In one of the great twists of fate in sports history, Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza both played their last major league games in 2007, and thus both become eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame in the election whose results will be announced tomorrow.
Does Clemens belong in the Hall of Fame? It all boils down to one thing: The steroids issue. If you believe that he used performance-enhancing drugs, then you have to decide whether that's a dealbreaker. If it is, then he's out. If it's not, then you should make the same judgement as someone who believes Clemens is, as a federal court ruled this past June, "Not Guilty": That he does have the statistics and the achievements that would qualify him for election if he were innocent -- which, of course, is not necessarily what a Not Guilty verdict means, but, in the eyes of the law, is.
What about Piazza? There have been rumors, whispers really, that he used. It would explain why he, rather than Clemens, is the one who lost his cool during that broken-bat incident during the 2000 World Series. (And let me say this again: Clemens did NOT throw the bat AT Piazza. As Piazza can tell you better than anyone, if Roger Clemens wants to throw something at someone and hit him with it, that person WILL get hit with it.)
For now, though, we have, as far as is publicly known, as much admissible evidence against Piazza as we have against Clemens: None.
So let us judge Mike Piazza and his qualifications for the Baseball Hall of Fame on the usual: His achievements, statistical and otherwise; and our perceptions of his character.
Michael Joseph Piazza was born on September 4, 1968, in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown, Pennsylvania. He was the son of Vince Piazza, a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and a friend of longtime Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. He graduated from nearby Phoenixville Area High School, which also produced MLB players Andre Thornton and Creighton Gubanich, NFL players Rich Kraynak and Neal Olkewicz, and ESPN's Kevin Negandhi. He was taken by the Dodgers as the last pick of the 1988 MLB Draft, in the 62nd Round, as a favor to Vince.
He reached the major leagues with the Dodgers on September 1, 1992, and was traded to the Florida Marlins on May 14, 1998. After just 5 games in Marlin Teal, on May 22, 1998, the Marlins traded him to the Mets for Preston Wilson (Mookie's son), Ed Yarnall and a minor leaguer who never made it, Geoff Goetz. He remained with the Mets until his contract ran out in 2005, played 2006 with the San Diego Padres, and 2007 with the Oakland Athletics, and then retired.
Let's start with the most obvious thing you notice about any nonpitcher in baseball: His hitting. Piazza has been called "the greatest hitting catcher ever." From his first full season in 1993 (starting at age 24) to his last in 2006 (finishing just after his 38th birthday), he was one of the most productive hitters in baseball. Of those 14 seasons, 8 were of the kind you would expect from a Hall-of-Famer; 5 others were what would be considered down years for such a player but good for almost anyone else; and 1 (2003) was shortened due to injury but still decent.
His lifetime batting average is .308. For a while, he was over .315, and had the highest batting average of any active player with enough at-bats to qualify. He batted .300 or better 10 times, all in a row; 7 times at least .318; 5 times at least .324; and peaked at .346 in 1995. He did not, however, ever win a batting title.
He hit 427 home runs. Among players of his generation, that doesn't sound like much, but a lot of those players have been accused of using steroids. He hit 396 of them at the position of catcher, which is far and away the record. Someone once remarked that, for a catcher, because of the wear and tear on them, 300 homers is like 500 for an outfielder or a corner infielder. Of players whose primary position was catcher, the only others to reach 300 (and that doesn't mean they hit all of those at the position) are Johnny Bench (389), Carlton Fisk (376), Yogi Berra (358), Gary Carter (324), Lance Parrish (also 324) and Ivan Rodriguez (311).
He hit at least 20 homers in a season 12 times, 30 9 times, 40 twice (peaking at 40 in 1997 and 1999). He had 6 seasons of at least 100 RBIs (peaking at 124, doing it in both of his 40-homer seasons). He only had 200 hits once, in 1997. His career on-base percentage is .377, slugging .545, OPS .922, OPS+ 143 -- meaning he was 43 percent better at hitting than the average player in his time.
Does all that mean he was the best hitting catcher ever? I'd say he was a better hitter than Fisk and Carter, but was he an appreciably better hitter than Bench? Or Berra? Or, to bring up catchers who were heavy hitters but didn't reach 300 home runs, Mickey Cochrane, or Ernie Lombardi, or Gabby Hartnett, or Roy Campanella, or Ted Simmons?
When you use words like "better," "best," "great," "awesome," you're using words that are subjective, and are therefore opinions, not facts. But you'd better be ready to back your opinions up with some facts. But here's a pair of very pertinent facts. When deciding whether a player is worthy of the Hall of Fame, in any sport, fans tend to compare him to other players of the same position who are already in the Hall -- and, except for Simmons, Parrish, and the not-yet-eligible Rodriguez, all of those are in already in. The other pertinent fact is that we are making the comparison. Piazza, at the very least, is up there with them.
Let's be clear: 427 home runs is a lot, for any position. But it doesn't automatically make people think, "This guy should be in the Hall of Fame," the way 500 did before the Steroid Era. He got 2,127 hits, which is very good but well below the magic number of 3,000. He had his last great season at age 34, and his last good season at 38, before retiring shortly after turning 39. So while he did decline, he retired before it got sharp.
Does his baserunning help his case? No, he only stole 17 bases in his entire career, and was actually caught stealing more times, 20. But neither does this wipe out any of his hitting credentials.
Now to confront the elephant in the room. Except for the last season of his career, Piazza spent his entire career in the National League. Which is too bad, because he was a born designated hitter. I don't know who decided he should be behind the plate, or why, but whoever that was, he blew it. Mike Piazza may have been the worst catcher of his generation.
If elected, he would have the worst caught-stealing percent of any Hall-of-Famer, just 23 percent. Fisk currently has the lowest, at 34 percent. That's over an entire 22-year career. Carter also had 35 percent, although he at least led the NL 3 times. Piazza never topped 35 percent for a season. His arm was terrible, making fellow New York catcher Jorge Posada look like Bench. He also allowed 102 passed balls in his career, although that's hardly definitive: Jim Sundberg was universally regarded as a great defensive catcher, and he had 130. And only once did Piazza ever help his pitching staffs win a Pennant, which suggests that, despite having handled several good pitchers, he couldn't call a game.
As for individual achievements, he was named to 12 All-Star teams. But never led the league in any of the big offensive categories. He was nearly always among the league leaders, but was never the league leader. This is what Baseball-Reference.com refers to as the ink argument: Leading the league is "Black Ink," being in the Top 10 is "Gray Ink." Piazza had a lot of Gray Ink, but no Black Ink.
He was National League Rookie of the Year in 1992. In 7 seasons, he finished in the top 10 in NL Most Valuable Player voting, was runner-up in 1996 and '97, and 3rd in 2000. But he never won it. And, as you might guess, he never won a Gold Glove.
Team achievements are sketchy. He appeared in the postseason with the Dodgers in 1995 and '96 (and they were leading the NL Western Division when the Strike of '94 hit), with the Mets in 1999 and 2000, and with the Padres in 2006. But only with the 2000 Mets did he appear in a World Series. The 1998 Mets had a meltdown that gets forgotten after 2007 and '08: They needed to win just 1 of their last 5 games to at least clinch a berth in a Wild-Card play-in game, and lost them all.
His postseason batting average was .242. That includes the 2000 NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals, when he went 7-for-17, and the 200 World Series against the Yankees, when he went 6-for-22. In each case, he hit 2 homers and had 4 RBIs. So he did step up there. Other than that, he was weak in postseason play. Even counting those 2 series, his OBP was .301. He appeared in 8 series, and his teams were just 3-5 in them.
The Hall of Fame also considers character. There were a couple of minor embarrassments in his playing career, but the majors, including the Mets, have seen much worse. There was the time he became the first major league athlete in North America to call a press conference to announce that he was not gay, and he married a Playboy Playmate, Alicia Rickter, which led some people to suggest that he was overcompensating. Nevertheless, they are still together, and have 2 daughters.
He has never been in a genuine sex scandal. As far as I know, he has never been arrested. He was good to fans in public, and if he has been bad to them in private, it's been kept quiet. He's shown himself to have a good sense of humor, and the media has treated him the way he's treated them: Very well.
Put it all together, and, unless serious evidence comes forward that he used steroids, I think we have to conclude that Mike Piazza is worthy of election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Even if he is a Dodger and a Met.
Whether he will get in, though, remains speculative. Tomorrow, the results of the first election for which he is eligible will be announced. He may not get in the first time, and that may not have anything to do with steroid questions, as lots of players have to wait a while.
I hope he won't be punished for speculation.
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