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May 15, 2003
Shedding the Tools of Ignorance
While he hasn't done it just yet, it appears that Mike Piazza will be spending at least some time at first base this season. The Mets' initial fumbling of the decision will push things back a couple of weeks, but the transition is coming. Piazza has fought such a move for years, but a combination of factors--including the Mets' loss of Mo Vaughn and recent surgery that kept an otherwise healthy Piazza out of the lineup because he couldn't squat--appear to be breaking down his resistance to the idea.
From the Mets' standpoint, the timing is right. Vaughn is out for somewhere between one month and five, so there's no expensive first baseman for Piazza to displace. Tony Clark has faded with prolonged exposure (.197/.250/.479) and his problems making contact scream, "release me." Benching him to play Vance Wilson and Jason Phillips behind the plate won't cost them much, and the two can hold on until prospect Justin Huber (.304/.376/.480 in the FSL) forces an impulsive move.
Will Piazza be worth his $14.5 million salary as a first baseman? After a huge series in Colorado he's hitting .327/.415/.607. PECOTA projected a .274/.359/.515 season from him, continuing his slow decline. That kind of production from a catcher--call it a Paul Konerko season--is worth about four wins. But it's only worth two to three wins from a first baseman, which means Piazza would be more than a tad overpaid if he made the switch full-time. The Mets would probably gain some defensively behind the plate and, unless Piazza develops leprosy, at first base.
None of that, of course, touches on the real reason the Mets are considering the move. Transitioning Piazza out from behind the plate is designed to do one thing: keep him hitting at his established level. The idea is that with less wear and tear on his body, he'll continue to be a productive hitter deep into his 30s. Were he to continue to catch, there's fear that the physical toll will reduce him to a shell of his self.
There's something to the notion. Piazza is one of 30 players to catch at least 1,250 games (he had 1,316 entering 2003) through the age of 34. The track records of the players who came before him indicate danger ahead. Of the 30, one hasn't yet turned 34 (Ivan Rodriguez), and five others--Bill Freehan, Mickey Cochrane, Mike Scioscia, Frankie Hayes and Thurman Munson--never played in the majors after that age. Six more had virtually no career after the age of 34:
Player Games Comment Johnny Bench 1737 Done at 35, caught just 13 games after age 32 Ray Schalk 1721 Done at 30, just seven games after age 34 Darrell Porter 1499 Just one year left, mostly as DH Steve O'Neill 1460 Missed age-34 season, just 70 games after Terry Kennedy 1320 Done at 35 Jerry Grote 1293 Just two more seasons, 62 gamesFifteen catchers meeting the criteria would continue to have careers behind the plate, but mostly in reduced roles as either their bat or their body gave out: Gary Carter, Jim Sundberg, Al Lopez, Lance Parrish, Tony Pena, Del Crandall, Jim Hegan, Rick Ferrell--the best of this bunch, playing through World War II--Johnny Edwards, Tim McCarver and Muddy Ruel. Some of these players would have random good seasons in limited playing time, but for the most part, they were done by 34.
Four other high-workload catchers continued to be productive players:
< 1.0 26 1-1.9 26 2-2.9 13 3-3.9 4 4-4.9 6 > 4.9 5 (Dickey '36, Lollar '60, Hartnett '36-'38)Perspective? Piazza's lowest seasonal WARP is last year's 5.5. Only three catchers who have carried his workload through his age have done that after turning 35.
The problem, as I see it, is applying all of this history to a player who is unlike any we've ever seen. No catcher has ever hit the way Piazza has over a career, few catchers have caught as many of their team's games as he has over the past decade, and almost no catchers have been as productive as he's been going through 1,100, 1,200 and now 1,300 games caught.
The great unknown is how a move will affect Piazza. The implied benefit is that by catching less, Piazza will tire less easily, avoid the aches and pains of platework, and continue to be a .300 EqA hitter. However, the hitters who have made the shift at this point-Simmons and Berra-couldn't match their prior production.
I turn to Nate Silver, who tacked the following wisdom to the bottom of yesterday's "Lies, Damned Lies" column:
"I was going to write some clever, PECOTA-friendly article about Mike Piazza's potential position shift this week, but there just isn't the data to work with. There are a few famous catchers who switched positions late in their careers--Johnny Bench's name is always mentioned, and you've also got Yogi Berra and Ted Simmons (only Berra experienced much sustained success after his shift). But there aren't very many, and the reason is really very simple--in most cases, it just ain't worth it. Mike Piazza will be the best hitter on the Mets no matter what position he plays. That almost never happens; nobody was yearning to extend Andy Allanson's career.I'm with Nate. This has been an educational process for me, but I'm no closer to knowing what Piazza will do from ages 35-38 than I was when it started.