When Mike Piazza gets inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, you'll hear plenty about the legendary offensive skills that launched 427 home runs and got him into 12 All-Star Games. That's as it should be; Piazza is either the best hitting catcher in history or darn close
When Mike Piazza gets inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, you'll hear plenty about the legendary offensive skills that launched 427 home runs and got him into 12 All-Star Games. That's as it should be; Piazza is either the best hitting catcher in history or darn close to it, depending on how you measure such things.
What you won't hear about very much about, in all likelihood, is what Piazza did behind the plate. Needless to say, his defensive reputation was less than stellar. Here's The New York Times calling Piazza a "hard-hitting, poor-catching star" at the time of his 1998 trade to the Marlins. Here's Sports Illustrated kindly calling him "not a smooth receiver" in 2000. If you were so inclined, you could find plenty of other similar stories from the time. The narrative goes that Piazza wasn't much of a catcher, and that's probably how he'll be remembered: all bat, no field.
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But as we know all too often, the narrative is hardly infallible. So let's take the time to offer an important reminder as Piazza goes off to Cooperstown (coverage begins on MLB Network and MLB.com at 11 a.m. ET on Sunday, with the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies getting underway live at 1:30): There was actually more to like about his defense than you may have thought at the time.
That's partially because we have new and better ways of looking at catcher defense now, and partially because there seems to be an unwritten rule that if poor-hitting catchers must be good defenders, then the inverse must be true as well. It's easy to remember Piazza launching homers and failing to throw out runners (a career 23 percent caught-stealing rate, when the league average was usually between 28 and 31 percent), but it was harder to see what he was good at.
Take, for example, pitch framing, which we now know to be a pretty important part of the game. The skill of presenting a pitch so that an umpire is more likely to call a ball a strike (or not lose a strike to a ball) has been around forever, really, but it's never really been measured reliably until the past few years. That means that during Piazza's playing career it was rarely discussed, and never quantified.
That doesn't mean it can't be measured, though. Last year, Baseball Prospectus -- using gory math that you'll be much happier not reading about here, though you're encouraged to read all the details -- expanded their pitch-framing rankings back to 1988, which is as far as the data allows. The top two names on the list were Brad Ausmus (+242 runs saved over his career) and Jose Molina (+199), which makes plenty of sense given their reputations. Through 2014, the next few names were Russell Martin, Brian McCann, Yadier Molina, Jonathan Lucroy … and Piazza, at +137 runs saved.
Though that wasn't a skill that was publicly celebrated during his playing days, it's clear that it's something Piazza was aware of and worked on. He talked about emulating Damon Berryhill and Charlie O'Brien during a Hall of Fame conference call last week, and he went through his methods during a demonstration with former Mets teammate Al Leiter in 2011, saying, "the biggest thing for me, I feel like a catcher cannot make a ball a strike, but he can definitely make a strike a ball," and that "you can't allow the ball to take the glove out of the strike zone."
But what about his receiving? Piazza's reputation there seemed to suffer for two reasons, the first being that when he inherited the regular catching job in 1993, he took over for the highly regarded Mike Scioscia, who had been the Dodgers' catcher on and off since 1980. The second is that between '93-97, Piazza allowed the most passed balls in baseball (55), leading the league in two of those seasons. It's easy to assume that people saw a young slugger failing to corral pitches, immediately after a decade of one of baseball's best backstops, and compared him negatively.
That said, what's easily lost from that is that for most of that time, Piazza was the personal catcher of Tom Candiotti, who was at the time baseball's preeminent knuckleballer. Candiotti pitched in parts of 16 seasons, and no catcher caught him more than Piazza, who was with him for nearly 700 innings. Between 1993-97, Piazza caught 123 of Candiotti's 155 games, which is basically 80 percent. It might not be a surprise to find that the catcher dealing with a knuckleballer was piling up passed balls.
Back in 1994, Piazza talked to the Los Angeles Times about catching Candiotti: "[Catching him] is just work, you can never relax back there, it's just physically and mentally draining on every pitch."
Which makes plenty of sense, and has been echoed by catchers who have had to deal with knuckleballers like Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey. Despite the knuckler issues, one 2006 experiment actually claimed that metrics showed Piazza was really quite good at avoiding passed balls, believe it or not. Another, in 2008, argued that Piazza was exceptionally good at improving his pitchers' performances, at the time behind only Tony Pena and Scioscia, tied with Javy Lopez, dating back to 1948.
Now, it can't be argued that Piazza was good at throwing out basestealers, because he wasn't. He ranked first or second in the National League in stolen bases allowed nearly every single season of his career, and while we know that pitchers play a big role in stolen bases, certainly we can't assume that he was saddled with awful pitchers across multiple teams for more than a decade.
But for years, throwing out basestealers was considered the most important thing a catcher could do. Now, we know that preventing steals is a team effort. Now, we know that catchers bring plenty of other value, from framing to game calling to pitch blocking, and that catchers who handle knuckleballers deserve special consideration. Based on today's knowledge and data, Piazza looks a lot better on defense in retrospect.
Piazza is not getting into the Hall of Fame because of his glove, of course. That's all bat. But nor should he be looked at as being enshrined in Cooperstown despite his glove, either. Even if it wasn't well-known at the time, Piazza could be pretty special behind the plate, too.
Mike Petriello** is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.