Mike Piazza was never a Brave. But boy, we saw a lot of him. He spent virtually his entire career in the National League, amassed a season’s worth of at-bats against the Braves, and he just killed us: 155 games, 614 PA, .303/.376/.572, 38 HR, 111 RBI. Of course, that was the typical Mike Piazza season. Of course, Piazza isn’t a typical candidate for a Keltner list — they are usually written for players who are on the bubble because of on-field performance, while he’s a bubble candidate because his candidacy is clouded by PED suspicion.
This is the second Keltner list of the offseason, after Kenny Lofton. Here’s Mac’s standard preamble to Keltner lists: The Keltner List was developed by Bill James as a device to evaluate a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy. In The Politics of Glory James says that it is probably his favorite tool to do that. (You can read about the background in that book, or do a Google search, for further information.) So let’s run it for Mike Piazza…
- Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
Someone must have, because he finished second in the MVP voting in both 1996 and 1997, and third in 2000 behind Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent. He must have been in the discussion somewhere outside of LA and NYC, but with ESPN becoming the national sports channel, who’d know?
- Was he the best player on his team?
Yes, for his Dodger years. (You can quibble about Nomo.) Mike was traded twice in that bizarre 1998 season, but wound up on a Mets team that was ready to play deep into October. The ever-useful WAR statistic shows that Edgardo Alfonso and John Olerud on those teams were as valuable or more, but best is subjective. I know who sold more jerseys. After that, Mike had good years until 2003, and then behind guys like Floyd and Cameron, they became IWOTM.
- Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
Possibly no! Ivan Rodriguez of the American League could be argued as a better ballplayer. I hope someone with sharper skills than mine someday does a comparison, but ultimately it boils down to who’s greater Willie or Mickey? And the answer is always both.
In the National League, where Mike won every Silver Slugger for a decade and most of the All-Star starts (give or take a Javy Lopez), he was the catcher.
- Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
In 1993, when he was Rookie of the Year, he hit 2 homers in the last game of the season to knock the Giants out of the playoffs. The Dodgers led the West when the game stopped in 1994. He led LA to NLDS appearances in ’96-’97 and who can forget his expression when Andruw drew the walk to beat him in the ’99 NLCS.
Piazza had a great run in 2000, blasting 7 hits and 2 HRs in the NLCS, then 6 hits and 2 HRs in the Series, but they lost anyway. We remember how his homer caused Joe Torre to yank Denny Neagle before he could complete 5 innings to qualify for a WS win, but everybody else remembers some chump tossing the a broken bat at him in a later game.
(And does anybody remember Clemens giving up 6 runs in the first inning of an All-Star game with Mike catching?) (COUGH—fastball in-COUGH, COUGH)
- Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
Yes, but after ten years he became just ordinary. Or read that as ten years as a starting major league catcher he became ordinary.
Except, in 2006, Mike and Mike Cameron dusted the Mets off of them, and then lead Brian Giles and the rest of the Padres to a Western Division crown. He had a helluva summer. Mike was ordinary again in 2007 and nobody offered a contract in 2008, so he retired.
- Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
Not at all. Among eligible or soon to be eligible players, Bonds and the Rocket stand out. You could make a case for a few others, but you’d have to make it a good one.
- Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?
His top six comps in Similarity Scores all have two things in common: They are all in the Hall of Fame and they are all catchers. Check this out:
Across 16 seasons, he had a lifetime .308 batting average, 1048 runs scored, 2,127 hits, 427 home runs, 1335 RBI, 759 walks, 3,768 total bases and a career .922 OPS.
All of those rankings are in the top 10, if not the top among all catchers. On the night they honored Piazza for having the most home runs by a catcher, Bench, Fisk, Carter, and Berra all were in attendance. It meant something to them.
- Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
- Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
Piazza couldn’t throw anybody out, but the stats clearly show that. However, Tom Glavine is on record saying Piazza called a good game and did a good job behind the plate. He called two no-hitters, including one with Hideo Nomo in Coors Field.
- Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in? Yes.
- How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
Piazza finished second in 1996 to Ken Caminiti and might’ve had a gripe, but Larry Walker had the best year in 1997. Mike finished third in 2003 and finished in the top ten in four other years. He has 3.16 career MVP shares, which is 30th of all time, and he is one of only two people in the top 30 who never actually won an MVP. The other one is Hall of Famer Eddie Murray.
- How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?
He was selected for 12, started 10 of them, and probably deserved all of them.
- If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant? Yes.
- What impact did the player have on baseball history? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
There’s that homer on September 20, 2001 in the 8th inning to beat the Braves 3-2. I still don’t like it, but I can’t forget it.
It seemed like the cameras couldn’t get enough of Piazza before that first televised professional sport event after 9/11. When the bum hit that home run, it was like 45,000 people had heard Oprah announce “a few of her favorite things.” That will always be my standard for a crowd going nuts.
Does a winning a single ball game matter over all of baseball history? If you ever spent time around that wretched ballpark, you know how planes would fly over what seemed like every few minutes. Several sportswriters reported that on that first night back they looked up every time a plane flew over. On the next night, they didn’t. I find that very interesting.
Still wish he hadn’t hit it.
- Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
I’m glad that Piazza’s in the eligible class of 2013, because this year we might find out if his admitted steroid use hurt his chances. I’ve suspected it kayoed McGwire and Palmeiro, and thought ugly rumors might be holding Bagwell back. But no one will come out and say if that’s the problem.
We can’t even use Bonds or Clemens as clear indicators, because a sportswriter could fall back on the litigation those two faced as excuses to hold off voting for them. They’ve used dumber excuses.
Some baseball writers, Bob Nightengale, for one, say it doesn’t matter to them or to the game. Tom Boswell pretty much fingered Rickey Henderson as being a current HOF Member to have used PEDs during the “Tenth Inning” segment to Ken Burns’s documentary. The voting this year might give us some indication.
Conclusion: Mike Piazza was the best catcher in the National League for over 10 years and was arguably the best hitting catcher ever. Even if he wears a Mets hat when he goes in, he’s got my vote.