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Inside the career that earned Mike Piazza a spot in Cooperstown

As Mike Piazza heads to Cooperstown, a close look at the star catcher’s Hall of Fame career and that case that earned him enshrinement.

The following piece originated as part of my annual JAWS series evaluating the Hall of Fame candidates for SI.com. It was initially expanded for inclusion in my forthcoming book, The Cooperstown Casebook, due in 2017 from Thomas Dunne Books. With Piazza’s election to the Hall of Fame on the 2016 ballot, I chose to cut it due to space considerations, and to re-adapt it for publication here in celebration of Piazza’s induction.

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‘‘Mike hits it harder than I did when I was 16 … I guarantee you, this kid will hit the ball. I never saw anybody who looked better at his age.’ Ted Williams⁠

Ted Williams could see it in 1984. The Splendid Splinter was a friend of a friend of Vince Piazza, a Philadelphia-area used car dealer who five years earlier had built a makeshift batting cage for his son Mike in the backyard of their Phoenixville home. At 16 years old, Piazza, who had memorized Williams’ book The Science of Hitting, spent one Saturday afternoon taking swings in the cage while being evaluated by The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived. Williams provided some pointers to the nervous teen, and came away impressed.

Despite that evaluation, Piazza went undrafted out of high school, and he didn’t last long at the University of Miami, going 1 for 9 as a backup first baseman during his freshman year. It took a couple more twists of fate, surrounded by a fair bit of controversy, but from those unlikely beginnings, Mike Piazza developed into a Hall of Famer with a solid claim as the best-hitting catcher of all time—and a better backstop than he was sometimes given credited for.

The Career

Dodgers 1992–1998, Marlins 1998, Mets 1998–2005, Padres 2006, A’s 2007

Player

career

peak

jaws

H

HR

SB

AVG/OBP/SLG

OPS+

Piazza

59.4

43.1

41.2 (5th)

2,127

427

17

.308/.377.545

143

Avg. HOF C

52.4

33.8

43.1

 

 

 

 

 

Piazza was drafted by the Dodgers in the 62nd round in 1988 as a favor to his father, a childhood friend of longtime Los Angeles skipper Tommy Lasorda, godfather to Piazza’s older brother Tommy. At that point, he was playing first base for Miami-Dade Community College, having left the University of Miami after playing sparingly during his freshman season. While he had demonstrated that he could swing the bat, the Dodgers agreed to take him only on the condition—mandated by scouting director Ben Wade—that he learn to catch. At the time he was chosen with the 1,390th pick, only six other teams were still drafting.

After signing for a $15,000 bonus, Piazza struggled to learn his new position. “I was running back to the screen like a Labrador three times a game,”⁠he later said of his time in the low minors. Even so, he was so willing to learn that after his first professional season, he did something unprecedented for a non-Latino player: he requested assignment to Campo Las Palmas, the Dodgers’ baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, where only the instructor spoke English. He spent three months there.

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For all of his troubles picking up the position, Piazza’s bat carried him up the organizational ladder; he hit a combined 52 homers with a .564 slugging percentage at hitter-friendly stops in High A, Double A and Triple A before debuting in the majors on September 1, 1992, a rise that earned him the No. 38 ranking on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list the following spring.

With Mike Scioscia having departed via free agency after the 1992 season, the Dodgers went into 1993 with the 24-year-old Piazza as their starting catcher. He quickly found success, batting .318/.370/.561 with 35 homers, numbers all the more impressive given that Dodger Stadium rated among the game’s top pitchers’ parks (via B-Ref, its three-year park factor in 1993 was 94, meaning that it reduced scoring by 6%). Indeed, he would spend his entire career in comparatively difficult parks for hitters, making his offensive contributions all the more valuable. His two homers on the final day of the season helped the Dodgers not only clinch an 81–81 season (up from 63–99 the year before) but leave the hated Giants stuck on 103 wins, one short of the NL West flag.

Piazza finished his rookie year ranked second in OPS+ (152) as well as fourth in slugging percentage and seventh in batting average. His 7.0 WAR ranked second in the NL among position players behind only Barry Bonds (9.9), and even today, only two rookies since 1975 have outdone that total: Mike Trout (10.8 in 2012) and Ichiro Suzuki (7.7 in 2001). His performance earned him unanimous NL Rookie of the Year honors, the second of five consecutive Dodgers to win the award.

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Piazza approximated or improved upon those numbers the next few years. His .346/.400/.606 with 32 homers in the strike-shortened 1995 season helped the Dodgers return to the playoffs for the first time since 1988; he led the NL in OPS+ (172), ranked second in batting average, third in WAR (6.2), fourth in slugging percentage and sixth in on-base percentage. With pitchers according him additional respect in the form of 21 intentional walks, he hit .336/.422/.563 in 1996 and placed second in the NL MVP voting behind Ken Caminiti, then set across-the-board career bests in 1997 (.362/.431/.638, 185 OPS+, 40 homers, 8.7 WAR). He ranked second in slugging, third in the other slash categories and WAR. For his troubles, he again placed second in the MVP voting, this time behind Larry Walker, whose stats received a considerable lift from Coors Field; while Walker had the higher OPS of the two by 102 points (1.172 to 1.070), his OPS+ was seven points lower.

mike-piazza-essay-dodgers-inline.jpg

By that point, the Dodgers were a team in transition, and owner Peter O’Malley’s search for a buyer for the franchise collided with Piazza’s quest for big dollars. Long story short: in January 1997, agent Dan Lozano was rebuffed in his attempt to get his client a six-year, $60 million deal on the grounds that such a decision should be left to the new owners; Piazza instead signed a two-year, $15 million deal to cover the remainder of his pre-free agency years. After his big 1997, Lozano floated the possibility of the sport’s first $100 million contract—spread over seven years—and gave the team until February 15 to hammer out a long-term deal, without which Piazza would test free agency following the season.

At the time, the Dodgers were in the process of being sold to News Corporation (the parent company of Fox), so the deadline passed without a deal. When Piazza complained about feeling “underappreciated” despite his team-record $8 million salary, fans booed him on Opening Day; soon afterwards, he rejected a six-year, $80 million offer. Such was the desire to run him out of town that Fox television chairman/CEO Chase Carey and team president Bob Graziano went over the head of longtime general manager Fred Claire to engineer a seven-player blockbuster with the Marlins. The deal went down on May 14, and brought back Gary Sheffield and Bobby Bonilla as the key returns, but after just five games in teal, Piazza was flipped to the Mets for a three-player package.

Piazza took to the Big Apple and became the centerpiece of the Mets lineup. After hitting .348/.417/.607 for the remainder of the 1998 season, he signed a seven-year, $91 million deal—the largest in baseball history to that point—in October 1998. His .303/.361/.575 with 40 homers the following year helped the Mets to 97 wins and the NL wild card, their first playoff appearance since 1988, and his .324/.398/.614 with 38 homers in 2000 helped them to their first NL pennant since 1986.

The 1999 season was the first since 1993 in which Piazza failed to lead NL catchers—if not those in both leagues—with at least 400 plate appearances in OPS+, but he was back on top in 2000 (155). During that 2000 season, Sports Illustrated’sTom Verducci wrote:

“Piazza is not a smooth receiver, but his efforts behind the plate, considering his enormous offensive production, recall what Samuel Johnson remarked about a dog’s walking on two legs: The wonder is not that he does it well, but that he does it at all. ‘It’s incredible to think what he would do [offensively] if he weren’t crouching every night,’ says Mets catching instructor John Stearns.⁠”

Though they reached the 2000 World Series and faced the Yankees in a “Subway Series” throwback to the time in the 1940s and ‘50s when New York ruled the baseball world, the Mets lost to the Yankees in a five-game series whose most memorable moment was a bizarre one centered around Piazza and Roger Clemens. After homering off Clemens in three straight regular season games in 1999–2000, Piazza was beaned by the burly hurler on July 8, 2000, causing a concussion that forced him to forgo the All-Star Game. In his first plate appearance of Game 2 of the World Series, Piazza splintered his bat on a foul ball; a jacked-up Clemens fired the broken barrel across Piazza’s path as he ran to first base, leading to an exchange of words, the emptying of benches, and a banner day for Big Apple tabloids.

mets-mike-piazza-roger-clemens-2000-inline.jpg

Inevitably, Piazza’s production began to tail off as he crossed into his thirties. Where he had averaged 5.8 WAR per year from 1993–2000, topping 5.0 in all but two of those years, he would never again deliver so much value. He declined to 4.4 WAR in 2001, then to 3.0 and 2.1 in the next two years; a groin strain, his first major injury, cost him nearly three months in 2003, limiting him to just 68 games. By that point, whispers of moving Piazza to first base grew into talk show decibel-level shouts, and in characteristic fashion, the Mets botched the job when manager Art Howe detailed the team’s plans to the media before approaching him. For all of the sturm und drang, he played just one inning there, that in the second-to-last game of the season.

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The Mets persisted with the plan, but it didn’t take; in 68 games at first in 2004, Piazza was 10 runs below average according to Defensive Runs Saved. While the experiment was abandoned, allowing him to return to catching, a hairline fracture in his left hand cost him time in 2005. He departed the Mets for the Padres after the season, signing a one-year, $2 million deal. Despite playing half his games in Petco Park, he hit .283/.342/.501 with 22 homers, his best numbers since 2003. The Padres turned down his $8 million option for 2007, but Piazza received $8.5 million from the A’s, though a separated shoulder cost him nearly half the season. While teams expressed interest in his services in 2008, he announced his retirement in May.