After Tom Seaver, Mike Piazza was the greatest player the Mets ever had. Before his Met days, he was already a 5-time All Star with the Dodgers. He was traded by the Dodgers to the Marlins and played for them for about a week before the Mets got him in May of 1998. It was one of the few times in Mets history that ownership did something that was both big and smart -- the kind of move to give a resurgent team a chance at winning it all.
It almost worked.
The Mets in Piazza's first year missed the playoffs by one game (after losing the last 5 games of the season). In 1999, they lost a brutal playoff to the Braves, when Kenny Rogers walked in the winning run. And in 2000, they actually made it to the World Series but lost to the Yankees in 5 games. And, sadly, that was it. In Piazza's final five seasons the team was mediocre at best finishing third twice, fourth once and fifth twice.
But the Mets' regression to the mean cannot be blamed on Piazza. In his 8 years with the Mets, he was a remarkable presence in the middle of the lineup, hitting 220 home runs, knocking in 665 runs and batting .296. And the stats can't possibly measure his star power -- the kind of electricity that he brought with him every time he stepped to the plate. (So electric that Roger Clemens was compelled to heave a piece of a broken bat at him during the 2000 World Series.) Piazza had a flair for the dramatic, and most notable was the inspirational game-winning home run he hit on 9/21/11, the first game after the 9/11 attacks.
Piazza's career offensive numbers are staggering. He batted.300 in nine consecutive seasons (1991-2001) and leads all catchers in career home runs with 427. 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.
Mike Piazza is surely the greatest hitting catcher ever. Other than dermatological issues, the only other mark against him was his middling skill behind the plate. Admittedly, it was sometimes painful to watch Piazza try to throw out runners or block balls in the dirt. On the other hand, it has been said that he was an excellent handler of pitchers, a skill less observable by the causal fan.
In a 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?'Great question, and I don't think Piazza's answer is too far off. He may not be in the top five, but he is pretty close.
Piazza ignores a trio of legendary catchers from the 1920s and 1930s, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey and Gabby Hartnett, as well as the two Pudges: Carlton "Pudge" Fisk and Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez. Then there's Gary Carter, another Met, who I wrote about here.
With the exception of Rodriguez, who is not yet eligible, all these catchers are in the Hall of Fame, and Piazza fits quite comfortably within this group. Bench, Berra, Cochrane are generally considered the top three. Campanella is next. The fifth slot has got to go to Rodriguez, who may rate even higher. Then, probably, comes Piazza. While he didn't have defensive skills anywhere close to Hartnett, Dickey, Carter or Fisk, Piazza's far superior hitting arguably more than compensates for his lesser fielding prowess.
But wherever you put him on the top ten list, Mike Piazza is indisputably one of the greatest catchers of all time.