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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?