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January 7, 2013

Wezen-Ball

Through the Years: Mike Piazza

by Larry Granillo

With the Hall of Fame announcement scheduled for this week, now is a good time to look back at the early careers of some of this year's most talked-about nominees. (And with the early exit polls looking as they do, it might be nice to remember just how great some of these players were.) Let's take a look back at some contemporary accounts of Mike Piazza's at-one-time obvious Hall of Fame career.

It's a famous story now that Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round and only as a favor to Los Angeles manager (and Piazza's godfather) Tommy Lasorda. It's a catchy story, after all. A man drafted that low isn't expected to amount to much of anything, let alone become a twelve-time All-Star or the career leader in home runs for a catcher. Today, for example, the draft doesn't even go to 62 rounds.

It's so catchy, in fact, that even Piazza's success in the minor leagues was enough to bring the tale out. From the "Scouting the Minors" section of the 1993 Sporting News Preview Guide:

OK, so maybe it was done partially as a favor to Manager Tom Lasorda when the Dodgers drafted Piazza, his godson, in the 62nd round of the June 1988 draft. Since then, however, Piazza has earned his keep. He has worked his way through the minor league system and is the main reason the Dodgers decided not to re-sign longtime catcher Mike Scioscia. Although Piazza is still a little stiff behind the plate, he has decent arm strength. He also has some pop in his bat; Piazza has hit a composite .308 with 53 homers and 177 RBIs the last two years.

That season turned out to be an amazing year for Piazza, who won the Rookie of the Year Award after hitting 35 home runs and batting .318 (with a .932 OPS) for the fourth-place Dodgers. The folks at Street & Smith's saw great things right from the beginning.

Last year, catcher Mike Piazza astonished everyone with his poise and batted .318 with 35 homers and 112 RBIs in a brilliant season. Lasorda was a boyhood friend of Piazza's father from Norristown, PA, so he had an eye on this kid long before anybody else. Piazza may be the best catcher in baseball in a year or two.

But questions about Piazza as a catcher came to the forefront very early. From the 1994 Sporting News:

It has been suggested to Manager Tommy Lasorda that he might be wise to switch young hitting star Mike Piazza to a position less demanding than catcher—third base, for instance, or maybe first base—as a way to extending his career. "Not on your life," sniffs Lasorda, who knows full well that he has a rarity: a catcher who can hit with power and catch and throw, too.
...
Defensively, Piazza hasn't been catching that long (about five years), and he still has "a lot to learn," he said. He committed 11 errors and allowed 14 passed balls, the latter figure somewhat inflated thanks to Candiotti's knuckleball. Piazza had his moments on defense, too, throwing out 58 would-be basestealers (the most ever by a Dodger catcher) at a 35 percent clip (third-best in the league) and registering a league-leading 98 assists.

Superficially, Piazza's sophomore season may look a bit pale compared to his rookie campaign, but it doesn't take much to realize how wrong that is. While he only hit 24 home runs in '94, it was the strike season. His batting average was a near-identical .319 while his on-base percentage stayed the same at .370. His slugging dipped from .561 to .541 in the second season, but that was hardly a reason to complain. The 1995 Sporting News did not miss it.

Mike Piazza was immune to the sophomore jinx, hitting .319 with 24 homers and 92 RBIs on the heels of his Rookie of the Year campaign. In just 277 big-league games, Piazza has 60 home runs and 211 RBIs. Aside from his outstanding bat, Piazza also is a fine defender.

Tommy Lasorda's godson only got better in 1995, finishing the second strike-shortened season with a .346 average and a 1.006 OPS (for a league-leading 172 OPS+). It netted him barely a fourth-place finish in the MVP voting behind Barry Larkin, whose Cincinnati Reds finished in first place, Dante Bichette, who managed 40 home runs in the short season, and Greg Maddux at his career-best.

The Sporting News tried to explain his already-apparent greatness.

In three big-league seasons, Mike Piazza has established himself as one of the finest hitters in the game. His career average is .322, and he's five homers shy of breaking into the all-time L.A. Dodgers top 10. He is the first Dodger to hit 20 or more homers in each of his first three seasons, and last year, his third consecutive as an All-Star, he hit .346 (second in the league to Tony Gwynn) and had 32 homers and 93 RBIs. How valuable is Piazza? He missed 32 games, and the Dodgers were 13-19 without him.

Athlon was a bit more succinct.

Piazza, the best hitting catcher in the game, averaging 30 homers and 99 RBIs with a .328 batting average in his first three full seasons and improving defensively, is again behind the plate. Any questions?

Nothing changed in 1996. Piazza finished the year batting .336/.422/.563, belting a career-best 36 home runs and knocking in 105 runs. He finished second in the MVP balloting that year behind San Diego's Ken Caminiti.

Heading into the 1997 season, someone finally decided to say something about Piazza's defense. From Sporting News:

There are no questions about Mike Piazza's offense, but there are some about his defense. That is one reason catching instructor Mike Scioscia, the former longtime Dodger catcher, was around often last season—and will be around all of this season. Whenever Scioscia showed up in Los Angeles in '96, invariably, Piazza's defense would improve.

Piazza's knees became a problem last season and a source for endless when-will-they-move-him-somewhere-else? stories. But he didn't have surgery, and he says he wants to keep catching.

If there was any concern about Piazza's health at the start of the 1997 season, it didn't show in his performance. With 633 plate appearances, '97 was Piazza's high-water mark for playing time. It was also his best year at the plate, with a 185 OPS+ (1.070 OPS), 40 home runs, 124 RBIs, and a .362 average.

Piazza would be a free-agent following the 1998 season, however, and the Dodgers had a lot to think about. Sporting News listed his positives...

On this club, the subject [of catching] starts and ends with two words: Mike Piazza. His offense is a given, and in 1997 he gave opposing pitchers even more of a headache, finishing with career highs in average (.362), home runs (40) and RBIs.

Piazza also looked impressive at times on defense last season, an area in which he has been criticized in the past.

...while Street & Smith's was a bit more wary.

What's more, the Dodgers have controversy in the wings. Catcher Mike Piazza says he wants to be the highest-paid player in the game. He cites his offensive potential but conveniently ignores the knee problems that have bothered him in recent years and the fact that he is 29.

Of course, the Dodgers, who finished 15 games out of first place in 1998, decided not to deal with Piazza's contract demands in-season, trading him to the Marlins in a monster trade that gave them Gary Sheffield. Eight days later, Piazza found himself traded again, this time ending up in Shea Stadium for Preston Wilson and Ed Yarnall.

Over the next nine years, from ages 30 to 37, Piazza hit 227 home runs and drove in nearly 700 runs. His best years were already behind him, but that's no different than Cal Ripken, Jr. and countless other Hall of Famers. As these contemporary accounts remind us, few catchers (if any) ever played as well as Mike Piazza did in his years with the Los Angeles Dodgers. If all things are right come Wednesday, Piazza's name will be announced as the newest inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Related Content:  Mike Piazza,  Catcher Defense,  The Who,  News,  Catching

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