Catch Him If You Can
Mike Piazza hit his 351st home run as a catcher Tuesday night ironically against the Los Angeles Dodgers--the team that originally signed him--at Dodger Stadium. Piazza's homer tied Carlton Fisk for the most ever by a catcher.
The 35-year-old superstar has now gone deep 362 times in his career (177 with the Dodgers and 185 with the Mets), passing Joe DiMaggio for 58th on the all-time list. Should Piazza reach the 400 mark in 2005, he will most likely rank 41st in HR--behind the 36 players who currently have that many plus four more active sluggers (Jim Thome, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, and Alex Rodriguez) who are also within striking distance of that level.
TOP HR-HITTING CATCHERS OF ALL TIME
1 Mike Piazza 351 1 Carlton Fisk 351 3 Johnny Bench 327 4 Yogi Berra 306 5 Lance Parrish 299
Remarkably, Piazza, who was drafted in the 62nd round in 1988 by Tommy Lasorda and the Dodgers as a favor to his father Vince, tied Fisk in HR playing 832 fewer games than the Hall of Famer (1,394 for Mike and 2,226 for Carlton). Another way of looking at it is to say that Piazza has played only five games behind the plate for Fisk's eight.
Recognizing that Fisk played in an era of fewer home runs, it would only be fair to compare the two catchers versus their league averages. (For this purpose, I have used their total career HR rather than those accumulated while catching.)
HOME RUNS RELATIVE TO THE LEAGUE
RATE PLAYER LEAGUE 1 Gabby Hartnett 249 236 95 2 Johnny Bench 235 389 166 3 Mike Piazza 229 362 158 4 Ernie Lombardi 222 190 86 5 Yogi Berra 208 358 172 6 Gene Tenace 207 201 97 7 Bill Dickey 194 202 104 8 Mickey Tettleton 186 245 132 9 Gary Carter 185 324 175 10 Lance Parrish 181 324 179 11 Walker Cooper 181 173 96 12 Carlton Fisk 179 376 210As shown, the unanimous National League Rookie of the Year in 1993 ranks third behind Gabby Hartnett and Johnny Bench in terms of home runs hit as a ratio of the league average. Fisk ranks 12th.
After Piazza hits his next four bagger, an argument could still be made that Hartnett or Bench hit home runs at a greater clip than Piazza but there will no longer be one made on behalf of Fisk. (Josh Gibson undoubtedly is the most prolific HR-hitting catcher in baseball history, but this comparative study is based on statistics while playing in the major leagues only.)
OK, Piazza is arguably the top HR-slugging catcher in the history of the majors. But is the Norristown, Pennsylvania native the best catcher ever? Questionable defense and all, I think one can make a case that he is. However, I believe defense is an important component when it comes to judging catchers so I am not comfortable annointing the 10-time All-Star as unequivocally the best ever. Nonetheless, I believe it is safe to say that he is the best-hitting catcher in major-league history.
The following two rate tables are based on career averages for catchers with a minimum of 1,000 games through 2003.
ON BASE PLUS SLUGGING (OPS)
RATE PLAYER LEAGUE 1 Mike Piazza 124 .959 .770 2 Mickey Cochrane 116 .897 .776 3 Johnny Bench 115 .826 .716 4 Gabby Hartnett 114 .858 .754 4 Roy Campanella 114 .860 .753 6 Ernie Lombardi 112 .818 .727 7 Bill Dickey 112 .868 .773 8 Ted Simmons 112 .808 .720 9 Yogi Berra 112 .832 .742 10 Carlton Fisk 111 .799 .718
Piazza (.319/.387/.571) has the highest OPS in absolute terms and relative to the league average by a fairly wide margin.
To Piazza's credit, he is number one in OPS despite playing in two home ballparks that are among the toughest on hitters in all of baseball. He has a significant advantage over his peers in OPS adjusted for park effects.
OPS+ 1 Mike Piazza 153 2 Mickey Cochrane 128 3 Bill Dickey 127 4 Johnny Bench 126 5 Gabby Hartnett 126 6 Yogi Berra 125 7 Ernie Lombardi 125 8 Roy Campanella 124 9 Ted Simmons 118 10 Carlton Fisk 117
Piazza, who was traded by the Dodgers to the Florida Marlins in a salary dispute in May 1998 and then to the New York Mets a week later, also ranks number one in Runs Created Above Average and Runs Created Above Position with his closest pursuers in generally the same order. (For the purposes of the following two counting stat lists, I used the career totals of players who appeared in more games as a catcher than any other position.)
RUNS CREATED ABOVE AVERAGE
RCAA 1 Mike Piazza 433 2 Bill Dickey 339 3 Yogi Berra 312 4 Mickey Cochrane 303 5 Gabby Hartnett 254 6 Johnny Bench 247 7 Ted Simmons 217 8 Carlton Fisk 216 9 Gene Tenace 160 10 Joe Torre 159
RUNS CREATED ABOVE POSITION
RCAP 1 Mike Piazza 528 2 Bill Dickey 473 3 Yogi Berra 430 4 Mickey Cochrane 425 5 Gabby Hartnett 364 6 Carlton Fisk 360 7 Johnny Bench 347 8 Ted Simmons 321 9 Gary Carter 251 10 Wally Schang 249
Using the top dozen catchers as rated by Bill James in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (elevating Ivan Rodriguez, listed at #13, over Bill Freehan at #12), I thought it would be informative to see how they stack up in Win Shares, WS per 100 games, and number of seasons with 30 or more WS. The beauty of Win Shares is that it also accounts for defensive contributions whereas all of the previous rankings were based solely on offensive value.
WS WS/100 >30 1 Yogi Berra 375 17.7 4 2 Carlton Fisk 368 14.7 3 3 Johnny Bench 356 16.5 4 4 Gary Carter 337 14.7 4 5 Gabby Hartnett 325 16.3 0 6 Joe Torre 315 14.3 1 6 Ted Simmons 315 12.8 1 8 Bill Dickey 314 17.6 1 9 Mike Piazza 285 19.5 4 10 Mickey Cochrane 275 18.6 2 11 Ivan Rodriguez 240 14.8 0 12 Roy Campanella 207 17.0 2
As detailed, Yogi Berra has the most Win Shares (375), Piazza tops the group in Win Shares per 100 games (19.5), and Berra, Bench, Gary Carter, and Piazza tie for the most seasons with at least 30 Win Shares (4 each).
Berra is the only one who ranks in the top five by all three measures. Fisk, Bench, Carter, and Piazza rank in the top five in two of the three. Joe Torre, Ted Simmons, and Rodriguez are the catchers in the above list who do not place in the top five in any of the three categories.
MVP T10 GG 1 Yogi Berra 3 7 0 1 Roy Campanella 3 4 N/A 3 Johnny Bench 2 5 10 3 Mickey Cochrane 2 6 N/A 5 Gabby Hartnett 1 4 N/A 5 Ivan Rodriguez 1 3 10 5 Joe Torre 1 2 1 8 Mike Piazza 0 7 0 8 Bill Dickey 0 5 N/A 8 Carlton Fisk 0 4 1 8 Gary Carter 0 4 3 8 Ted Simmons 0 3 0
Berra and Roy Campanella, forever linked in baseball history as the catchers of the rival Yankees and Dodgers during the late 1940s to late 1950s, each won three MVPs--twice in the same year. Bench and Mickey Cochrane picked up two MVP Awards each, while Hartnett, Rodriguez, and Torre won one each (the latter as a third baseman). Piazza finished second in the MVP balloting in back-to-back seasons in 1996 and 1997.
Berra and Piazza placed among the top ten in the MVP voting the most times (7). Bench and Rodriguez earned the most Gold Gloves (10). It should be noted for fairness that the first Gold Gloves weren't awarded until 1957, eliminating the possibilities for Cochrane, Dickey, and Hartnett and effectively doing the same for Campanella while reducing Berra's opportunities. James claims that Harnett deserved eight Gold Gloves by the Win Shares method, "ranking him among the greatest defensive catchers in the history of baseball".
After a comprehensive review, I am at peace with the idea that Piazza is the best-hitting catcher ever. As far as the game's best overall backstop, I would be inclined to place Piazza in my top three along with Berra and Bench.
Interestingly, of the top twelve, there is representation from every decade going back to the 1920s (Cochrane, Bill Dickey, and Hartnett) through the 2000s (Piazza and Rodriguez). Simmons and Torre are clearly inferior to the other ten catchers and would rank 11th and 12th, respectively, in my book.
Although Piazza is no longer the player he once was, he still deserves to be included in any discussion as to who is the greatest catcher in major-league history. With A-Rod now at third base, an argument as to the best ever at a position among active players could only be made on behalf of Piazza and Barry Bonds. Elite company indeed.