Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Keltner List: Mike Piazza

This is the final Keltner List that I will do prior to the announcement of the Hall of Fame voting. Piazza is in a strange position, as he is under a cloud of steroid suspicion.  Piazza never tested positive for PEDs. He admitted in his book that he used androstenodione, the same substance that set off the "wait-where-did-these-supplements-come-from" business in 1998 when it was spied in Mark McGwire's locker. The other evidence against Piazza is due to Murray Chass and Jeff Pearlman, writers who point to the following things:

1. Back acne, a symptom of steroid use.
2. Piazza was a 62nd round draftee out of Miami-Dade CC of the Dodgers in 1988.
3. Rumors that Piazza was juicing.

I would respond this way:

1. Yes, it is a symptom of steroid use. Piazza is listed at 6'3, 200 lbs. Piazza had huge thighs when he came up to the majors and had incredibly strong hands. Could this be a product of swinging a sledgehammer around as his dad insists? Possibly. Could it be steroids? Possibly.

2. As far as I could figure out, the only other 62nd round draft pick to make the major leagues was Billy Harris, a shortstop who spent parts of two seasons with Cleveland and Kansas City in 1968 and 1969. However, at least 253 professional baseball players spent time at Miami Dade CC since the 1960s. I also have to point out that the University of Miami won the National Championship in 1985; Piazza walked on. Coach Ron Fraser was a friend of Tommy Lasorda. Piazza told the Los Angeles Times in 1993 that he "was overwhelmed and wanted out" and wound up at Miami-Dade...after injuries, he took to the weight room."

I know plenty of people who walked on to football and basketball teams at the University of Iowa, and they are almost all five times the athletes that I am. That Piazza "had no talent" but actually got to play with a university that had won two titles in five years is horseshit. If Lasorda doesn't call in a favor, sure, Piazza does not go to Florida. Are you telling me that he wasn't good enough to not go anywhere else?

3. Name me five players who put up huge numbers in the 1990s who by 2003 were not "rumored to be juicing." That list is long and distinguished and proves nothing. If anything, it strikes me as knee-jerk reaction on the part of an industry that did its best to defend the changes in the game of the 1990s following the strike.

1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball?

Not that I am aware of. One of the best hitters, yes. One of the best players? Not really.

2. Was he the best player on his team?

From 1993-1997 Piazza was the best Dodger; he was their best hitter playing a very difficult defensive position. From 1998-2002 he was the best hitter the Mets had, again playing a very difficult defensive position. I would answer a solid yes to this question.

3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

Piazza was the best catcher in the NL for his offensive prowess in the 1990s, bar none. Charles Johnson was much better defensively and hit some HR but he was nowhere near the offensive force that Piazza was. During the 1990s, Piazza and Pudge Rodriguez were by universal acclaim the best catchers in baseball, with Benito Santiago a somewhat distant third. 

4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

In 2000, Piazza was wonderful in the postseason (.333/.409/.769) hitting 4 HR in 10 games. Besides that season, his post season record is fairly weak (.234/.281/.345) in 22 games. Piazza had a tendency to wear down in September (after all, he was a catcher) with an incredibly, earth shatteringly awful OPS of .888 in September for his career. Sheesh. 

In 1995, Piazza hit .448 against the Rockies with 4 HR while the Dodgers finished a game ahead of them and beat the Rockies 9 times in 13 tries. 

The 2000 Mets crumbled a bit in September and finished second to the Braves by a game. Piazza hit below his standard in September (.771 OPS) but did hit 5 HR in the month.

5. Was he good enough to contribute past his prime?

Piazza began to wear down in 2003, missing most of his 34 year old season with injuries. He hit 22 HR with San Diego at 37 as a full time catcher, but struggled mightily in Oakland the next season. For a catcher, Piazza was still quite productive into his early 30s after having caught 130 or more games six times between 1993 and 2002.

6. Is he the best player in history not in the hall of fame?

No; I would still vote Bonds here, but Piazza is in the top five. 

7. Are most players with similar statistics in the Hall of Fame?

Of Piazza's 10 highest comps, seven are in the hall.  As Bill James pointed out, "most ordinary players will have 5-10 truly similar players" (James, Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame, 93). This would be a similarity score of over 900. Only Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra score as "similar" to Piazza with scores over 800. This is a marker of Piazza being an extraordinary player. 

8. Do the players number meet hall of fame standards?

Piazza scores a 62 on the Hall of Fame standards and 207 on the hall monitor. Both of these are well above the average hall of fame player. 

9. Is there evidence to suggest he was much better or worse than his statistics?

The biggest knock on Piazza throughout his career was on defense. Piazza allowed the most SB by a catcher in the NL 10 times in his 13 full seasons as a full time catcher. He led the NL in passed balls twice but scores well on metrics such as range factor. Piazza was an average to slightly below average catcher early in his career via the total zone rating, but was awful behind the plate after the 2001 season. 

In the article "Should Mike Piazza be in the Hall of Fame?" John Dewan questions the efficacy of defensive metrics with Piazza, and also points out that he handled pitchers very well.  The one thing that most people agree upon is that Piazza was terrible at throwing out basestealers. This strikes me as interesting, as Tommy Lasorda told the story repeatedly that Joe Ferguson, whom he hired to work with Piazza, really liked his arm. 


10. Is he the best player eligible who has not been inducted?

I would argue no, as I would still go with Bonds. 

11. How many MVP type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how often did he come close?

Piazza never won an MVP; he was the Rookie of the Year in 1993 and took home the silver slugger award as a catcher in the NL every year from 1993-2002. He did finish in the top 10 in the MVP voting seven times in ten seasons (1993-2002).

In 1996, he finished second to Ken Caminiti who enjoyed one of the great fluke seasons of all time. That this fluke in particular was powered to some extent by steroids is ironic in light of Piazza's place with many of the voters. 

1997 was arguably Piazza's greatest season (40 HR, .362 BA, 8.7 WAR) and he finished a distant second to Larry Walker, who had his greatest season. Had I a vote, I would have voted for Piazza.

12. How many all star type seasons did he have? How many All Star teams did he play for? Did most other players selected to that many All Star games get elected to the Hall of Fame?

Piazza was named to 12 AS teams and started 10 games. He was MVP of the 1996 All Star game (2-3, HR and a double). Only three catchers (Berra, Bench and Ivan Rodriguez) have appeared in more all star games. Elston Howard also was named to twelve teams. 

Piazza deserved to start every season between 1993 and 2002.

13. If this man was the best player on his team, could his team win the pennant?

I would say yes to this. A catcher who in his prime produces numbers like an elite RF or 1B is an incredibly rare commodity; he will win more games with his bat than he would cost with his glove. 

14. What impact did the player have on baseball history?

Piazza's story in the 1990s is tied to the "hard-work-makes-good" story that hearkened back to the times when a friend of the manager in this town tells a scout to hang around an extra day and watch this one kid pitch....and he turns out to be a major league caliber player that you never heard of. 

This is why Piazza is a polarizing figure. He will most likely be the last unknown great ballplayer. He started in the minors in the late 1980s, before the Internet, the ever expanding tentacles of ESPN and the explosion of minor league baseball sites. Piazza is a throwback to the 1930s or 40s. No one saw him coming, and people want reasons. Look at the bios of many players from the 1920s and 1930s, and they were discovered in much the same way Piazza was: through family friends with connections with the baseball business. Piazza's story of an unknown making the majors was not as unknown 80 years ago as it is now. 

Of course, most of those sons of friends of the manager's cousin don't wind up being the best hitting catcher in the history of baseball. How could we not see it? No one was looking. 

15. Did the player uphold the standards of the Hall of Fame?

The cynic in me says the only reason he admitted to using andro in his book is to curry favor with hall voters. However, he did admit it 11 years earlier. He is a committed supporter of the Miami Ballet and served as a coach for the Italian Olympic team. I would argue that he does, and did while a player.

Vote the man in, already. If there is no solid evidence against him, I don't think there is a question. Tom Glavine described him as a first ballot hall of famer, and I won't argue with that. 

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