Saturday, January 14, 2012

Mike Piazza And The Tools Of Ignorance

Bill Dickey
Mike Piazza is a certain Hall of Famer, a 12-time All Star and a true superstar.  After Tom Seaver, he was the greatest player the Mets ever had (after several stellar years with the Dodgers.)  Nevertheless, my most enduring memory of Mikey is his last at bat in Game #5 of the 2000 World Series against the Yankees.  Down three games to one, and losing by two runs with two outs and one runner on base in the ninth inning, Piazza crushed a Mariano Rivera pitch to centerfield that for a moment looked like it would clear the fence and tie the game.  Alas, the ball landed in Bernie Williams' glove instead, and the Yankees won the World Series.

It is probably unfair, but to me this encapsulates the 8-year Piazza Era in New York; a time marked by some spectacular play and wonderful moments but ultimately disappointment and failure.  The Mets in Piazza's first year, 1998, missed the playoffs by one game, then lost a brutal playoff to the Braves in 1999, when Kenny Rogers walked in the winning run, and, as noted above, lost to the Yankees in the 2000 World Series.  And that was it.  In Piazza's final five seasons the team was mediocre at best finishing third twice, fourth once and fifth twice.

In a recent profile in the Wall Street Journal, Piazza was asked where he would rank himself on the list of all time great catchers, and he replied, "in the top five":
I'm a humble person, but I'd definitely put myself in the top five. I'd say Johnny [Bench] first for his charisma and talent—then I'd say Roy Campanella—he won three MVPs, after all. And Yogi Berra. If I put myself over Yogi, people would say, 'Who does he think he is, he put himself over Yogi?'
This got me thinking as to where Piazza does rank among the greatest catchers in Major League history.  Here's the competition:

Piazza ignores a trio of legendary catchers from the 1920s and 1930s:  Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey and Gabby Hartnett.  Of the three, Cochrane was the greatest player.  He was a two-time MVP, compiled a .320 lifetime batting average, a .419 on base percentage.  He helped lead the Philadelphia A's to three straight American League pennants (1929-1931), with World Series wins in 1929 and 1930.  He was a player-manager for a Detroit Tigers team that appeared in two World Series (1934-1935) winning the series in 1935.

Bill Dickey was the catcher for the first great Yankee dynasty, a team that won seven World Series.  He was a ten-time All Star, hit over .300 in ten of his first eleven years, and was known for his superb defensive skills as well.  Dickey is believed to have coined the phrase, "the tools of ignorance," in reference to catcher's equipment while strapping on the gear and wondering why anyone in their right mind would want to play such a taxing position.

As Bill James wrote in his Historical Baseball Abstract (1985), the Cubs' Gabby Harnett was "generally recognized as the greatest National League catcher before Johnny Bench."  He was the NL MVP in 1935.  The first All Star game was played in 1933, and Hartnett was named to the team that year and the following five.  A great defense catcher, manager Joe McCarthy said, "he threw a ball that had the speed of lightning, but was as light as a feather.  He could also hit, with a lifetime .297 average.  He is most famous for his 1938 "Homer in the Gloamin," which put the Cubs in first place and launched them to the pennant.  
Then, there are the two great catchers of the 1950s, Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella.  With all of Yogi's famous sayings (although, as he put it, "I really didn't say everything I said"), it is easy to overlook his greatness as a player.  Berra played for 19 years and was one of the leading offensive players of his time, finishing his career with 358 home runs, 1430 RBI, 1175 runs scored, and 2,150  hits.  He was an All-Star 18 times, and won three MVP awards.  Perhaps most significantly, Berra was an integral part of a Yankee team that won 14 pennants and 10 World Series. 

Roy Campanella, the great Dodger catcher, played for only ten seasons, starting late (he was 28 in his first full season in 1949) because of racism, and ending prematurely because of a car accident which left him paralyzed.  But what an amazing ten years.  He was an 8-time All Star and, like Berra, a 3-time MVP.  With Campanella behind the plate, the Dodgers won the pennant five times and the World Series once.

Finally, I can talk about a catcher I actually saw play.  Johnny Bench was in a class by himself as the anchor of the Big Red Machine, the powerful Reds teams of the 1970s.  He was the Rookie of the Year in 1968, and won his first of two National League MVP awards in 1970, by which time he was already being talked about as one of the best catchers ever.  He was not only a feared hitter but he is considered by many to be the greatest defensive catcher in history.  He was a 14-time All Star, 2-time MVP, and won ten Gold Glove awards in a row. 

Then there are the two Pudges.  Carlton "Pudge" Fisk played for 24 years (1969, 1971-1993) for the Red Sox and the White Sox.  He was overshadowed by Bench during his prime, but Fisk -- an 11-time All Star -- was the best catcher in the American League in the 1970s and first half of the 1980s.  He was  an excellent defensive catcher, a strong hitter and a huge presence.  His game-winning home run to win Game #6 of the World Series to beat the Reds, like Hartnett's homer (and unlike Piazza's fly out) is one of the true iconic moments in baseball history.

The other "Pudge," Ivan Rodriguez, is still playing, and has already surpassed Fisk as having caught the most games all time.  He may be Bench's equal, maybe, dare I say, even better, as a defensive catcher and he can also flat out hit, although not as well as Bench.  14-time All Star, 13-time Gold Glove winner, and a 1999 American League MVP, he led two teams to the World Series, winning a championship with the Marlins in 2003.

One more for the top ten.  A sentimental but worthy choice.  Gary Carter, another Met, who I wrote about here.  The heir to Johnny Bench as the next great National League catcher, Carter was an 11-time All Star and key member of the 1986 World Champion Mets.

So where does Piazza fit in?  Mike Piazza is surely the greatest hitting catcher ever.  His offensive numbers are staggering.  He batted.300 in nine consecutive seasons (1991-2001) and leads all catchers in career home runs with 427 (Fisk is second).  He boasts a .308 career batting average, 1335 RBI, 2127  hits, 344 doubles and 1048 runs scored.  These would be remarkable numbers for any player but for a catcher who has to crouch behind the plate for nine innings, and get beat up and worn down by foul tips, hard slides and other aches and pains like no other position player, it is unfathomable.

On the other hand, Piazza was not a very good catcher, a position where defensive skill is paramount and offensive prowess is more of a bonus than a prerequisite.  It was painful to watch Piazza behind the plate as he tried to throw out runners or block balls in the dirt.  The question is how much his quick swing and strong bat made up for his weak arm and slow feet.  Enough to get him into the top five?  Not quite.  

Bench, Berra, Cochrane are generally considered the top three.  Campanella is probably next.  The fifth slot has got to go to Ivan Rodriguez who, upon reflection, may rate even higher on the list.

Piazza does fit comfortably among among the next five, although I'm not sure exactly where.  He did not have defensive skills anywhere near Hartnett, Dickey, Carter or Fisk, but his hitting was so far superior to the rest of the field that he is probably rated at or near the top of this impressive group. 

So, Mike Piazza is among the top ten greatest catchers of all time.  Not bad for a catcher who couldn't catch and who never won a World Series.


Stephen said...

Unrelated to his skills on the field:

"NY Mets star, Mike Piazza, met radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh before a game last week. Limbaugh signed a ball for Piazza. Later Piazza said, 'It was like meeting American royalty.' He also stated that meeting Rush Limbaugh is like hooking up to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, General Douglas MacArthur and the Pope."

Compartmentalize away.

Joe D. said...

Hi, my name is Joe and I run It looks like I may have offended you by my posting a part of your post on my site and for that I apologize.

Please understand that our Fair or Foul feature is not asking readers to pass judgement on the whole of any article we reference, but only the statement we post.

It's not intended to knock anyone, but only to read a particular statement and have a little debate about it.

The way you encapsulated the 8 year period Mike Piazza spent with the Mets caught my attention because it was provocative and I thought it would have stirred a lively debate - and it did.

In these types of posts we do include the link so that readers can read the whole article if they wish. It's not an opinion piece because it's meant to coax the readers opinion without any help or prequalifying by me.

Anyway, I just wanted you to understand my intent and apologize if you took offense.


Lovechilde said...

No offense taken and no need to apologize. Thanks for posting a piece of my piece on your excellent site. I just wanted to point out that I don't ultimately bash Piazza (too much) as the responses from you readers suggest.

triv said...

Those guys back in the 30's had gypsy ancestry (I'm Asian-Indian). Look how small they were? They could only play in a segregated league. They averaged about 5'5 or 5'6. Josh Gibson and Biz Mackey would have cleaned house. Yeah, Piazza couldn't throw a lick but Cochrane didn't have to worry about Cool Papa Bell, Jackie, Robinson, Wills, Brock, Henderson, Lofton, Raines, Lopes, and Coleman either. Ty Cobb stole those bases on poor throwing arms of small white guys. Likewise, tell me that Yogi (5'6) could talk and call the game in Japanese to Hideo Nomo and Korean to Chan Ho-Park? Give me the big guy of 6'3 Piazza.

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