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Mets Hall of Fame case: Mike Piazza

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Piazza would get in on numbers alone, but a cloud of suspicion has delayed his ascendance to Cooperstown.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This month, we’ll be looking at a series of Mets players and their cases for and against induction into the Hall of Fame. Some have better cases than others. Some have already been voted off the ballot and stand little chance of ever reaching the promised land of Cooperstown. Still, every player we feature deserves at least some Hall of Fame consideration, and by reflecting on their careers, it can help us to remember how great they truly were.

To make this list, the player needed to have a reasonably long tenure with the Mets. We’ll put the number at three years. Sorry, Gary Sheffield.

The first player we profile is in some ways the biggest Hall of Fame no-brainer—and in others the most controversial candidate on our list. After being traded to the Mets in May of 1998, Mike Piazza immediately became the face of the franchise. During his five-year peak with the Mets, which lasted from 1998 to 2002, and including the 42 games he played for the Dodgers and Marlins in 1998, the catcher hit an outstanding .308/.378/.575 (143 wRC+), and averaged 36 home runs, 108 RBIs, 86 runs scored, 28 doubles, and 5.0 fWAR per season.

Piazza was the anchor of a Mets team that made back-to-back playoff runs in 1999 and 2000. In 2000, he led the Mets to their first National League pennant in fourteen years and their first ever appearance in a Subway Series. In his eight seasons as a Met, Piazza made seven All-Star Teams, won five Silver Sluggers, and had two top-10 finishes in MVP voting. He ranks among the greatest Mets of all time in nearly every offensive category, including third in home runs (220) and RBIs (655), eighth in hits (1,028) and doubles (193), and tenth in WAR (27.0) and runs scored (532). Among qualified Mets, he ranks first in slugging percentage (.542), third in wRC+ (134), fifth in on-base percentage (.373), and sixth in batting average (.296).

The case for

Piazza is generally (and correctly) regarded as the greatest hitting catcher of all time. Among players whose primary position was catcher, Piazza has the most home runs (427), the fourth-most RBIs (1335), the sixth-most WAR (62.5), the eighth-most hits (2,127), the 11th-most runs scored (1,048), and the 14th-most doubles (344). Among qualified catchers, his .545 slugging percentage is by far the highest of all time—a full 45 points higher, in fact, than second-place finisher Roy Campanella’s. Piazza’s .308 batting average is tenth best among qualified catchers, while his .377 on-base percentage ranks 12th. Finally, by perhaps the best catchall offensive stat, Piazza ranks second with a 140 wRC+, only a point behind Buster Posey’s mark of 141.

Piazza was rewarded for his outstanding play with a mantle full of hardware. The catcher won 10 consecutive Silver Slugger Awards from 1993 to 2002, which is the most of any player at his position, and the most consecutive wins of any player at any position. That’s a pretty good indicator of how thoroughly he dominated his position for an entire decade from an offensive standpoint. Piazza also won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1993, made 12 All-Star Teams, and amassed seven top-10 finishes in MVP voting.

Piazza’s best year was in 1997, when he posted a ridiculous .362/.431/.638 batting line (183 wRC+), with 40 home runs, 124 RBIs, 104 runs scored, and 9.1 fWAR—all career highs—with the Dodgers. That year, he also hit a ball out of Dodger Stadium, which you can watch below. Piazza’s incredible 1997 season came in the middle of that spectacular 10-year run from 1993 to 2002 (the peak of his career) in which he hit .322/.389/.579 (152 wRC+), and averaged 35 home runs, 107 RBIs, 85 runs scored, 25 doubles, and 5.8 fWAR per season. During that time, Piazza led his league in wRC+ twice—both in 1995 and 1997—indicating that, not only was he the best hitting catcher, but also the best hitter in the entire league for a couple of years.

In addition to being one of the best catchers of his time, Piazza compares very favorably to those already in the Hall of Fame. According to JAWS—Jay Jaffe’s system for evaluating Hall of Fame candidates, which averages a player’s career WAR with the WAR of his seven-season peak—Piazza is the fifth-best all-around catcher in history, behind only Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez, and Carlton Fisk. Piazza is ahead of 10 of the 13 catchers in the Hall, including Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, and Gabby Hartnett. Furthermore, Piazza’s 51.2 JAWS is far higher than the average Hall of Fame catcher’s score of 43.1.

While JAWS measures strictly regular-season statistics, Hall of Fame voters tend to reward players for certain signature moments or playoff heroics. Piazza had a number of those in his career. Perhaps his most memorable homer was the one he hit on September 21, 2001, in the Mets’ first game following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Piazza’s towering home run off the Braves’ Steve Karsay gave the Mets a lead that they would hold, and a moment that helped New York City heal in a time of tragedy.

None of his other home runs carried such emotional or even historical significance. Still, a few others were memorable in their own right. For example, Piazza’s go-ahead eighth-inning home run against the Braves on June 30, 2000, capped off a 10-run inning that started with the Mets trailing, 8-1. It was a home run that will live forever in Mets lore. What made it even more special was that, like his post-9/11 homer, it came against the Braves, who were the Mets’ heated division rivals at the time.

Indeed, Piazza acquired a knack for getting big hits in big spots against rival teams. In addition to his heroics against the Braves, the catcher absolutely assaulted the crosstown rival Yankees. Among his memorable home runs against the Bombers was a go-ahead 482-foot three-run bomb off Ramiro Mendoza at Shea; a two-run shot to the give the Mets the lead in the eighth inning after being down 7-2 at the start of the frame; and a number of big flies off Piazza’s personal rival, Roger Clemens:

Although he didn’t enjoy a great deal of success in his five postseason appearances, Piazza did come up big for the Mets during their 2000 World Series run: The catcher went 7-for-17 with two home runs, four RBIs, seven runs scored, three doubles, and five walks against the Cardinals in the NLCS, and followed that up with six hits in 22 at-bats, with two home runs, four RBIs, three runs scored, and two doubles against the Yankees in the Subway Series.

In terms of on-field performance, the only knock against Piazza is on his defense. Piazza had a notoriously weak arm, throwing out 23% of would-be base stealers, compared to the league-wide average of 31%. However, there are two things to keep in mind: First, JAWS takes defense into account, and still rates Piazza as a top-five catcher of all time. That means that his offensive production was so outstanding that it easily made up for his weak defensive metrics.

Second, traditional defensive metrics do not account for the many important aspects of a catcher’s game in which Piazza excelled. For example, a pair of Baseball Prospectus articles contends that Piazza was among the best catchers of all time at blocking and framing pitches. A Bill James Online article praises Piazza’s pitch calling, and cites a number of interesting stats to support his point:

"In his career behind the plate, pitchers had a 3.80 ERA when Piazza was catching. If you look at all the other catchers who caught the same pitchers in the same year that Piazza did, they allowed a 4.34 ERA. That’s a major difference, much more important than a few extra bases stolen. (In fact, Piazza’s catcher ERA of 3.81 includes the run value of any extra stolen bases he allowed.)

"Craig Wright wrote an excellent article in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2009 called Piazza, Hall of Fame Catcher. He did a detailed sabermetric study that showed that hitters had a .723 OPS with Piazza behind the plate and a .748 OPS with other catchers. This 25-point differential is highly significant. In further studies that we did in The Fielding Bible—Volume II, we found that Piazza saved at least 20 to 70 runs more than an average catcher defensively, depending on the technique that we used."

One of the great things about sabermetrics is that it’s helped cast a light on certain aspects of the game that were previously hard to measure. As a result, we can use new information to challenge and debunk sometimes-false narratives that have taken hold about certain players. For example, since his playing days, Mike Piazza has generally been considered to be a poor defensive catcher. However, more recent evidence paints a very different picture. As Craig Wright put it in his Hardball Times piece, "Mike Piazza was not a defensive liability who made up for it with his bat. The greatest offensive catcher in the history of Major League Baseball was a good defensive catcher as well."

The case against

The only plausible case against Piazza centers on the suspicion that he used performance-enhancing drugs. Although there is no evidence of that, some sports writers have pointed to a few facts that they find concerning.

The whisper campaign usually starts with Piazza being a 62nd-round draft pick whom the Dodgers chose 1,390th overall as a favor to Tommy Lasorda, a close family friend of the Piazzas. Typically, players that lowly regarded in the draft don’t turn out to be among the greatest of all time, as Piazza was.

Some reporters raise circumstantial evidence of steroid use, such as Piazza’s back acne, which is a common side effect of some steroids. The New York Times’s Murray Chass once devoted an entire column to Piazza’s back, describing the catcher’s inordinate amount of back acne and how, once MLB started testing for PEDs, "[Piazza]’s back cleared up. Completely."

Another piece of circumstantial evidence is the injury Piazza suffered in 2003. At the time, the New York Times described Piazza’s torn right groin injury as "unusual for a baseball player and more common for athletes who player soccer and hockey." This drew some writers’ attention. The Daily News’s Bill Madden, for example, described it as "the kind of [injury] often related to steroids," while MLB.com’s Marty Noble called it "a classic steroid injury," according to a doctor he spoke with. Of course, it’s impossible to know whether the injury was the result of PED use, or simply of the natural wear and tear on a 34-year-old major league catcher.

The anecdotes that carry the most weight—while still totally unproven and mostly unsourced—are those of Piazza’s fellow players. Madden, for example, writes that "a number of players" told him that Piazza used steroids. Or, consider this passage from Jeff Pearlman’s book, The Rocket That Fell to Earth:

"As the hundreds of major league ballplayers who turned to performance-enhancing drugs throughout the 1990s did their absolute best to keep the media at arm's length, Piazza took the opposite approach. According to several sources, when the subject of performance enhancing was broached with reporters he especially trusted, Piazza fessed up. ‘Sure, I use,’ he told one. ‘But in limited doses, and not all that often.’ (Piazza has denied using performance-enhancing drugs, but there has always been speculation.) Whether or not it was Piazza's intent, the tactic was brilliant: By letting the media know, off the record, Piazza made the information that much harder to report. Writers saw his bulging muscles, his acne-covered back. They certainly heard the under-the-breath comments from other major league players, some who considered Piazza's success to be 100 percent chemically delivered. ‘He's a guy who did it, and everybody knows it,’ says Reggie Jefferson, the longtime major league first baseman. ‘It's amazing how all these names, like Roger Clemens, are brought up, yet Mike Piazza goes untouched.’

"‘There was nothing more obvious than Mike on steroids,’ says another major league veteran who played against Piazza for years. ‘Everyone talked about it, everyone knew it. Guys on my team, guys on the Mets. A lot of us came up playing against Mike, so we knew what he looked like back in the day. Frankly, he sucked on the field. Just sucked. After his body changed, he was entirely different. "Power from nowhere," we called it.’

"When asked, on a scale of 1 to 10, to grade the odds that Piazza had used performance enhancers, the player doesn't pause.

"‘A 12,’ he says. ‘Maybe a 13.’"

Whether or not you believe any of these anecdotes depends on the extent to which you trust the sources—named and unnamed—in pieces like this. What seems clear is that, for whatever it’s worth, there were at least a handful of Piazza’s contemporaries who believed that he used steroids.

The one controversial substance that Piazza admits to having used is androstenedione. "Andro," as it’s commonly known, was the supplement found in Mark McGwire’s locker in 1998. Piazza said that he briefly used andro as part of a Monster Pak that he bought over the counter, but that he stopped using it shortly thereafter. While MLB followed the FDA’s lead in banning andro in 2004, it was a perfectly legal substance when Piazza used it in the mid-’90s. Still, Piazza’s use of andro fuels his critics with evidence that, however briefly, the catcher did use what is today considered a performance-enhancing drug.

Perhaps the biggest issue for Piazza is the "cloud of suspicion" that the Steroid Era has created around players like him. Like Jeff Bagwell, Piazza was an unexpected superstar with a big, burly frame, who played at a time in which steroid use was rampant. As a result, both players have been dogged by rumors that, though still unsubstantiated, have made their path to Cooperstown a little bit longer than anticipated.

Prospects for induction

Piazza seems to be headed for Cooperstown within the next year or two. He debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2013, when he garnered the support of 57.8% of voters. (The threshold for induction is 75.0%.) Since then, he has gone up by healthy margins each year, up to 62.2% in 2014 and 69.9% in 2015.

Piazza was the highest vote getter last year not to be inducted on a crowded ballot that included four Hall of Famers. The field is much thinner this year, as Ken Griffey Jr. is the only surefire Hall of Famer appearing on the ballot for the first time. Given the less-crowded field and his steadily increasing support, Piazza’s Hall of Fame induction appears to be imminent.