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January 10, 2013

Resident Fantasy Genius

The Voting Travesty

by Derek Carty

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Yesterday, for just the sixth time in MLB history, the Baseball Writers Association of America failed to elect a single candidate to the Hall of Fame. While I certainly disagree with this result, there was one player in particular for whom this result was an absolute travesty. No, not Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens. While I don’t agree for a number of reasons I won’t bother getting into, I can see why many elected not to cast votes for these two. Their case is about more than performance. Looking strictly at the numbers, they would have been unanimous first-balloters, but the steroids issue prevented such an occurrence—and I’m more or less okay with it, if for no other reason than because there is a bigger fish to fry.

Mike Piazza was the best catcher in the history of baseball. There, I said it. But if you saw how the voting unfolded yesterday, you may think I’m crazy for it:

Player

% of Vote

Craig Biggio

68%

Jack Morris

68%

Jeff Bagwell

60%

Mike Piazza

58%

Tim Raines

52%

Piazza garnered just over 50 percent of the required 75 percent of the vote and finished with just the fourth-most overall. Fourth may not seem too bad, but when you consider that, in the history of the Hall, the BBWAA has elected four players just twice (1947 and 1955—and they never elected more than four), it’s pretty far removed from where he ought to be, indicating that he may not even get in next year.

Enough with the melodramatic outrage. What’s Piazza’s claim to a first-ballot Hall of Fame vote? He put it pretty well himself yesterday, but I’ll give it a shot too.

Among the 14 catchers currently enshrined in the Hall of Fame, Piazza’s WAR would rank fourth overall, behind just Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Gary Carter. He’d also slot fourth if you go by BP’s resident Hall expert Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system.

If you focus only on offense, Piazza’s 143 OPS+ is first among every catcher who has ever played the game. Among those in the Hall already, the next-highest figures belong to Mickey Cochrane and Buck Ewing at just 129. (If you have a problem with OPS+—it’s far from perfect—pick another metric. Piazza will still be the leader.) I don’t think it’s much of stretch to assume that every voting BBWAA member considers Piazza among the absolute best offensive talents ever to don catching gear. So what gives?

One of the biggest knocks against Piazza is his defense, and this may be one of the reasons he failed to garner the necessary votes. By Baseball-Reference’s math, Piazza cost his teams 63 runs in the field over the course of his career. Of course, defense is hard to quantify, and catcher defense is the hardest of all positions for which to do so. The most easily quantified facet of catcher defense is throwing out baserunners, since it’s a simple tally that is kept by every major stat site. Make no bones about it; Piazza was terrible at defending against the run. He caught just 17.6 percent of would-be base-stealers in his career, and runners weren’t afraid to test his arm, causing damage in the form of both quantity and quality. Because of how easily measured this is relative to other catcher contributions, Piazza was saddled with a reputation as a terrible defensive catcher for his entire career.

Of course, a catcher’s arm is only one piece of the defensive puzzle—and a rather insignificant piece, at that. Research by BP’s own Max Marchi over the past year has shown that little separates the best and worst catchers in terms of things like arm and batted-ball fielding, practically speaking. More important is the ability to frame pitches and call a game, for which far more runs separate the best and the worst. Take a look at Max’s all-time rankings in terms of game-calling:

Catcher

Runs Prevented

PA

Tony Pena

248

66,895

Mike Scioscia

210

46,421

Javy Lopez

205

46,807

Mike Piazza

205

57,099

Carlton Fisk

191

77,857

Yup, that’s Mike Piazza, the best offensive catcher of all time, tied for third in one of the most important defensive categories (along with one of the most highly respected defensive catchers of the modern era). And yup, that means if you add his game-calling contribution to the runs that Baseball-Ref was already counting, he comes in as a +142-run defender. Given the data we now have at our disposal, we can not only say that Mike Piazza was not a bad defender, but he was actually a very good one.

If we add those game-calling runs to his already tallied overall contribution (Runs Above Average) and do some back-of-the-envelope math to arrive at a WAR estimate, here is how Piazza stacks up to the five Hall of Fame backstops to play after 1948 (before which there were data constraints that prevented Max from calculating game-calling ability—but don’t worry, the best catchers all fall in this group):

Catcher

RAA

WAR*

Mike Piazza

576

74.8

Carlton Fisk

490

83.6

Gary Carter

447

76.4

Johnny Bench

415

72.5

Yogi Berra

393

61.8

Roy Campanella

291

43.2

Don’t hurt your neck as you crane it to look up at the top of that list. Here, I’ll save you the trouble (neck issues are serious business); that’s Piazza at the tippy-top in terms of Runs Above Average, and by a very sizeable margin at that. He ranks third by my estimated WAR, the discrepancy between the two lists coming from calculation of replacement level, but there’s a lot of debate over how best to calculate it. To keep things simple, I just used Baseball-Ref’s established Runs for Replacement Level, for which Piazza trails everyone on the list but Campanella (and he trails Fisk by more than 100 runs). It’s certainly possible by another calculation Piazza would come out at the top of both lists.

In any event, it’s starkly apparent that Piazza is one of the best catchers to ever play the game of baseball and, quite possibly, the very best. How he only managed 58 percent of the vote is a head-scratcher, to say the least. It seems, at least by speculation, that voters are penalizing him for playing in the “steroids era” despite there being absolutely no evidence to indicate that he juiced. He never failed a test. He didn’t make the Mitchell Report, or any PED-related list for that matter. He never admitted to taking anything. The most I can find is some Murray Chass speculation that he took PEDs based on a case of bacne. And some general baseless assumptions that are pretty much made about anyone who performed well in that time period. Hardly damning, and hardly fair. As I mentioned earlier, I can at least understand writers who didn’t throw Bonds or Clemens a vote—they are directed to take “integrity, sportsmanship, [and] character” into account, after all, and there is at least some evidence of PED use for them—but it’s overreaching and downright inappropriate to withhold a vote for Piazza based on one’s own personal conjecture and speculation.

Sorry BBWAA; you got this one wrong. Way wrong.

23 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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jj0501
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Sorry, but what happens in a vote for who gets a plaque dedicated to them in a museum is not a tragedy.

Jan 10, 2013 04:09 AM
rating: -12
 
Shawn

The author said travesty, not tragedy. The two words are not the same.

Jan 10, 2013 10:35 AM
rating: 6
 
Sharky

But it is a wrong. Piazza is deserving.

Jan 10, 2013 04:54 AM
rating: 1
 
sbnirish77

Edgar Martinez was the best DH in baseball history (Ortiz pending) and he was ignored for reasons that have nothing to do with PEDs. Edgar cost his teams fewer runs on defense than Piazza because he wasn't out there.

Jan 10, 2013 08:22 AM
rating: 0
 
godfather
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game calling? gimme a break; classic example of statheads in over their craniums; how about name calling? ball scratching

Jan 10, 2013 09:37 AM
rating: -21
 
Robotey

As a Met fan I will always love Piazza. As a baseball fan I have to ask: how does a player--in the steroids era--go from being a 63rd round courtesy pick to the greatest offensive catcher in history without any assistance? If I had a vote, I'd vote for Piazza--but I'd also vote for Bonds and Clemens, because they dominated the game in their time.

Jan 10, 2013 09:54 AM
rating: -2
 
CalledStrike3

I don't agree with this line of thinking - but this line of thinking (guilty by performing in a specific era) is exactly what caused this "travesty".

Mike Piazza was the best Catcher of his generation while in his prime. That is HOF criteria I believe.

Jan 10, 2013 10:22 AM
rating: 1
 
rweiler

There was more to the line of thinking than that. It's pretty easy to believe that a 5th or 6th round pick turns out to be a quality major leaguer, Brandon Belt for example. But you can count the number of undrafted (and that's essentially what Piazza was) first ballot hall of famers on the fingers of one foot.

Jan 10, 2013 10:42 AM
rating: 0
 
jfranco77

He was picked as a 20 year old. Did he get picked out of community college? I can't tell based on his baseball-reference page. It's safe to say that he wasn't really scouted.

I'd equate him to a Latino player who signed for pennies. I can't think of any good recent examples, but I'm sure there have been some. Are they automatically under suspicion too?

Jan 10, 2013 10:53 AM
rating: 1
 
rweiler

Sorry to say that everybody, great, good, and not so good, in the steroid era is under suspicion. That's not fair to the players that never used anything stronger than caffeine, but that's reality. We don't know who used and who didn't and unless the Federal government and MLB wants to offer blanket immunity to anybody willing to testify fully and truthfully under oath, we never will. Hopefully the BBWAA haven't gotten their symbolic gesture out of the way and will vote Bonds, Clemens, and Piazza in next year.

Jan 10, 2013 11:08 AM
rating: 1
 
rweiler

Corrections, on checking the records of Hall of Famers from the post draft era, I find one, Tom Seaver. I couldn't find any position players in the Hall that were draft eligible and not drafted and most Hall of Fame position players were drafted in the first 4 rounds. There is ample reason to be just as suspicious of Piazza. FWIW, Jose Canseco never failed a drug test either. IMHO, Bonds, Clemens and Piazza all belong in the Hall.

Jan 10, 2013 11:02 AM
rating: -2
 
gdragon1977

Ryne Sandberg in the 20th I believe is the lowest drafted HoFer, although I'm honestly not sure. Smoltz (22nd round) could pass him soon.

Jan 10, 2013 15:45 PM
rating: 0
 
gdragon1977

Ah, Bruce Sutter... he was drafted in the 21st round, didn't sign and sort of gave up baseball, then was found and signed in a semi-pro league a year later.

Jan 10, 2013 15:51 PM
rating: 0
 
Robotey

Thanks for all the intelligent responses, I feel Met guilt for even impugning Piazza. Seaver went to the Marines, bulked up there, then went to USC where he made his mark--not before having to drain his own knee of fluid--yuch. Sutter would have to be an outlier though, no, considering he practically invented a new pitch. I'm confident Piazza will get in soon. Along with Aaron Sele.

Jan 12, 2013 14:04 PM
rating: 0
 
gweedoh565

Mickey Cochrange: FINALLY, a word that rhymes with 'orange'!!

Jan 10, 2013 13:28 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Derek Carty
BP staff

Haha, fixed

Jan 10, 2013 16:05 PM
 
radarbinder

No one who saw the entire careers of Fisk, Bench and Piazza would deny that Piazza should be in the HOF. Most of us would still rank Bench way above the others for his on-field leadership and intimidating arm. Bench was also a good pitch caller and more than willing to block the plate against anyone. Neither Fisk nor Gary Carter were considered to be the equal of Bench at the time of their respective careers and for good reason. Bench was a great post-season player who stole as many bases in the post-season as he allowed - seven each! Yep. Bench was also a team leader, which is not quantifiable. Fisk was a tough son-of-a-gun who was not the clubhouse leader Bench was but was much like Bench as an on-field force and also played long enough to accumulate more HR.

Those observation aside, Piazza was good enough to be voted in first ballot and frankly the idea that first ballot entrance is "special" is part of what is messing up the HOF voting. If the guy is worthy, vote him in right away! Good Grief! Piazza is the best hitter of all full-time catchers ever, vote his butt in there!

Jan 10, 2013 14:30 PM
rating: 1
 
eliyahu

For Bonds and Clemens, there's not "some" evidence; there's overwhelming evidence.

For Piazza, there is, in fact, no substantive evience. But I am troubled by his (non) response. I would love to see Piazza come out and say something along the lines of "This is insane. I never used PEDs, never cheated, and I'm being unfairly tarnished due to the era I played in." I'm not saying that all players can do this, but that *is* how I would expect a completely clean player with no-doubt HOF numbers to behave. I understand that that's not a good enough reason not to vote for him, but I also understand why many people suspect him.

Put it this way: Lance Armstrong behaved like someone who cheated despite all the non-denial denials. And guess what? What many termed a "witch hunt" turned out to be justified.

I suspect that there's a strong correlation between those that think Piazza didn't cheat, and those that six months ago thought Armstrong didn't cheat. And I do think this should give some people pause before criticizing these voters.

Jan 10, 2013 14:56 PM
rating: -2
 
gdragon1977

I'd suggest that one reason for Piazza's silence is that he doesn't want to run his mouth and possibly make enemies (justified or not) when he's pretty close to getting elected anyway.

Jan 10, 2013 16:28 PM
rating: 2
 
eliyahu

Possible. But I also think that someone whom by all accounts is one of the best ever at his position who was clearly kept out because of steroid suspicions would speak up vociferously about it, if he was clean.

Bottom line: Piazza's silence is not what I'd expect from someone who never cheated.

Jan 10, 2013 17:56 PM
rating: -3
 
apollo

I wonder how much behind the scenes talk there is about these guys, nothing public, where certain writers get what they consider is trustworthy information, and then vote NO, on say Piazza. Suppose a teammate of HOF Candidate , a teammate with a good reputation, whispers to a writer that the candidate did do PEDs, he knows it for sure. Of course the teammate will not go public, but in his opinion, PED users do not belong in the Hall. Do these guys talk? If they do, no way a writer can cite the conversation, he just votes "no". So while there is no evidence to us, maybe others do have more to go on than increased hat size.

Jan 10, 2013 19:07 PM
rating: 0
 
Chucko

I can't imagine too many sportswriters being given trustworthy information on the subject but then not choosing to make money and rep off of it, especially in the current climate. I also can't imagine too many writers who would take an unattributable conversation as ironclad fact. Well, other than Gordon Edes... Conspiracies take a lot of thought and energy, and many of these BBWA guys seem a bit short on both counts.

Jan 11, 2013 01:34 AM
rating: 1
 
Robotey

doesn't that sound a bit like what Piazza had to deal with on the whole 'is he or is he not gay' stupidity?

this whole thing is such a stupid witchhunt.

Jan 12, 2013 14:14 PM
rating: 0
 
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