Baseball BeatApril 28, 2004
Catch Him If You Can
By Rich Lederer

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.


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.)


                                 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      210
As 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.


                                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.


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.)


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


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".

It's no secret that Piazza, who is working on the next-to-last season of a seven-year contract signed in 1999, has been one of the weakest defensive catchers in the game since he broke into the big leagues as a regular in 1993. He is at best a mediocre receiver with a below-average arm.

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.

Sources: and Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia


Nice article. Do you think though that Piazza's a Hall of Famer if he had put up all there stats at 1b?

Thanks, Jon. Re your question as to whether I think Piazza would have been a Hall of Famer had he put up the same numbers as a 1B? My response, "Most definitely".

Through 2003, Piazza is tied for 65th all time in Runs Created Above Average. All of the players ranked above him who are eligible for the Hall of Fame have been enshrined except for Dick Allen.

I understand the case against Allen but, based on stats alone, he is deserving of HOF status as well. However, no similar case can be made against Piazza. No quitting, no poor sportsmanship, and no off-the-field issues when it comes to Mike. Just a guy who has shown up almost every day and given 100% with outstanding results.

Plus, if we assume Piazza to be a 1B, isn't it reasonable to believe that he would have put up even better numbers without all the wear and tear on his body that he endured as a catcher? Also, let's not forget the fact that he has played in home ballparks that rank among the most difficult for hitters in all of baseball.

Lastly, here's a fun tidbit of information that reflects quite nicely on Piazza. Mike's WORST season (excluding last year when he was injured and played in only 68 games) produced an OPS of--get this--.903. That's insane!

Piazza is truly a great hitter. Let's give him his due.

Great article. As a Met fan I'm glad I had an opportunity to watch Piazza play through part of his prime in NY. He's got one of the best swings I have ever seen. And besides all of the insane numbers he puts up, he's a genuinely good guy. If you are not from NY you have got to see the class in which he conducts himself day in and day out even though he's forced to deal with the jackals that are the NY sports media.

Thanks, Norm. Being from Long Beach, I was lucky enough to catch the first five-plus years of his career in L.A. He is a great player AND a class act.

Excellent work. I would like to point out that there is more to playing defense than just throwing.

Blocking balls in the dirt, catching foul balls, blocking home plate, and just calling a good game are all parts of being a defensive catcher that we flat out don't have stats for. All we have is passed balls, CS% and errors (which is mainly throwing errors).

Thanks, Kevin. Re the defensive comments, are you suggesting that Piazza was adept at blocking balls in the dirt, catching foul balls, blocking home plate, and calling a good game?

I mentioned that Piazza was "at best a mediocre receiver with a below-average arm". The first part of that comment was meant to cover the non-throwing aspects of the position. I realize it's a pretty subjective evaluation, but one based on my own eyes as well as comments from those inside the game.

Great stuff. I've always felt Piazza catches too much crap from baseball purists, because he's below average defensively. Reminds me of the discussions James used to have comparing how much more valuable Ripken was over Ozzie Smith, as his offense far outshone what the Wizard could save with his glove. I swear some of these baseball purists would rather have Mike Matheny catch on their team over Piazza, because of their traditional catching bias.