This weekend the town of Cooperstown, New York will be filled to the brim with tourists, journalists, and ballplayers. It's the one hazy day of summer where it's nearly impossible to get a hotel room at a decent rate or get a 7:30 reservation at your favorite restaurant. Yes, Hall of Fame weekend is descending upon the usually-sleepy rural community, as it does every July. This year, two sluggers will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza add their name to the hallowed wood-paneled halls.
Yesterday my BtBS colleague Luis Torres wrote a piece about the strange career arc of Griffey, and how his numbers are not all that dissimilar from another center fielder who likely will only get into the Hall of Fame by purchasing a ticket.
Mike Piazza, on the other hand, is one of the least-likely people to be inducted into the Hall considering his (lack of) pedigree and status entering his draft and fielding position. In the history of the game, only 14 catchers have been inducted into the Hall; only third base has fewer inductees with 13. Of the 14 backstops inducted, several were voted in as managers, though in their playing days they did catch. Rick Ferrell for example put up fewer Wins Above Replacement (per Baseball Reference) than Mike Napoli, Brian McCann and Javy Lopez. Wilbert Robinson's career bWAR is below Todd Hundley and Dan Wilson ----- even Connie Mack was technically a catcher, though that's not what earned him a seat in Cooperstown. These players are not ‘Hall of Fame catchers' so much as they are ‘catchers who are in the Hall of Fame'. It's subtle, but it's different. Carl Triano discussed Piazza in comparison to his fellow HoF-worthy catchers here.
Additionally, only four catchers have been voted in over the past 50 years. Piazza's enshrinement is truly historic on the premise of positional numbers alone ----- Hall of Fame-worthy catchers don't come along very often!
What makes Piazza unique is two-fold in both how he performed on the field, and how he got on the field in the first place. Perhaps we can take a step back and move through the timeline chronologically. Piazza has a familial relationship with legendary Dodger Tommy Lasorda, who drafted him as a favor to Piazza's father. At the time, Piazza was a little-scouted first baseman at Miami-Dade Community College. Los Angeles drafted him in the 62nd round of the draft, and 1,389 players were picked before him. There were fewer teams back in 1988, but even though the number of teams has grown, MLB teams only draft a total of 1,200 players over the course of 40 rounds. He was drafted so low, and thought so little of, that the round in which he was chosen no longer exists!
At the behest of Lasorda, Piazza moved from first base to behind the dish in order to make him a more valuable commodity. His bat was a serviceable asset, and a heavy-hitting catcher looked a lot more valuable than a power-hitting first baseman (some things never change).
Piazza made his debut against the Chicago Cubs as a September call-up in 1992. He got his feet wet in 21 games that fall, but took over the latter-half of the Dodgers battery in 1993.
At the age of 24, Piazza dazzled in his full rookie season. He served as the Dodgers starting catcher in 141 games and caught over 1200 innings that season. He was not a stellar catcher but he was slightly above league average and posted a positive total zone fielding average. Where he really made his mark though, was at the plate.
Piazza hit .318/.370/.561 and crushed 35 home runs that season en route to winning the National League Rookie of the Year award. He made the All Star team that year, the first of six consecutive mid-summer classics, and received MVP votes in all six of those years as well, finishing runner-up in both 1996 and 1997.
He led the league in hitting (by OPS+) in 1995 and 1997 and remained the starting catcher in LA until his departure in 1998. After a brief stint with the Marlins, he found himself on an up-and-coming Mets team, and helped lead them to a National League Pennant in 2000.
Piazza is far-and-away the best hitting catcher the modern game has ever seen, especially when compared to his Hall of Fame brethren. He finished his career with a 142 OPS+ and leaves all other catchers, both in the Hall and out, in the dust as far as home runs. His 427 dingers is nearly 40 more than Johnny Bench (who played a full season more than Piazza) and 50 more than Carlton Fisk (who played 500 more games!).
The career of Mike Piazza will be celebrated this weekend and it is worth looking at his achievements in the context of a guy who may not have ever gotten the chance to prove himself, save for a favor from a family friend. Sometimes you just never know.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano