’s effectiveness by comparing the results with the other catchers who worked with the same pitchers in the same season. There are a lot of influences you ideally would like to control, but the most important, and the easiest to manage, was to distribute evenly the quality of the pitchers being caught. I originally did that with matched innings, but that is
not as practical today because in 2000 I lost access to the comprehensive database I used for matched-inning studies.

Fortunately, the wonderful folks at Baseball Reference, using the data from the even more wonderful folks at Project Retrosheet, have made it possible for anyone with Internet access, and the right combination of interest and work ethic, to control the “distribution of pitchers” factor by creating a set of matched “plate appearances” according to which catcher is catching them.

I’ll quickly explain the process with an example. In 1997, knuckleballer Tom Candiotti and Mike Piazza were combined on defense for 467 plate appearances by opposing batters. The Dodgers’ other catchers that year were behind the plate for 106 plate appearances with Candiotti on the mound. Whichever number of plate appearances is lower, that’s the common number of plate appearances, or what I call the “matched plate appearances.” You reduce the stat line from the other side of the ledger down to the rate of occurrence in the number of matched plate appearances. So, in this example, you are multiplying the things that happened in the Candiotti-Piazza plate appearances by .2270 (106/467).

A number of critics of this approach have worked with matched innings and matched plate appearances in a way that leads them to believe that it shows nothing, and they believe catchers have no impact on a pitcher beyond things like the catcher’s ability to control the running game. This is not the place to debate that at length. It will be clear to the reader when examining just this single example, Mike Piazza, that a catcher can have a positive impact on a pitcher’s effectiveness. You can even get a pretty clear view of how he was doing it, or at least what he was emphasizing that had the most significant impact.

Performance in matched PA by pitchers BA SLG OBP OPS SB CS SB%
Mike Piazza behind plate 0.255 0.401 0.322 0.723 649 184 77.90%
Other catchers 0.262 0.413 0.335 0.748 388 214 64.50%

Mike Piazza was behind the plate for almost 58,000 plate appearances during his career. Because he was a No. 1 catcher in most of those years, a lot of those plate appearances will need to be set aside to create the exact distribution of plate appearances by pitcher in each year with other catchers. But adding up those year-by-year matched plate appearances is still going to produce a massive sample of 26,255 matched plate appearances from Piazza’s career.

What is going on in the first four columns of the above table is worth considerably more in preventing runs than what is reflected in the last three columns, which deal with Piazza’s weakness in stopping the running game.

Some will say that these are such small differences in the first few columns that they might occur by chance. But keep in mind the sample size we are talking about. Consider even the smallest difference, the six points in batting average. Would you tell Pete Rose that hitting .303 in his career—which had almost 2,000 more plate appearances than any other player in the history of the game—was not enough to establish his ability as a .300 hitter? Heck no, and Rose’s record-setting career plate appearances are still miles behind this huge sample of matched plate appearances with Piazza behind the plate. We are talking about a sample size that is almost two-thirds greater than the plate appearances in Rose’s career.

And would you say a 25-point different in OPS in a huge sample can’t tell us anything? Then you are going to have trouble separating the offensive efficiency of a Joe DiMaggio or a Willie Mays from that of someone like Lance Berkman, Chipper Jones or Vladimir Guerrero. They are all within 25 points of each other in their relative career OPS, and in far smaller samples to boot.

These differences in pitcher perfomance are not occurring by chance, and the key difference in these plate appearances is which catcher is behind the plate.

As far as I know, Piazza never had any association with Earl Weaver, the Hall of Fame manager of the Orioles, but in working with pitchers, Piazza emphasized exactly what Weaver was always preaching to his pitchers and catchers: “You have to throw strikes early and stay ahead in the count.” Having his pitcher throw strikes early to a batter meant more to Piazza than having the pitcher throw pitches that were tougher to hit. He didn’t call for a lot of pitches off the plate or particularly hard inside, to set up a hitter. (That’s why the hit-by-pitch rate went down 20 percent with Piazza behind the plate.) When he wanted to work outside the strike zone, he wanted to do it when his pitcher was ahead in the count and the batter was more likely to swing.

It was a strategy that reduced walks, reduced hit-by-pitches. As Weaver often preached, giving in a little bit early in the at-bat so that you will be ahead in the count late in the at-bat is going to net you extra strikeouts and overall make you tougher to hit.

Reinforcing that these differences should be credited as part of Piazza’s defensive impact is that the intentional walk rate barely changes in these matched data. Intentional walks are largely a decision by the manager, reflecting his strategic preferences. While matching plate appearances isn’t intended to to distribute the plate appearances evenly by field manager, it ends up doing pretty much exactly that. In this matched plate appearance sample you would expect the intentional walk rate to be essentially the same in the two sides of the split.

And that is exactly what you find when you separate out the intentional walks from the walk total. You see Piazza’s impact in a 10 percent reduction in the unintentional walk rate, but the intentional walk rate stays largely the same and even swings in the other direction.

Performance in matched PA by P Unintentional walk per PA Intentional walk per PA
Mike Piazza behind plate 0.074 0.0097
Other catchers 0.082 0.0094

Player Base runners prevented Outs gained on extra strikeouts and balls batted into play Extra bases allowed on steals Extra outs missed on caught stealing
Mike Piazza 758 584 574 65

Performance in matched PA by P Unintentional walks plus hits plus HBPs Hitless at-bats plus sacrifices plus GDPs
Mike Piazza behind plate 8,104 18,345
Other catchers 8,448 18,080

It is reasonable to estimate from these matched plate appearances that Piazza’s work with his pitchers prevented 344 base runners and helped pick up 265 more outs. And if we assume, quite reasonably, that his influence was approximately at that level for all the plate appearances in which Piazza was behind the plate, it becomes 758 base runners and 584 outs for his career. That’s a lot of defensive value, and those positives are far, far more valuable than the negative of what was surrendered to the opposition’s running game by his weak arm.

Mike Piazza was not a defensive liability who made up for it with his bat. The greatest offensive catcher in the history of major league baseball was a good defensive catcher as well.

Comments are closed.