Mike Piazza has been my favorite player from the moment he put on a Mets uniform for the first time on May 23rd, 1998. This Sunday he joins Ken Griffey Jr. in being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. There is great satisfaction in knowing the player you followed and the one you looked up to will be immortalized in Cooperstown as one of the greatest players ever to play the game.
Piazza is the all-time leader in home runs as a catcher with 427, but how does he stack up overall against his fellow Hall of Fame catchers? Let’s take a look at Piazza and the 13 other Hall of Fame catchers to play in the Major Leagues.
|Player||Team||Year of Induction||Home Runs||wRC+ ||Passed Balls per 1,000 Inn. ||CS% ||fWAR|
|Rick Ferrell||Red Sox||1984||28||98
|Carlton Fisk||White Sox||2000||376||117||7.0
|Ray Schalk||White Sox||1955||11||88
The general consensus regarding catchers in the history of baseball is that the greatest offensive one is Mike Piazza, but the best overall catcher ever to wear the equipment is Johnny Bench. If we look at just fWAR, Johnny Bench has the best career, valued at 74.8 – the next closest is Gary Carter at 69.4. Piazza totaled 63.7 career fWAR, tied for fourth among Hall of Fame catchers with Yogi Berra.
There is one category in particular in which Mike Piazza leads his fellow HoF catching counterparts; it is quite profound. That metric is wRC+, a context neutral statistic measuring overall offensive value at the plate, which is important when dealing with players from different eras like we are here.
Piazza had a career wRC+ of 140, which is amazing considering the next closest catcher is Mickey Cochrane at 132. Piazza’s 140 career wRC+ has him above fellow Hall of Famers Duke Snider and Reggie Jackson (career 139 wRC+).
Unfortunately one portion of the game we cannot value very accurately in this analysis is defense. Over the last few years there have been great strides in analyzing pitch framing, among other aspects of catching. That's obviously not possible for anyone pre-PITCHf/x, but there are other ways to evaluate catcher defense. One way is caught stealing percentage.
CS% does have its flaws. For example, if a catcher has gained a reputation for being great defensively, then baserunners will not run on him as much due to his strong arm. It's a bit like outfield assists - it's pretty hard to get outfield assists if no one is challenging your arm. There's definite value in preventing runners from stealing in the first place. Comparing catchers' rates of how often a basestealer attempted to steal in a base-stealing situation can help approximate some measure of reputation.
Roy Campanella has the highest percentage among HoF catchers, though a portion of that may be attributed to his short career due to the unfortunate accident that left him paralyzed. I was surprised not to see Bench further up the CS% leaderboard, but this may be a testament to how great his defense was that baserunners did not run on him as much as they would on the average catcher. Runners took off to steal a base in about 4.8 percent of their opportunities against Bench; runners attempted a steal in 8.8 percent of base-stealing situations against Piazza. Campanella, the leader in CS% here, saw only 2.7 percent of runners take off when they had the opportunity. Even Carlton Fisk, the next-lowest in CS% on this list, saw only about 6.8 percent of runners attempt a steal when they had the opportunity. So Bench was good but not the best. Piazza was ... not the best either.
Regarding Piazza, he will go in the Hall of Fame with the lowest CS% of his fellow catchers, adding credence to the argument that he lacked in throwing out baserunners. The league average during his career was 31 percent, leaving him well below the league average during his career. However, former teammates have spoken out in defense of Piazza behind the plate regarding how well he called a game and handled a pitching staff. That's something that still can't really be quantified today.
Another way to value a catcher behind the plate is through their blocking - or their amount of passed balls. In order to keep these catchers on an even playing field, I normalized their passed balls to a per 1,000 innings metric, which is roughly a normal workload (or a bit under) in a season for a catcher. The best in terms of this metric is Gary Carter with 4.8, and Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey are not far behind with 5.3. Buck Ewing is quite the outlier - a part of that is his versatility around the diamond, playing fewer than half his career innings behind the plate. Not a lot of his time was dedicated to catching.
As for Mike Piazza, he had 7.5 passed balls per 1,000 innings, ninth among Hall of Fame catchers but not terribly far from the pack.
The most impressive aspect of Piazza’s offensive stats is the ability to post these numbers as a catcher, the most physically and mentally demanding position on the diamond. There were many nights from Los Angeles to Florida (yes, the infamous Piazza to Marlins reminder) to New York to San Diego and lastly to Oakland where Piazza took foul balls off the mask or hand and blocked the plate and was ran over, but he still had the determination to provide the type of offense to carry a Major League team.
After Sunday Piazza officially joins the immortal Baseball Hall of Fame, and he will go down, in my opinion, as the second greatest catcher of all time behind Johnny Bench. Along the way he has left many great memories including these:
A personal favorite: June 30, 2000
September 21, 2001
Congratulations to Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr. on their induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame and thank you for the honor to watch both of you play and all the memories you provided for me and many others along the way!