Mike Piazza officially hung up his spikes today, retiring at the age of 39 after a 16-year career in which he hit 427 home runs–including an all-time best 396 as a catcher–while batting a stellar .308/.377/.545. The news prompted a quick email from loyal reader BD:
Moments after learning about Mike Piazza’s retirement via Dodger Thoughts, the blog discussion voiced a certainty that he is bound for the Hall of Fame. I quickly thought of JAWS, and, perhaps correctly, determined his JAWS score at 81.8 (peak of 65.3, Total of 98.3). I then searched articles to find the Catcher JAWS standards and saw that it was lower than 82, so that would indicate he’s worthy, yes?
Having been ROY, dominant at that position, unfairly losing the 1997 MVP to Larry Walker, and so on… Still, his JAWS case is good, if not overwhelming?
Piazza’s JAWS case is indeed good, and if it’s not overwhelming, then at the very least it becomes a bit better upon closer inspection. The most recent numbers I have, which are slightly different from what’s on his DT card (I’m using the same WARP data I used for the 2008 ballot) show Piazza at 96.2 WARP for his peak and 64.6 for his career, for a JAWS of 80.4. The JAWS standard for Hall of Fame catchers is 98.9/60.8/79.9. So Piazza inches past the overall standard despite being a little short on career value owing to the impact of his awful defense (-154 FRAA, the ninth-worst of any player anywhere). He’s significantly ahead on peak, which is probably the more important in a case like this; sticking around to rack up 1-2 WARP per year as a part-time DH isn’t really what a Hall of Fame case is about.
But wait, there’s more! Bolstering Piazza’s primary JAWS case are his secondary numbers, which confirm the oft-repeated claim that he’s the best-hitting catcher of all time. Piazza’s .311 EqA is the all-time high for the position. No Hall of Fame catcher has an EqA above .300, though there are several in the .295–.299 range and the positional average is a robust .289. The highest EqA for a catcher not in the Hall of Fame is sabermetric hero Gene Tenace at .308 (ayyy Gino!), while the highest active marks coming into 2008 were held by Joe Mauer (.305) and Jorge Posada (.300).
Furthermore, Piazza’s 472 Batting Runs Above Average is light years ahead of the rest of the backstop pack. No Hall of Fame catcher has more than Johnny Bench’s 325 BRAA. Joe Torre, at 396, is the only hitter between Bench and Piazza, and while he played a plurality of his games at catcher (893) and this is classified as such in our system, the majority of his time was actually split between the infield corners (793 at first base, 515 at third). Torre’s got a lifetime .298 EqA as well.
Here are the top 30 catchers of all time as ranked by BRAA:
The bottom line is that Piazza is more than Hallworthy despite his defense (which was merely lousy until 2002, when he took things to a whole new level of stink) and his bad taste in hairstyles. His home run totals, 12 All-Star appearances and four top five finishes in the MVP voting suggest he’ll be fine when the BBWAA voters have their say.
On a personal level, as a Dodger fan, Piazza’s departure tore me up a bit, but the irony is that as a New Yorker, I probably got to watch him more after he was traded to the Mets (let us not recount the grim hangover that accompanied my brief glimpse of him in Marlins teal). He was still a fantastic hitter, particularly on those 1999 and 2000 teams that played deep into October, invariably a guy whose at-bats were worth watching.
As fate would have it, I was in attendance at Shea Stadium on August 9, 2006. Piazza’s last game at the venue, albeit in a Padres uniform. Piazza received a standing ovation prior to his first at-bat, when he struck out, but he came back to hit two home runs off Pedro Martinez, the first of which netted a curtain call for a visiting player, something I’ve never seen before. The second was met with considerably less enthusiasm, and when he gave a third ball off Aaron Heilman a long ride before it finally came down in Carlos Beltran’s glove, he drew boos. It was a game I’ll never forget. Alex Belth, who invited me the park, wrote a guest piece about it for BP here.