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May 15, 2003

Prospectus Today

Shedding the Tools of Ignorance

by Joe Sheehan

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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 games

Fifteen 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:

  • Bill Dickey (1518 games) continued catching, and had some good years in limited playing time during World War II (.295/.359/.373 in 268 AB in 1942; .351/.445/.492 in 242 AB in 1943).

  • Benito Santiago's (1417 games) career looked over at 33 following a nasty auto accident. He bounced back, and at 38, is still chugging along as a league-average catcher.

  • Gabby Hartnett (1351 games) was probably the best after age 34 of the players who qualified, catching another 442 games and having some big seasons (WARP-1, ages 35-38: 6.1, 7.4, 5.0, 4.2). At 37, he hit the famous "Homer in the Gloamin'" that gave the Cubs the NL pennant in 1938.

  • Sherm Lollar (1252 games) played reasonably well as his playing time decreased over the next four years. He had seasons of 5.7 WARP at 35 and 4.7 WARP at 36 before fading.
We've covered 28 of the 30 qualifying catchers. The last two were excellent hitters who changed positions as they got older, and to the extent that there are comps for Piazza's situation, they're it.
  • Ted Simmons (1721 games) was basically a DH after age 33. He caught just 50 games in five seasons after that. The move may have happened too late, as Simmons' last useful season at the plate was in 1983, when he hit .308/.351/.448 at 33. After that, he hit .248/.303/.357 in five seasons, with only his 1995 (3.5 WARP) having value.

  • Yogi Berra (1553 games) was primarily an outfielder after age 34; with just 146 games caught in his last five seasons. He fared a bit better in the transition, with two pretty good seasons in 1960 (4.6 WARP) and 1961 (4.7 WARP) and a solid part-time campaign in 1963 (2.4 WARP in 147 AB).
The 28 catchers played a grand total of 80 seasons after the age of 34. By season, their WARP-1 was distributed as follows:

< 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 not saying there isn't a defensible, quantitative way to answer the question, the chewy part of which isn't what effect the move would have on the Mets (Vance Wilson < Tony Clark) but what effect it would have on Piazza. I am saying that I haven't been able to come up with one."

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.

Readers?

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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