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January 10, 2013
Resident Fantasy Genius
The Voting Travesty
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:
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:
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):
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.