Piazza’s Hall of Fame credentials astounding

December 14, 2012

There is occasional conflict in baseball between the cold, precise readings of statistics and sabermetrics, and the more romanticized, nostalgic judgment of players from eras past and present.

Mike Piazza, one of the greatest hitting catchers of all time, grades exceptionally well under both observations and should have been the first first-ballot Hall of Famer since Rickey Henderson in 2009. Piazza, however, earned just 57.8 percent of the vote.

On behalf of the reflective accounts of Piazza’s dominance as a hitter, godfather Tommy Lasorda recalled the catcher’s pure strength in a conversation with FOXSportsWest.com.

“I had a pair of hand grippers of his and I said to (former Dodger coach) Mark Cresse, I said, ‘Close these things.’ Mark Cresse said, ‘You kidding me, man? These things are locked.’ I again went to [Darryl] Strawberry. ‘Try it.’ He said, ‘Come on, they’re locked.’ I handed ‘em to Mike, he went like this,”  Lasorda said, simulating the easy closure of the most memorable handheld workout device in Dodger history.

“Let me just tell you this, when he walked into the batting cage, and you had your back to the batting cage, you knew it was him by the sound of the ball coming off his bat," Lasorda said."It was something like I’d never heard, you know? Pow! Pow! And you knew he was in the cage.

"That’s how strong he was.”

By the numbers, any measurement of Piazza’s career is the statistical equivalent of Lasorda’s fond recollections. And though he appeared in more games as a New York Met and is almost certain to wear a Mets cap on his Hall of Fame plaque should he get eventually get elected, the catcher enjoyed his greatest personal success as a Dodger whom drafted the catcher in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft. From his debut in 1992 to his trade in 1998, Piazza appeared in 726 games with the Boys in Blue, with 177 HR, 563 RBI and a .331 batting average. He was named the 1993 Rookie of the Year, made five All-Star appearances and earned five Silver Slugger awards while finishing in the top-five in MVP voting three times.

That Piazza did not win a National League MVP in his two years prior to being traded is as surprising as the fact that the Dodgers, who have traditionally maintained an upper-echelon pitching staff and developed five straight Rookies of the Year, won exactly zero playoff games in the 1990s.

In 1996, when Piazza hit .336 with 36 home runs and 105 RBI, San Diego Padres third baseman Ken Caminiti justly won the MVP award with numbers that were superior almost across the board. The late Caminiti, who hit 40 home runs in 1996 and drove in 130 runs, later admitted to having used steroids that year.

Along with Todd Zeile (31), Eric Karros (31) and Raul Mondesi (30), Piazza (40) was part of a memorable Dodger lineup in 1997 that is one of only 12 teams all-time – and one of only eight teams away from offensively-inflated Coors Field – that contained four different 30-home run hitters. His personal-high watermark, Piazza hit .362 with 40 home runs and 124 RBI in a performance unlikely to be replicated by a Major League catcher given the general trend to shift elite hitting prospects away from a demanding position that has a tendency to reduce a player’s shelf life and effectiveness.

His .362 average in 1997 is the best single-season average by any player in Los Angeles Dodgers history, 16 percentage points higher than the second and third highest batting averages – the .346 clip shared by Tommy Davis in 1962 and Piazza again in 1995. His performance that season was one of the most productive seasons (8.5 WAR) by any player in team history, ranking in terms of WAR as the fifth-best Dodgers season ever, behind Adrian Beltre's 2004 season (9.3), Jackie Robinson's 1949 and '51 seasons (9.3) and Duke Snider's 1953 season (9.1).

But, 1997 was a season in which the National League MVP voting supported the player who put up the best statistics, Larry Walker of the Colorado Rockies. Walker’s .366 average, 49 home runs and 130 RBI represented the hallmark season of a player currently outside the Hall of Fame cusp and slotted Piazza in second place in the MVP voting for the second consecutive year. Once again bested by a divisional rival whose statistics surpassed his own in nearly every category, Piazza had to contend with playing in an extreme pitcher’s ballpark as compared to an extreme hitter’s park and starting 139 games as a catcher as opposed to being a right fielder.

But Los Angeles, a team that finished with 88 wins and two tantalizing games back of San Francisco in a memorable pennant race, would have been more negatively affected by Piazza’s removal from the lineup than Walker’s hypothetical removal from Colorado, a team that was 10 games under .500 in July and was not involved in the NL West race. The Rockies rebounded to finish 83-79, good for third place.

Really, a vote for either candidate was completely legitimate. It’s Piazza’s .362 average and 40 home runs in one of sports’ most demanding positions that makes the 1997 MVP award seem like a bit of a snub.

Two months into the following season, during the pinnacle of his Hall of Fame career, he wore Dodger Blue no longer. Piazza was dealt along with Zeile to the Florida Marlins for five players including Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla and catcher Charles Johnson. Though Sheffield hit .312 in three and a half seasons in Los Angeles and hit more home runs with L.A. (129) than any of the seven other teams he played for, history does not favor the Dodgers on May 15, 1998. “You don’t trade a Hall of Fame player” Jim Rome famously argued ad infinitum that day.

Eight days later, Piazza was dealt to the Mets. In eight seasons in New York, Piazza would hit .296 with 220 HRs and 655 RBI in 972 games, 246 more than he played with the Dodgers. He never led the Mets to a divisional title, though he led them to the 2000 World Series and produced one of the greatest moments in New York sports history when he hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning in a 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves on Sept. 21, 2001, the first major sporting event in the city after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He made seven more All-Star appearances and won five more Silver Slugger awards.

After parting with the Mets following the 2005 season, Piazza hung on for two more years playing with the Padres and A's at age 37 and 38, hitting .279 with 30 HRs and 102 RBI in 209 games before hanging them up.

The Hall of Fame ballot featured numerous players linked to the performance enhancing drugs scandal last decade – Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa were on the ballot for the first time – and while rumors always persisted of his alleged PED use, Piazza was never directly linked to illegal PEDs and steroids-related questions won’t hound him the way it has dogged Mark McGwire, who was on the ballot for the seventh year and was selected on only 19.5 percent of ballots one year ago and 16.9 percent this year.

Curt Schilling and Craig Biggio were also strong candidates who were on the ballot for the first time, while Jeff Bagwell, another player potentially dinged for playing in the Steroid Era, continued to draw votes. Jack Morris, in his second-to-last year of Hall of Fame eligibility, didn't benefit from the PED scandal and failed tp draw enough votes to earn his plaque in Cooperstown.

For Piazza, it’s not a matter of “if”, but “when.” And when that time occurs, he has stated his desire to be enshrined in a Mets cap – though it is formally up to the Hall of Fame, with input from the player, to decide which hat would be worn on the plaque.

Though he’s no impartial bystander, Lasorda has his preference.

“I would hope he would [wear a Dodgers cap], but it’s up to him,” Lasorda said. “He’s the one that’s going to decide, and I wish he would. We signed him. We gave him the opportunity and I hope that he does when he gets in.”

“I think he’s going to get in on the first ballot, but I don’t know about that. I hope he does.”